Could 'Million Dollar Arm' help Indians dare to dream of baseball?
MAY 04, 2014 8:28p ET
A film opens, and people dream.
Often they dream about money, big box-office numbers that would justify a studio's investment. Occasionally, they dream about awards, honors that would elevate artists and propel their careers. Sometimes they dream about impact, a sweeping vision that will change the world in one form or another.
The people who made "Million Dollar Arm," a new film opening May 16, talk openly about their vision, the stunning notion that two young Indians who won a pitching contest on a 2008 reality show might spark interest in baseball in a nation of more than 1.2 billion.
The chances of such a thing actually happening remain slim. But the mere possibility is astonishing, considering that the two pitchers come from small rural villages where people do not dream at all, at least not in the way that most Americans do.
As one of six baseball writers who make cameo appearances in the film, I received a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the project over a 24-hour period in Atlanta last June.
First, we had dinner with the film's star, Jon Hamm; the producer (and former Brewers pitcher) Mark Ciardi; and the agent whom Hamm portrays, the creator of the "Million Dollar Arm" contest, J.B. Bernstein.
Then we participated in a full day of filming essentially one scene. Our mission as "actors" was to serve as witnesses to the first failed U.S. tryout of the two pitchers, left-hander Rinku Singh (played by Suraj Sharma, who performed the title role in "Life of Pi") and right-hander Dinesh Patel (played by Madhur Mittal, who was Salim in "Slumdog Millionaire").
Though the day was long -- I know, I know, movie-star problems -- the experience was as fun as you might imagine.
We interviewed Hamm, who in his spare time plays catcher in a men's league in Los Angeles on a team managed by fellow actor Casey Affleck ("I'm a very easy out," Hamm revealed. "And I have a s--- arm.").
We tried to make like real actors as we silently nodded in disapproval at the "performances" of the two pitchers, ate a catered lunch that was far beyond the normal press-box fare, even relaxed in director's chairs with our names on them.
Still, the thing that stuck with me most was an exchange that Bernstein recalled having with Singh early in the process, while the agent was in India running the contest.
"One day I asked Rinku what he dreamed about becoming when he was a kid," Bernstein wrote in the book, "Million Dollar Arm." "Although I was speaking through an interpreter, since neither he nor Dinesh spoke more than a few words of English at that point, he didn't understand what I meant.
"What did you pretend you were going to be? A cricket player? A fireman?"
"Nahi sapane," he said in Hindi. "No dreams."
No dreams? The concept is alien in our society, where at least in theory, all are free to pursue the "American dream." Obviously, that dream is more difficult to accomplish for those who grow up poor in the inner cities or on rural farms. But the idea of two kids from India signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, as they did in November 2008 for the grand combined sum of $8,000 . . .
"It's even more crazy than coming out of West Nowhere, Nebraska," Hamm said. "At least in Nebraska, you have baseball, you have TV, you have Internet. You're exposed to this sport and this culture. This is none of that. It's completely raw, untouched. It's crazy, it's just crazy."
As Bernstein explained, Singh grew up in a village of about 1,500 in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He was one of seven children, and his father drove a vegetable-delivery truck 20 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, to support his family. Patel grew up even under more difficult circumstances, but the two were more fortunate than many -- they attended the Guru Govind Singh Sports College, where both trained in javelin throwing.
Singh said that he and Patel actually did have a dream -- to become Olympic gold medalists. But in reality, no Indian has even won gold in track and field, and Norman Pritchard won the only medals, silvers in the men's 200 meters and 200-meter hurdles.
The more realistic expectation for Singh and Patel was that they would land positions in the army for $400 a month, money that would change their families' lives. But beyond that, Singh's original comment to Bernstein rang quite true.
This wasn't America. This wasn't Hollywood. This was India as millions of Indians experience it.
No dreams, sir. No dreams.
The contest offered a prize of $100,000 to the pitcher who could throw the most strikes over 85 mph in a 20-pitch span -- and the chance to win $1 million if he could follow that feat by throwing three consecutive strikes of at least 90 mph.
Lots of luck -- none of the participants had ever thrown a baseball before the competition, much less thrown one 90 mph.
