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A Perfect Pitch

By Devika Rao Email By Devika Rao
May 2014
A Perfect Pitch

 

The real life million dollar men, Dinesh Kumar Patel and Rinku Singh.


A television reality show paved the way for two young men from rural India to enter the world of American baseball. Within just over a year, the boys went from never having heard of baseball to being signed up by the Pittsburgh Pirates, a major league team. We speak to Rinku Singh, one of them, as well as with JB Bernstein, the sports agent who came up with the novel idea, and take a peek at Million Dollar Arm, the Disney movie about this fascinating story.

His best pitch is a slider. But if you had asked Rinku Singh what a slider or even what baseball was seven years ago, you would have come up empty. And today, the 25-year-old Uttar Pradesh native is a minor league pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a major league baseball team.

Neither Singh nor JB Bernstein, the sports agent from Los Angeles who “discovered” him, had dreamt that this could come to pass. But their unlikely story, which forms the basis of the Hollywood movie Million Dollar Arm releasing May 16, is the stuff dreams are made of.

A sports agent by trade, Bernstein lived the luxurious life in Los Angeles and represented sports superstars such as football great Emmitt Smith or baseball hero Barry Bonds. He was at the top of his game, but always in search of the next big thing—something as dramatic as the next Yao Ming—if he wanted to survive in an industry that changed at a relentless speed. The idea for exactly something as big came to him one evening as he was watching on TV a cricket match being played in India.

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Jon Hamm, playing JB Bernstein in Millioan Dollar Arm.

Yao Ming had broken barriers when he became the first Chinese-American basketball player in the NBA, and had opened up a brand new market for the sports league and a new sport for China’s one billion people. Surely the other great country of over a billion people would have someone, anyone, with the talent, grit, and athletic agility to become baseball’s next superstar? Surely India could give him the Yao Ming of baseball?

Bernstein’s idea seemed crazy to many. People tried to talk him out of it giving many reasons, including the shorter average height of Indian males compared to their American counterparts.

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Sports agent JB Bernstein, along with his investors and partners Ash Vasudevan and Will Chang.

But venture capitalists Ash Vasudevan and Will Chang saw merit and money in Bernstein’s bold idea. “We are always looking to invest in the next big idea or movement,” said Vasudevan, who focuses on ventures in technology, sports, and entertainment. “It was timely that we were thinking of the next Yao-Ming concept in sports, and having JB’s sports marketing experience was sort of kismet.”

Vasudevan admits it was radical to think of going to India to find baseball talent “when you have Japan and South America where the game is already so familiar.” “But this really was a numbers game. Someone has to be able to throw a baseball at 90 mph.”

In his book, Million Dollar Arm, Bernstein noted the fact that in India there are approximately 150 million Indian men between the ages of 15 and 25. And with no college teams or professional teams that have a scouting system in place like in the United States, the concept would break ground for an intercultural relations through sports.

Bernstein decided to find his next star the way the U.S. has been discovering its latest icons, through a reality show.

In partnership with Zee TV, the show Million Dollar Arm was launched in 2008 and saw over 35,000 boys throw a pitch in hopes to become the “Million Dollar Arm.”

The concept was simple. Through its 12-city tour, MDA ran qualifiers where a contestant had to throw over 80 mph to qualify, not worrying about accuracy. Upon qualifying, the contestant would train with one of the best scouts in baseball, Ray Poitevint, who is now the executive director of international baseball with the Baltimore Orioles. Then, they would aim to throw a pitch at 85 mph at a set target. To win the million dollars, the contestant would have to throw three pitches in a row towards a set target at 90 mph.

And that was how the American sports agent entered the life of Rinku Singh, who had never watched or even heard about baseball. Singh, along with runner- up Dinesh Patel, were the two who were recruited for this experiment. Both are trained javelin throwers who were, at the time, training for the Olympics at a state-run institution for athletes. “My coach suggested I try out for the contest, and at first I thought it was some type of joke,” recalls Singh. “Everything about javelin-throwing is so different from baseball, but the money was worth trying for.”

Patel and Singh come from villages in Uttar Pradesh where they spent time working on farms to supplement their incomes. The time spent training for the Olympics was seen as an opportunity to be recruited by the Indian Army for a stable job and steady income. There was never any hope that their training would ever lead to a career in sports.

