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Lights! Camera! Helena is "On Deck"

on 04/24/2005


I guess you could say we've been keeping a bit of a secret here at Brewerfan. OK, a big secret. While it may not be a secret to just about everyone within the Brewer organization, it certainly will be news to both the casual and diehard fan of the Brewers' minor league system, and now, after being asked to hold our tongues for well over six months, we can share most (but not all) that we know about this exciting news with you. This will also be welcome news for those in the Brewer organization who have been patiently waiting for an update.

Last summer, we read a tiny blurb in the Helena Independent about Tom Mireles, a 32-year-old filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, dubbed by those we later spoke to as "the camera guy", who was spending every waking moment with the Helena Brewers. Piquing our interest, we placed a phone call or two, and eventually got to speak with Tom, so as to learn what he was up to.

Tom spent the entire 2004 Pioneer League season with the Helena squad, in a truly "all-access" manner. The how's and why's of his incredible effort to put together his documentary, titled "On Deck", are detailed in our conversation with him below.

Later in this article, we'll discuss when and what we'll be able to provide you in even more detail about this project. As you can imagine, there have been considerations we've given Tom in terms of not discussing too many conceptual, technical, or financial specifics about his finished product just yet, thus our delay in reporting to you all these months.

We will say this - Brewerfan staff had an opportunity to view a first-draft trailer for "On Deck" shortly after post-production began several months ago. Unfortunately, this particular early-cut trailer is no longer available for view now, but we should have a new trailer available for you to download and view by mid-to-late May. Regarding the initial trailer, our reactions were all the same - "goosebumps", "chills", "shivers running down the spine" - those were among the exact words we mentioned to each other.

On a personal note, I've had the opportunity to speak with several folks in the Milwaukee Brewer organization (both on-field talent and front-office staff) since Brewerfan's inception, and I can't think of any more enjoyable conversations I've had than the many I've shared with Tom. Truly a class act, Tom earned the trust and respect of all those associated with the 2004 Helena Brewers in order to complete his project, and he displayed that same respect for all those individuals in his chats with myself.

On to our official "Q&A": (BF): Tom, please let us know about your background, and what prompted you to take on this impressive project. In reality, the Helena Brewers weren't the first organization you approached, was it? Just how cooperative was the Milwaukee organization in getting "On Deck" off the ground?

Tom Mireles (TM): I spent about six years as a sports broadcaster. I first got the idea that spending a summer with a rookie league squad would make a good film having covered numerous minor league organizations. I was fascinated by the degree of commitment from these players with the guarantee of reaching their ultimate goal being pretty slim. I thought that it would be a fantastic story to tell.

Yes, I approached numerous ball clubs about making this deal and got about a month away from the beginning of the season after an organization had verbally committed, but their general manager ended up shutting the project down. It was a mad scramble, but I approached Milwaukee, and they were really good about rushing and getting the clearance. They really understood the positive light a story like this could shine on an organization. From day one, everybody from the general manager in Helena to the roving instructors to the players really welcomed me with open arms. They really befriended me. In fact, I still talk to a lot of the players and the coaches on a regular basis.

BF: So please describe a typical day for you last summer, from morning to bedtime. You pretty much were the entire "film crew", I imagine.

TM: A typical day was crazy. My schedule really changed, and it revolved around the Brewers. I would get up, talk to my producers back home, review notes, and arrive at the ballpark about four hours before game time to conduct interviews and see what was going on regarding new players, releases, injuries, and so on. There was always something new going on at the ballpark. I would shoot the entire game, knowing I would only use a minute of that footage in the actual final production of the film. Afterwards, I would stay around the ballpark for about an hour, talking to the players, conducting post-game interviews. I would often go and have dinner with them and then log footage until 2 or 3 am. Then my day would start all over again.

BF: The concept of "On Deck" changed a bit in the course of development, I believe. Please talk about the original plan and how an autumn review of two- and-a-half months of filming changed the overview of the film.

TM: Originally, I wanted to do a film just on minor league baseball in general. It was going to encompass three storylines - the players and the struggles they encounter, the Helena Brewers, and what life is really like as a minor leaguer in rookie ball. That was basically the initial plan. During filming, some characters came to the surface that had such interesting stories about how they have gotten to this point in their career. The characters had such diverse backgrounds with so many stories to tell. So I really began to focus on three players that would end up being my main characters. Even in post-production, we went back to these players' hometowns and really followed their journey to what led to their life as professional baseball players for the Milwaukee Brewers.

NOTE from BF: We will not be indicating who the three "main characters" are at this time (although we know), but will wait for our staff "screening" of a copy of the movie, at which time we will write up an official review for you. Our review should take place in early June, considering the mid-June opening of Helena's Pioneer League season, and the movie's debut in a Helena theater - see below.

BF: As you've re-visited the film's "main" characters for follow-up this off- season, please talk about the relationships you've developed with each. It seems they've put an awful lot of trust in you. I believe you've also kept in touch with the coaching staff you met and even developed friendships with them.

