Will Million Dollar Arm help spur growth of baseball in India?
The Ganges, an ancient conduit for Himalayan snowmelt and Hindu reincarnation, is so sacred that people go there to die and have their cremated remains cast into the water -- a process they believe purifies their souls. It's the same reason many of the nation's 1.2 billion people swim in the river, and unfettered pollution does nothing to deter the living from stripping down to their skivvies and diving in.
A couple hundred feet inland in Varanasi, one of the many towns along which the 1,569-mile-long Ganges flows, the sedate pace of the riverside gives way to chaotic roads. Other than the general understanding that drivers stay to the left -- an adaptation from British driving law that is by no means strictly followed -- and try not to kill anyone, there are no discernable rules. Donkey-drawn fruit wagons, man-powered rickshaws and tourist buses squeeze into narrow roads while dodging pedestrians and stationary cows.
This is where Dinesh Patel returned after his brief time as a professional baseball player in the United States. His career began in 2009 with great fanfare, including a feature story in Sports Illustrated, and ended unceremoniously after the 2010 season when the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom Patel had toiled in Rookie ball for two seasons, "never called me." His agent told him that the Pirates weren't interested in bringing him back the next season, thus ending one of the only two careers in American professional baseball by an India-born player.
The other belongs to Rinku Singh who, like Patel, first came to the attention of American scouts after starring in a reality show competition in their native country called The Million Dollar Arm and, also like Pattel, was signed by the Pirates. The movie version of Patel's and Singh's journey stars Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame and opens this weekend. As of yet, though, there is no Hollywood ending in which either young player makes the major leagues.
Patel pitched in just 15 games over two seasons, posting a 5.27 ERA before being released. Singh has fared better, putting up a 2.99 ERA in his four pro seasons and advancing to Class A, though he hasn't pitched since 2012 because of various arm injuries. He had Tommy John surgery in 2013 and is now recovering from a different arm operation, though he is expected to be ready to pitch again next spring.
Whether or not Singh becomes the first player from India to reach the majors, intriguing questions have arisen from the journey he and Patel have already undertaken: What would happen if major league baseball, with its continued emphasis on global expansion, could finally tap into a market of the second-most populated nation on earth? And if Singh and Patel, who never threw a baseball until they were 19 years old, could at least secure professional contracts, then what kind of talent factory could India become if boys were to grow up on a baseball diamond rather than a cricket pitch?
When Dinesh Patel was a teenager, he figured that if he were to make a name for himself, he would do it with his arm. Growing up outside Varanasi, India's oldest and holiest city, he could throw with more might than the other boys in his village, and at 15 years old he went off to a sports school, Lucknow Sports Hostel, to cultivate this natural gift. Within a few years, Patel hoped, he'd be launching javelins for India's Olympic team.
That didn't happen, but he was right about his arm. He just didn't realize it would make him an ambassador for a sport he'd never heard of.
Now 25, Patel is still trying to make a future for himself in baseball. It's a rare ambition in a country obsessed with cricket, another bat-and-ball game that is baseball's distant cousin and is probably as popular in India as baseball, basketball and football are combined in the U.S. But since returning to his native country, baseball has remained close to his heart, and he is in a unique position to bridge the American game with the Indian people.
"There is only one person in India right now that has played professional baseball, and that is Dinesh," said Jim Small, the MLB Asia vice president and the man who will decide the future of the sport in India.
Baseball isn't a completely foreign concept to India. It is popular in Manipur, a state in the northwestern part of the country, where it was introduced by visiting soldiers in World War II. The game is played at more than 30 universities, and Little League has been in India since 2008, now boasting about 900 players on 63 teams for ages 11-18.
There is also a nation-wide amateur league that has been operating for three decades. The Amateur Baseball Federation of India was started in 1983 by P.C. Bhardwaj, who had learned about softball a few years earlier while studying physical education in Lucknow under an American named Robert Smith.
Bhardwaj took a liking to softball, and after becoming a PE teacher, he began teaching it to his students. Along the way he learned about baseball, and soon decided it needed to be played formally in India.
The federation now has teams in 27 cities around India. The teams, which are semi-professional, play for a national championship, and a national team competes in the West Asian Baseball Cup, which is a preliminary tournament for the Olympic-qualifying Asian Baseball Championship. International success, however, has been hard to come by for India's teams. "Our weakness," Bhardwaj said, "is that we don't have many good hitters."
There are other, more tangible impediments that must be overcome before baseball can become a viable sport on the subcontinent. Most notable is the fact that there has not traditionally been much enthusiasm for another sport to take hold in India, as the nation remains besotted with cricket, while leaving a little room in its sporting heart for field hockey and soccer.