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Rinku Singh was the first winner of Million Dollar Arm when he threw the fastest pitch at 89 mph, collecting $100,000. (Photo: Seven Figures Management)

Singh was the first winner of Million Dollar Arm when he threw the fastest pitch at 89 mph, collecting $100,000, a bounty that can change any family’s life. He did not win the one million dollars. Patel was runner up. But there was something in the boys that made the experts sit up and take notice. “[Poitevint] had spotted Dinesh on day one,” recalls Vasudevan. “We had gone from cricketers to javelin throwers, and there they both were.”

After winning the first Million Dollar Arm, the boys moved to Los Angeles and went through rigorous training with some baseball greats including Tom House, who is a pitching coach for the University of Southern California.

Most baseball coaches did not want to take a chance on pure novices who hadn’t an iota of baseball experience in their repertoire. But House saw their lack of experience as an advantage. In an article with Sports Illustrated, he spoke about the clean slate that the boys gave him. “I came to realize that it was easier to teach a new skill to someone who doesn’t know than to unteach someone who thinks they do know.”

Singh notes the major difference between cricket, baseball, and javelin-throwing. “I was prepared so differently for javelin-throwing and even the small games of cricket I played with friends,” he said. Cricket bowling and javelin-toss have the advantage of a running start, and especially in javelin, location is not emphasized. With baseball, the pitcher stands on an elevated mound and has to pitch downward into an accurate location (inside and around the knees of the batter) to get strikes.

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The actors, Madhur Mittal (as Dinesh) and Suraj Sharma (Rinku).

They trained hard and they walked, talked, and slept baseball. They even read Baseball for Dummies, leaving no stone unturned. Bernstein’s book is filled with anecdotes of getting control on the ball, finding strike zones, and trying not to hit batters.

As the training began paying off and raw athleticism began to be shaped into pitching talent, there was a new challenge—to get contracts with a major league baseball team. Singh and Patel were going up against boys who had played the game since they were toddlers, and were taking on a playing field unlike any other.

Bernstein and Vasudevan armed the project with resources. Brian Wilson, closing pitcher of the Los Angeles Dodgers, went to India with the first run of Million Dollar Arm while Barry Bonds offered the players a lot of helpful insight. These were advantages that baseball-player hopefuls could only dream of.

The first tryouts in Arizona, however, were a disaster. There was doubt everywhere and every scout was ready to write them off. “I felt hopeless and doubted myself a lot. I wish I could have done better,” recalled Singh. “I got a second chance and I was determined to give my 100 percent.”

With more work and improvement, Patel and Singh threw pitches clocking in at over 90 mph at their second tryouts. Redemption came when the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the two pitchers to minor league contracts in November 2008 after their second tryouts. Seven months after winning Million Dollar Arm, Singh and Patel became the first Indians to earn a contract in American sports, debunking the idea that only after training for years could an athlete hope to compete in a professional sport. The boys had picked up the game only a year prior to getting the contracts.

“This had never been done in MLB with minor league contracts,” said Vasudevan. “This is very exciting for the Indian population and it’s a new opportunity.”

But in no way Bernstein and his partners trying to replace cricket as the sport of India. “We are just opening up the country to so many more possibilities. We want to be adjacent to cricket, and baseball has a great chance of being popular,” added Vasudevan, who is originally from Chennai and came to the U.S. in 1990 for his studies.

“Baseball will have a following in India,” adds Singh. “It’s a new sport and it’s intriguing, and it will keep growing and start to have a huge fan base in addition to cricket. Already, there are a lot more baseball teams and interest in the sport than when I first started in the contest.” Singh is ambitious and driven to make it to the majors, and his hard work is paying off.

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Dinesh Patel in his Pirates uniform at the kickoff for season two of The Million Dollar Arm (Photo: Seven Figures Management).

For Patel and Singh, the changes that their dreams have brought to their lives have been equally exciting. When they came to America they didn’t speak English, but now they can, along with a smattering of Spanish as well. And when they thought they would don the uniforms of the Indian Army, they will now wear uniforms of a major league baseball team in the United States.

The reality show became more than just a story of sports or a business venture—it became a story of unlikely possibilities with the most unlikely of variables.