Singh won the $100,000, but not the $1 million, after defying his parents' wishes by traveling great distances to Delhi and then Mumbai to participate. Bernstein wrote that Singh initially had a "tai-chi like" windup, resembling a 6-foot-2 flamingo.
And yet, Singh might reach the majors still.
While the Pirates released Patel in 2010, Singh remains a reliever in their system, recovering from two surgeries. He spent '12 with the Single-A West Virginia Power, producing a 3.00 ERA in 72 innings, striking out 65, walking 18. But he did not pitch at all in '13 because of injuries and underwent Tommy John surgery last September. He had another operation last week to remove a bone chip from his elbow. That should not delay his timetable; he is still expected back next spring.
Talking with Singh on the phone recently as he awaited his appointment with Dr. James Andrews, he sounded as frustrated as any injured pitcher, saying, "I feel like I'm sitting in a cage."
Now, at least, he can resume his recovery. His determination helped him overcome the culture shock of coming to a foreign country and playing a foreign sport. He is not going to quit anytime soon.
"Rinku has a shot at making a major league squad. . . . There are probably a half-million kids who would love to be on a major league squad," Hamm said. "These guys from the ground up learned how to do this incredibly difficult thing at a level very few people can reach. That blows my mind."
Both Singh and Patel had impeccable work ethics; otherwise, they could not have become pitchers from scratch. Hamm also cited the instruction that they received from former major league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, who is played in the film by Bill Paxton. (Legendary scout Ray Poitevint, who helped the contest participants in India, is played by Alan Arkin.)
"Obviously, if Rinku gets called up to the big leagues, it becomes a real national and international story," said Ciardi, the producer. "That's when everything will hit, if that first Indian player reaches the big leagues.
"I think it will have a huge impact. People don't know what baseball is over there. By really seeing one of their guys make it, it becomes really tangible. Carving off a little percentage of the population so vast, the sheer numbers will tell you that there are definitely major league players there. You just have to focus them, focus their attention, give them reason to go after this dream."
The film, too, could help in that regard -- a number of scenes were shot on location in India, and Hamm left no doubt about one of the project's goals, saying, "It would be nice if the movie actually resonated in India."
Ciardi spoke of a numbers game, saying that if enough kids in India play baseball, the country eventually will become a hotbed. Such a transformation has yet to occur in China, despite baseball's initial efforts in that country. But it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that both nations eventually will produce major leaguers.
"Whether it's Yao Ming, whoever, there is always one of those guys that a generation looks up to, saying, 'I'm going to be the next guy,'" Hamm said. "If we can somehow have that kind of impact, that would be cool."
Even if the film fails to succeed on such a level, the original "Million Dollar Arm" contest already has made an impact. Maybe it's not the broad, grand statement that Hollywood types relish. But it's real nonetheless.
Singh said that back home, kids still have the same limited aspirations that he did as a boy -- they want to get jobs and support their families, nothing more. But now when he visits, he notices a difference. A spark that previously did not exist.
"They're dreaming now just because of me," he said, in matter-of-fact fashion. "They see their dreams in me. It really has changed their thinking.
"Their thinking is, 'If Rinku can do that, being from the same (area) as they are, they can do that, no matter what.' Every time I come back there, the kids are so excited. They listen to what I have to say."
When I asked Singh to reflect upon his and Patel's own journeys, the incredible coming-to-America story recounted in the film, he said, "it's too much to think about." Besides, he said, he is still planning to revive his career, "constantly moving forward" in his quest to play for the Pirates.
If not for his surgeries, Singh might have reached Double-A by now, an almost unthinkable accomplishment, Ciardi said, considering where the pitcher came from. Well, Double-A again will be within reach, once Singh's arm is healthy. And once a player is at Double-A, the majors no longer are a distant dream.
Maybe the big promotion will happen for Singh, maybe it won't. If nothing else, he now serves as a unique role model in his small village, and presumably others throughout India.
"When I was growing up, I didn't have anybody to inspire me, to tell me to do something," Singh said. "I don't want those kids to feel like that. I'm there for them."