TM: Yes, I think the friendships I made over the summer will last a lifetime. Going and seeing their families, visiting their high schools, I really gained a new respect for each of my main characters. In fact, like I said before, we keep in contact about once a month. No matter what happens with the success of the film, I am truly lucky that I got the chance to meet and hang out with such a great group of guys -- players and coaches.

BF: Were there other players and sub-plots that you found interesting, yet couldn't squeeze into 100 minutes of finished product? What surprised you the most about the whole Rookie League experience you had? Among the tidbits of information that Brewerfan provided you during development was this -- since December 2002 through this winter, the Brewers had released 65 players before they even got a chance to play above rookie ball in Helena. These players were either drafted, signed as free agents (both U.S. and foreign-born, including Europe, Africa, and of course, the Latin American countries). They played in the Dominican and Venezuelan Summer Leagues, for the Arizona Rookie Brewers, the Ogden Raptors, or the Helena Brewers.

TM: There were a lot of interesting characters. For example, some of the Latin American players... due to the language barrier, it was really hard to dig deeper. I was fascinated with the talent of Alcides Escobar and his story of being seventeen and playing ball. However, I just couldn't seem to make the connection to tell his story which would have been really fascinating to hear.

What really surprised me was how little a chance these players have at this level due to the little room for advancement and extreme competition. Even though they were amazing in high school or had a successful college career, it is obvious that some of them do not have a good chance of furthering their career. In some cases, it appears that organizations do not truly regard them as prospects, but in the players' minds, they believe they will make it.

Another glaring thing I learned about rookie ball was just how much sacrifice goes into it. From travel to lifting weights to conditioning to physically playing the game to instructions... these players, for a period of three months, eat, sleep, and live baseball. I wasn't surprised on just how little make it through this level of baseball. The competition of professional baseball, even at the earliest levels, is overwhelming. You're taking some of the best players out of their high schools and colleges... you clump them all together... and they struggle. The one thing that I saw that separated good players from average players was mental. Could they handle that next level of professional baseball, mentally? I think the Milwaukee Brewers do a fantastic job, from what I saw, at preparing and instructing these kids for a life in professional baseball, giving them the best instructors and learning tools to make them successful. However, that showed to the average fan, given that, a majority of them won't make it very far professionally. Seeing someone make it to the big leagues, makes it that much more impressive.

BF: Please tell us just a bit about the funding of "On Deck" that allows it to be released into distribution of some sort. There's the development team of your production company, but then the film needs to be "backed" by another entity, correct, like an investment? Yet you retain all creative control?

TM: Our production company funded the entire project of "On Deck". We did hold discussions with potential investors, but our current situation remains - the company owns 50% and I own 50%. I wanted to tell this story from my perspective, so we were reluctant to give up any creative control. When you bring in third parties for investing, they will want to make sure the film will sell at all costs. I wanted to prevent exploiting any players or the Milwaukee organization. Currently, we have some limited release theaters that are willing to show "On Deck". Ultimately, the goal is to sell the film to a cable operator and release it on DVD.

BF: OK, so how can Brewer Nation get to see this film and what are your dreams for its distribution? It's our understanding that it will be aired at film festivals in your local Austin, Texas, as well as perhaps Montreal. Any plans for a big Helena debut? Is the ultimate goal an airing on an HBO or Showtime- type of outlet, with DVD distribution available at that point?

TM: Initially, the plans were to premiere it at an Austin film festival. However, due to time constraints, we changed the initial release to June. We still plan on showing it in some film festivals, but most likely, in only the most prestigious ones which would be early fall 2005. We have locked down a theatrical release in Helena for June 15 running concurrently with the opening of the Helena Brewers 2005 season. We have talked with other cities in the Pioneer League, and they seem willing to have a limited release showing as well. From initial focus groups' reviewings, we feel confident that Showtime or HBO would be a perfect media outlet for "On Deck". We also have plans to partner with a distribution company out of Los Angeles to make available the purchase of a DVD, which should be available sometime in mid-summer.

BF: Thanks so much, Tom. Fans should know that will keep everyone aware of how they can get their copies of the film. It's sure to be a must for our readers. We look forward to helping you promote the film as best we can among all our contacts within baseball, especially if we like the finished product (as if there's any doubt!).

TM: I would like to thank everybody in the Milwaukee Brewers organization for the cooperation, information, and support to make this film. I realize a documentary about yourself or your organization can sometimes seem difficult, and I am extremely grateful for everyone's participation and involvement. I know I may be a little biased, but I think the future looks extremely bright for the Milwaukee Brewers. They have a lot of talent coming through the pipeline. I would officially have to say that I am now a lifelong Brewers fan. Director of Research Jim Goulart is coordinator of the Daily Link Reports within the Minor League Fan Forum. He's currently accepting donations for bus fare to Montana, to be on the red carpet in June.


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