Supplanting cricket as India's pastime is out of the question, at least any time in the foreseeable future. But baseball doesn't have to win over the entire country. "It's a big pie," Small said. "If you get a small slice of a big pie, it's still a pretty big slice."
In 2012, J.B. Bernstein, the agent who discovered Singh and Patel and on whom Hamm's character in the movie is based, said that a decade ago, "baseball wouldn't have worked in India. But it's changing so fast over there."
Indeed, the pace of economic development and the rapid Westernization of India is why MLB executives think baseball could be as appealing to India as India is to them. "There are a billion people that play a bat-and-ball sport, that are used to throwing and catching and swinging a bat," Small said in 2012. "I think that maybe creates some lessening of the barriers for us to introduce the game of baseball."
Among the other barriers are India's poverty rate and a population that is undersized by the standards of modern professional athletes. According to the World Bank, the nation's poverty level -- based on the international living standard of $1.25 a day -- is 30 percent. That means India has 360 million poor people, more than any other country in the world and a number that is greater than the entire U.S. population.
There is also the fact that Indian people tend to be smaller than the average Westerner, mostly due to a low-protein diet that is the result of the predominant Hindu dogma. Patel, for instance, is now a robust 200 pounds, but he put on 45 pounds after heading to the sports school at age 15 thanks to a dietary change that included more calories and daily servings of chicken.
Still, there are signs that point to a promising future for America's national pastime thriving on the subcontinent. Around 100,000 Indians study in the U.S., and many of them return home with some exposure to baseball. Through satellite television, games are broadcast to India on ESPN and other sports networks (according to the Times of India newspaper, 26 million Indians watched some American baseball on television in 2009). And with nearly a third of India's population 14 or younger, MLB sees a gold mine for talent.
Baseball has thrived for decades in several Latin American and East Asian countries, where it was embraced, more or less, organically. In the 19th century, the Dominican Republic and Cuba were introduced to the sport through the sugar trade and by students returning from the United States. American military men introduced baseball to Japan following World War II and South Korea after the Korean War, in both cases during reconstruction efforts.
Seeking to expand to the world's most populated nation, MLB opened an academy in China in 2009 and now has more than 100 players participating at three academies in that country. Baseball hopes to open a similar academy in New Delhi one day. And while there is no timetable or concrete plan to do so, Small says it's only a matter of time until the league has a foothold on the subcontinent.
"It's something we're going to pursue," Small said. "We're looking at the market, trying to learn it before Major League Baseball is going to go in and make India a baseball-playing nation."
A few things would need to happen first. MLB would like to see the amateur federation "mature" and for more grassroots efforts to emerge and show that a genuine interest in the sport exists in India. And there is the cultural challenge of sports not being viewed as a viable future -- even a way out of poverty -- as it is in the United States.
"It takes time for Indian families to understand that sports are a great way to grow and to become a better student and to become a better person," Small said, "and if you're good enough, you might be able to make a profession out of it."
Million Dollar Arm, which opens nationwide this Friday, could accelerate that process. The most important boost, though, would come if an India-born player were to reach the major leagues.
"Whether that turns India into a baseball-playing nation overnight, I'm not sure," Small said. "But it's certainly something that is going to be a part of the overall mix. You have to have context for a sport to catch on, so the movie and Rinku's success can certainly bring context."
Five years after his arrival in America, Singh, who won the inaugural Million Dollar Arm contest, remains the only India-born player in organized baseball in the U.S. If Patel serves to be baseball's leading ambassador in India, then Singh stands to be his homeland's baseball hero in America.
"It's a challenge I have accepted for the country, for the Pirates," Singh said last month.
Despite discovering the game at an age that most baseball players are either getting drafted or joining the college ranks, the 25-year-old Singh said playing baseball has "become my dream."
A stout 6-foot-3, 190-pound lefthander with a tailing 90-mph fastball and a split-finger, Singh fits the profile major league teams most cherish in a pitcher. And with the upside that could be projected from his body type, he was always viewed as the more legitimate prospect, compared to Patel, a 5-10 righty with a fastball that topped out in the low 90s but failed to miss many bats.
Even though Patel didn't make it to the majors, the most telling sign that baseball and India could have a bright future together is the impression the sport has made on the country's only former professional player.
"I still love baseball," he said. "I want to play again."
The day may soon be coming when millions of his fellow countrymen are saying the same thing.
Laith Agha has written for Yahoo! Sports and Discover magazine, as was an editor for the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants magazines. He is an education reporter in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter.