Lucknow to Hollywood

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A movie starring Mad Men’s Jon Hamm will immortalise the remarkable story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who went from small-town javelin throwers to big league baseball relief pitchers in America

Jon Hamm, lead actor on the Emmy-winning American TV show Mad Men, may get top billing on Disney’s upcoming true-life sports film Million Dollar Arm, but behind the scenes, two of the key driving forces behind the movie are a pair of modest Indian athletes who made the seemingly impossible jump from humble beginnings in Lucknow to international fame—simply by picking up a baseball in America for the first time in their lives.

Lucknow boys Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel both trained competitively throwing javelins in their youth, heaving the 2.5-metre-long spear countless times each day. Now they are preparing to see their life story play out on the big screen when Million Dollar Arm hits theatres across the world in 2014. It’s all due to their crash-course in baseball, courtesy a visionary American TV promoter, producer and agent, JB Bernstein, played in the film by Hamm.

For Singh, who is still under the wing of the Pittsburgh Pirates and is gradually working up through lower level baseball leagues, the experience has been exciting. Singh’s character will be played by Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma, and to him, the fact that an actor from an Academy Award-winning movie will be portraying him on the big screen is little short of miraculous.

“To hear that they were working on a movie was just really exciting,” Singh says over the telephone from Bradenton, Florida, where he is living at the Pirates’ training complex. “I was very excited to hear that I’d be meeting the guys who are playing us. They were great. We had a good time with them. I never thought I’d be meeting all the celebrities that I’ve been meeting.”

The actors, director Craig Gillespie (of Lars and the Real Girl fame) and other film officials worked closely with Singh, Patel and Bernstein as they filmed in several locations in India, before returning to the US to complete shooting. The whole group, for example, arrived in Atlanta to film scenes on the baseball field at Georgia Tech University, where the cast—which also includes Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi— crew and subjects mingled, exchanged stories and learnt stuff from each other. “They were so nice to us,” Singh says of the stars, “We had a great time with them, just hanging out on the set.”

Patel, meanwhile, went only so far in baseball and was released by the Pirates in December 2010. He is back in India now, completing his BA at Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith University in Varanasi and refocusing on javelin training. In the film, he’s being portrayed by Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire— another Oscar-winning film—and, like Singh, couldn’t have imagined the events of the last few years, especially being the subject of a major motion picture.

‘My life has changed considerably since the movie has been made,’ Patel says. ‘I cannot believe a major Hollywood studio is making a movie about it. It still feels like a dream.’

The email format of the interview and Patel’s quiet nature make it difficult for him to put into perspective how much his and his family’s lives have changed thanks to the film. But Bernstein confirms that Patel and Singh were handsomely paid for the movie. He says, “They are getting paid, but we do not release our clients’ compensation for deals [to anyone else]. You can say that they are being compensated by Disney very well, and both boys have been able to help their families out dramatically.”

Million Dollar Arm tells the tale of Bernstein, who, about six years ago, came up with an idea for a television reality show: to mine a country of more than a billion people for latent talent in baseball, the classic American sport that bears a strong resemblance to cricket.

Bernstein organised Million Dollar Arm, at which 37,000 contestants from across India competed to throw a baseball the hardest—or, in baseball parlance, the best fastball pitch—for a chance at $1 million.

While none of the competitors threw fast enough to win that ultimate prize, Singh and Patel stood first and second, respectively, with their pitching ‘heat’. Singh’s 87 mph effort also won him $100,000. Both earned tryouts in front of dozens of baseball talent scouts in the US. This led to contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who inked Singh and Patel to minor-league deals, making the pair the first Indian nationals to earn professional sports contracts in the US.

While the movie focuses primarily on the transformative experience Bernstein underwent as part of the Million Dollar Arm saga, the American promoter himself says the story wouldn’t have existed without the hard work, dedication and perseverance of the two contest winners, Singh and Patel.

“First and foremost, I’m so proud of Rinku and Dinesh and what they accomplished,” Bernstein says. “What made the story great was that these guys had done something that they knew nothing about; [they] came out and tried it for the first time and were successful.”

“They didn’t even know baseball existed,” he adds, “and like a month later, they’re signing minor-league contracts. That, in and of itself, was something no one thought would ever be possible.”

Even the stars of the Million Dollar Arm movie came away impressed after meeting Singh and Patel on set. While Disney now is tightly regulating media coverage of the film’s production, the interviews granted by the production company reflect the admiration for Singh and Patel that Hollywood bigwigs have.

“These kids went from never having picked up or touched a baseball to relief-quality baseball players in under a year,” Hamm told Variety earlier this month. “That’s insane.” Relievers enter games when the starting pitcher has tired or isn’t pitching well anymore for some reason.

In an interview with The Sporting News, Hamm expressed similar thoughts, especially highlighting the mentor-student relationship between Bernstein and the two young men, all of whose lives and worldviews were transformed by the Million Dollar Arm experience. Hamm also likened the two’s rise to a degree of wealth and fame with his own ascent to the cream of the Hollywood crop, thanks to his iconic character on Mad Men, Don Draper.

“It’s a great story, and it’s a true story,” Hamm told Sporting News writer Ryan Fagan last month. “The reason I was attracted to doing the [film] is that it’s a good, old-fashioned coming-of-age, father/son type of story, even though there are no fathers and no sons, really. It’s just a nice story about hard work, and coming up with a big idea and seeing it through... They were just willing to apply themselves and commit to the programme and maximise the opportunity.”

Hollywood power player Mark Ciardi, one of the producers of the film—who is known to be a backer of similar inspirational sports movies like Miracle, the story of the US ice hockey team’s improbable triumph over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics—told Sports Business Journal’s Terry Lefton earlier this month that the Million Dollar Arm tale actually carries a much more significant message than that of simply throwing a baseball really fast.

“Any great sports movie is not really about sports,” Ciardi said. “This film is about a man’s growth and finding a family he didn’t know he was looking for. That kind of redemptive arc in a character happens in any great movie.”

Running parallel to the evolving Million Dollar Arm story is a concerted effort on the part of US baseball officials to promote the sport in the world’s second most populous country. For example, in February, Major League Baseball (MLB)—the highest level of the sport in the US—announced an outreach initiative in India, led by Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. Larkin visited the country to lead baseball ‘clinics’ and speak about the importance of diversity and sports in the modern age.

For the project, MLB is teaming up with USA Softball (a kind of variant of baseball, often played by women) and the US State Department, which views sport as a way to improve relations with important emerging economies like India. In addition, many believe the film version of Million Dollar Arm will help open the world’s eyes to India’s vast athletic potential.

While entertainment and sports reps in the States feel a desire to impressively represent America and its ‘national pastime’ to the vast Indian populace, both Singh and Patel have, from the time they were announced the winners of the first season of Bernstein’s reality show, recognised their roles as ambassadors of India to the United States and its baseball-crazy audience.

‘When I was in the US, I definitely felt like I was representing my country,’ Patel says. ‘I felt a great sense of pride doing that and hope to represent India in baseball in the future.’ While he no longer pitches or plays baseball professionally, Patel still loves the sport and wants to remain active promoting it in India. “I think baseball has a great opportunity in India,” he says, “but it will require effort and time to make it popular. Contests like Million Dollar Arm can really help. It can happen, and I hope to be involved in making it happen.”

Singh, meanwhile, is doggedly pursuing his pro baseball career and developing into a quality relief pitcher in the Pirates’ minor-league system. He also spent the last off season hurling the ball for the Adelaide Bite in the Australian Baseball League.

An August 2012 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette emphasised how Singh, now almost 25, has evolved, thanks to constant hard work, from a novelty or curiosity on the American baseball field into a legitimate Major League prospect. ‘When the Pirates signed a television reality show winner from India a few years ago,’ wrote Post-Gazette reporter Michael Sanserino, ‘some thought the move was a gimmick. But Singh is proving this gimmick’s got game.’

‘He has immersed himself in baseball ever since he signed on with the Pirates in November 08,’ Sanserino added. ‘He is trying to become the first Indian-born player to make the major leagues, although he has already come much further than anyone else from his country.’

Singh’s fastball continues to increase in speed, and he has quickly developed other pitches to add to his repertoire. Unfortunately, he is currently recuperating from a forearm injury, but he’s using the same optimism and drive in this challenge that he has applied since he first tried out for Bernstein’s show five years ago. Making the major leagues remains his ultimate goal.

But Singh is also aware that he continues to represent his country and especially his hometown of Lucknow and home state of Uttar Pradesh, a responsibility he takes seriously as he strives to overcome injury and improve his abilities.

“I’m never going to quit learning,” he says, adding that he hopes to be ready for spring training in 2014. “That’s baseball—you never become perfect. You always have to work on something, some way. So I know I need to keep working. I have to keep moving forward and keep my head at 100 percent... If I make it in baseball, baseball could be huge in India. It’s not just about playing for myself. I’m working to represent my country and open doors for others. I’m working my ass off to give them the opportunity I’ve had. That motivates me. A lot of people [in India] don’t get the opportunities I have, so I can’t wait to get where I want to be in the Major League and make my dream come true. I believe I have the ability, and as long as I never quit learning, it’s going to happen one day.”

Bernstein says that just like Singh has taken naturally to baseball—a sport the youngster had never even tried till a few years ago—the baseball culture in America has accepted him (and Patel) as its own.

“Rinku and Dinesh were the only Indian people a lot of the other players and coaches had ever met,” Bernstein says. “They have been amazing representatives of their country and their families. And it’s so satisfying to see them get that exposure.” “These guys have become like children to me,” Bernstein adds, echoing Hamm’s emotional interpretation of their story. “It’s very gratifying for me to sit back and know that all their success is so well deserved.”