Filmmakers pour ‘Sugar’ on Quad Cities

By Benjamin Hill
Updated: April 2, 2009

NEW YORK — With the notable exception of “Bull Durham,” very few baseball movies have dealt specifically with the experience of playing in the Minor Leagues. Fewer still have attempted to portray what it is like to be a Latin American competing in the United States for the first time.

This makes “Sugar” far from an ordinary baseball movie. The film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday and nationwide on April 24, tells the story of Dominican pitcher Miguel Santos as he journeys to the United States in order to play his first professional season.

After Spring Training, the 19-year-old is assigned to the Bridgeport Swing (in reality, the Swing of the Quad Cities, who have since changed their name to the River Bandits).

It goes without saying that Bridgeport, Iowa is a long way from San Pedro De Macoris. This extreme cultural transition lies at the heart of “Sugar,” and it accounts for much of the film’s narrative momentum and emotional resonance.

A large portion of “Sugar” was filmed in Iowa during the tail end of the 2007 season — primarily at the Swing’s Modern Woodmen Park (which was chosen mostly because of its striking location on the banks of the Mississippi River). Community Field, home of the Burlington Bees, is featured as well, and several other Midwest League teams make cameos as opponents.

Filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the team behind 2006′s “Half Nelson”) took great pains to accurately recreate the experience of playing Minor League Baseball, from the long bus rides to the cramped locker rooms to the awkwardness of living with a host family. Their success in doing so was greatly aided by those within the Quad Cities and Midwest League baseball communities.

p> A Team Effort

Ben Burke, who served as the general manager of the Swing in 2007, recalled that being involved in the production of “Sugar” was a unique experience.

“It was fun to see the stadium used for something other than baseball,” said Burke, now the GM of the independent Schaumburg Flyers. “We put ads in the paper to get extras and awarded them prizes for staying all day. The stadium would be quiet, and then you’d hear ‘Action!’ and all of a sudden everyone would be yelling and cheering.”

For Burke, one of the more frustrating aspects of the filming was simply a matter of bad timing.

“We knew we were about to change the team’s name and logo [to the River Bandits], but it hadn’t been announced at that point. So we had to go with the Swing. So while it was really neat to be able to feature the stadium, this was a lost opportunity when it comes to branding.”

But perhaps “Sugar” wouldn’t have been filmed in Quad Cities at all if it hadn’t been for the work of Mike Weindruch, the team’s former vice president of sales and marketing. Weindruch served as a liaison between the Swing and the filmmakers, and he worked tirelessly to ensure that both operations ran as smoothly as possible.

“I was a VP of sales and marketing, but I’ve always liked baseball movies, and I’d always been interested in that part of the entertainment industry,” said Weindruch. “I ended up being on call for about three months. If [the film crew] needed something bought or brought in or stored, I was the guy they called.

“Ryan and Anna both knew what they wanted and were very low-key. It was fun seeing how the pros doing it and playing a role in a movie getting made.”

Weindruch put Fleck and Boden in touch with local baseball coach (and former Houston Astros scout) John Marx, who played an invaluable role in the film’s production. Marx was largely responsible for casting the baseball-playing extras who appeared in the film, and therefore he deserves much of the credit for the realistic nature of the game scenes.

“There are a lot of talented baseball players in this area,” said Marx, who works as a newspaper columnist in the Quad Cities area. “There are some tremendous college programs as well as ex-pros and guys from junior colleges. This allowed us to work with gifted players, which went a long way toward being able to make it all look real.

“Ryan and Anna also allowed me to give my input, so after filming a scene they’d give me a look at it, and I’d check to see if everything came out all right. They trusted my judgment.”

p> From a Tiny Booth to the Big Screen

As it turns out, Weindruch and Marx both landed bit parts in “Sugar” as third-base coach and manager respectively. But their screen time pales in comparison to that of former Burlington Bees (and current Iowa Cubs) broadcaster Randy Wehofer, who plays the role of Jack Jeffries in the film. Jeffries is — surprise — a broadcaster.

“If I’m unconvincing in this role, then it’s not just my acting career that’s at stake. I’m going to be have to rethink my whole career,” said Wehofer.

Wehofer is featured throughout the film, as his play-by-play narration often serves as an effective way to introduce the scene in question. As much as he enjoyed the experience, it certainly wasn’t something he ever expected to happen.

“I got a random call from Ryan and Anna early in the 2007 season, because they wanted to do research on what was just an idea at that point,” recalled Wehofer. “I invited them to Burlington and helped them facilitate interviews for the next three days. The players they talked to were always cooperative. They would tell them their stories, and answer all their questions.

“On their last day in town, Ryan and Anna came up to the booth to thank me for the help, and I said ‘Hey, if you need a radio guy for the movie, let me know.’ I was just being flip, but Anna said, ‘We’ll keep that in mind.’”

Soon after, Wehofer was contacted by the film’s casting director and asked to submit an audition tape. Several weeks later, he was offered the part.

“One offhanded remark led to a remarkable series of events,” he observed. “They threw me right in there. … Maybe it was because I didn’t have any contract demands, but scale still pays pretty well.”

Wehofer hasn’t yet seen the film, which opens in Iowa on April 24. When he does, he’ll stay in his seat until the very end.

“Wehofer isn’t a common name,” he said. “In fact, I’ve never met another one. When I would go to the movies as a kid, I would always watch the credits, but I never saw another Wehofer. So, it’s going to be neat to see my face, but I’m even more excited about seeing my name.”