Something’s cooking at the start of “The Last Out” and it isn’t strictly the Lechon asado that Happy Oliveros is frying up at the start as he diverts attention from another hot stove, the annual free agency period in baseball where a team might be looking to sign him. Oliveros’ path to the big leagues isn’t typical, though unfortunately for him, there are plenty with a similar skill set that don’t have the additional pressure of having to leave his native Cuba, never to see his family again based on the sliver of promise that his talent for the game could lift them all out of poverty. As Sami Khan and Michael Gassert elegantly show at the beginning of “The Last Out,” Oliveros’ ability to cook himself up comfort food proves as important as his ability to hit a fastball when he’s fiercely missing home, and in cutting back to a much humbler kitchen in Barracoa where his mom Evarista and brother Reynar are making lunch, you realize all that’s riding on Happy’s shoulders.
Although the pipeline from Cuba and to American baseball has been well-documented — Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez’s book about arguably the most famous defector, Orlando Hernandez, “The Duke of Havana” and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s dramatization “Sugar” — it becomes another thing entirely to see how stacked the odds are against Cuban-born players to make it into the majors, even after risking their lives to leave the country. Noting early that only six players out of the hundreds that have defected have played a game in the American big leagues, Khan and Gassert illustrate that it isn’t talent that’s usually at issue when the players make it to the way station of San Jose, Costa Rica but mental toughness as Oliveros and Carlos Gonzalez and Victor Baro, two others that the film follows, battle homesickness and having their love for the game compromised by all the weight it carries as far as their livelihoods are concerned.
While the trio are limited between the practice field and the house they share in their off-hours in waiting for scouts from the major leagues to take a look at them, Khan and Gassert cross back and forth across the Atlantic to find how agent Gus Dominguez has created a unique space in the marketplace, taking 20% of a player’s signing bonus in exchange to keep them clothed, fed and housed as the prepare for their MLB showcase. Of course, this arrangement only works if the players are signed and a sense of disillusionment sets into both sides when inevitably some fail to impress or take far longer to get a deal than Dominguez had promised. It is here where the paths of Oliveros, Gonzalez and Baro diverge and “The Last Out” truly takes off, showing a hardship arguably even more difficult than crawling across borders in the dead of night when they no longer have any sense of direction, knowing only that baseball may not be in their future.
Khan and Gassert stick with their subjects for as much time and as many stops as it takes before starting the next chapter of their lives, no matter what that might entail, and “The Last Out” benefits greatly from the commitment, showing the great lengths their central trio has to travel either in distance or in their careers to get to where they need to be, but collapsing any space between their aspirations and those who may not have the same athletic abilities out in the audience. It may be dizzying to see everything that’s thrown at Oliveros, Gonzalez and Baro, but the filmmakers catch all of it with considerable grace.
“The Last Out” will be streaming through DOC NYC from November 11th through 19th.