Bernstein, a self-proclaimed bachelor who could not even tell you how his oven worked, refers to Singh and Patel as his sons. He also got married and now has a daughter of his own.

“This whole journey has changed me forever. We got into this purely as a business strategy to try and find a Yao Ming-type talent,” Bernstein reflects. “We now realize that this is the chance to bring hope and inspiration to hundreds of millions of kids in India and the rest of the world. If we can have even the smallest part in those kids working to chase their dream it will be the greatest honor for us that I could think of.”

After two seasons, Patel was released from the Pirates and now is back in India, but Singh is in year two of his contract with the Pirates and says he “keeps working to make something of myself and to get that major league contract. Baseball is second nature to me, and I now can’t imagine doing anything else.”

He misses his friends, his family, and his favorite food, chicken curry. Yet, he knows he’s onto some- thing big.

“My parents still haven’t understood what I do,” he said jokingly. Then, he paused and added, “they are happy for me, and I want to make them proud. I want to make India proud.” 


Devika Rao, a freelance journalist, writes a weekly column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called “Doing Good: Metro Atlantans helping others.”


An Alloy of Magical Elements

When former Major League Baseball player and film producer Mark Ciardi heard about JB Bernstein’s idea to go to India and recruit future pitchers for baseball through a reality show, he thought his long-time friend had come up with one of his craziest ideas yet.

However, in show business, it’s the crazy ideas that make for great movies. “JB has always been entrepreneurial, so when I heard about his approach for Million Dollar Arm, my first reaction was, ‘What?!’” recalls Ciardi.

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Mark Ciardi

And the more he listened to Bernstein’s story, the more compelling it sounded. Ciardi, who once pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers, has produced hit movies such as The Rookie (2002), Invincible (2006), The Game Plan (2007), and many more. What drew him to Million Dollar Arm was that it was an underdog story, a double fish-out-of-water story, and mostly, it was a true story.

As the story progressed in real life, Ciardi found that while Bernstein brought these boys to the U.S. in hopes to change baseball, the boys and the journey changed him.

“These boys, their journey helped JB,” said Ciardi. “JB had to become a parent to these boys who were so far from home, and that’s the emotional pull. The culture clash, the adaptation to change for both the boys and JB is the heart of this movie. He loves these kids so much and they are now his family.”

To capture the true essence of MDA, the film was shot in Mumbai in the hottest months to avoid the setback of a torrential monsoon season.

“We totally felt that Indian heat,” joked Ciardi of his cast and crew. “But it really added that true element of India and playing cricket, or any outdoor sport, in that blaze. Not to mention the colors, the chaos, the people...everything is amazing and all these elements are very important to the story as well.”

The movie was also shot in Atlanta and Los Angeles.

This is not just a sports movie, suggests Ciardi. It is a movie about hope, dreams, and a chance to be an eyewitness to possibilities.

He hopes that when Indians watch this movie and learn Rinku and Dinesh’s story, they will walk away being proud of these boys and how they are representing their country.

And proud they already are. When Indian-American test audiences were giving the movie a100 percent score, “we knew we had something special,” said Ciardi, who is currently filming the movie adaptation of the Fallen series in Budapest, Hungary.

According to Deadline.com, Disney Studios’ Chairman Alan Horn announced at CinemaCon, Disney’s presentation of clips for upcoming movies, that Million Dollar Arm “scored higher than any movie he has ever tested at Disney, or at Warner Bros,” where Horn was before.

That even includes the billion dollar Harry Potter franchise, which was one of the most anticipated movies of its time.

Million Dollar Arm mixes comedy, drama, culture clash, and India’s spirituality, and these elements are enhanced by the magical music of A.R. Rahman. Suraj Sharma, who played Pi in Life of Pi, stars as Rinku Singh.

Ciardi believes that after the success of Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi, Hollywood and Bollywood are inching towards each other, but they’re not mixing yet. “I had no idea how big Bollywood is,” Ciardi noted of the movie industry that extends from Mumbai to the Middle East. “The possibilities of these two industries working more and more together are endless. We have a chance to tell even greater stories.”

They wrapped up the movie in two-and-a-half months, and when Ciardi was asked to describe the whole experience, he simply put it in one word: magic.



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