The Original Amazing Indian Reality Show

March 09, 2009
March 09, 2009

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March 9, 2009

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The Original Amazing Indian Reality Show

Nine months before Slumdog Millionaire hit theaters, two teens who had never picked up a baseball undertook their own remarkable odyssey. Now as they pursue the majors, kindly refrain from any further comparisons to the Oscar-decorated movie

RINKU SINGH andDinesh Patel have had it up to here with Slumdog Millionaire analogies. Yes,O.K., they get it: They come from impoverished Indian families. Their path outof poverty began with a reality show called The Million Dollar Arm. If you mustknow, they've seen the Oscar-winning Bollywood-inspired blockbuster, and theyloved it. Loved it. But the two youngsters wish the Americans theymeet—journalists, teammates, the kindly lady at the Walmart checkout line inBradenton, Fla.—would get over it already. ¬∂ Trouble is, Singh and Patel can'texplain this to those people. One reason is that they speak very little Englishand worry about being misunderstood. The other is that they are culturallyconditioned to treat their elders with a diffident deference, which explainswhy they say, "Yes, sir," more often than GIs at the officers' mess.When a CBS reporter recently asked them about the parallels between their livesand Slumdog, they smiled kindly and shook their heads. "No, sir," theyreplied. "Not like our life, sir." A few days later, when an NBCreporter asked the same question, they again smiled kindly and shook theirheads. "No, sir. Not like our life, sir."

This is an article from the March 9, 2009 issue

But speaking withme, a fellow Indian who speaks their native Hindi, they could be more candid.Minutes into our first conversation, Singh, the taller and, at age 20, theolder of the two, preemptively asks, "You're not going to compare us tothose kids in that movie, are you?" As I begin to answer, the 19-year-oldPatel interrupts. "We're not from the slums, and we're notmillionaires," he says, softly but firmly. "We are not characters froma film. We want to be taken seriously, as baseball players, as professionalpitchers."

Singh finishes thethought: "Yes, sir. Nothing less, nothing more."

After spending acouple of days with them, after they've told me their life stories, I betterunderstand their aversion to Slumdog comparisons. Singh's father was a truckerwho raised eight children on $30 a month until a bad back cost him his job andforced him into sharecropping. Patel was raised by his uncle, a constructionworker, because his dad, an intermittently employed tailor, didn't make enoughto raise three kids. Both boys spent time working on farms in the punishing110° summers of their native Uttar Pradesh state, located in the Indian north,to supplement their families' income. But as poor as they were, the Singh andPatel families were at least one step removed from panhandling—and that is amatter of honor vital to their self-image. "We missed a meal now and again,but we always had a roof over our heads," says Singh, stiffening his backin pride. "We never had to steal or beg or forage in garbagedumps."

BASEBALL LORE islittered with stories of kids who overcame seemingly insurmountablehurdles—physical, cultural, linguistic—to make it to the majors: the Dominicanteens who used milk cartons for gloves or the Cuban youths who used broomsticksfor bats. But Singh and Patel are attempting a whole new kind of leap. How manyyoungsters, after all, arrived in this country with dreams of baseballgreatness without having ever played a single game?

Around this timelast year neither Singh nor Patel had so much as laid eyes on a baseball. Theywere both training to be javelin throwers at a state-run institute in UttarPradesh for promising young athletes. Their game plan was simple enough: to winenough medals at national meets to draw the interest of recruiters from theIndian army. That would lead to a career in uniform, starting at the samerelative economic level as a U.S. Army GI. That would bring job security—or atleast as much security as can be expected from a job that includes tours ininsurgency-wracked Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have fought three warssince 1947. "If we were in India now," says Singh, holding his hands upas if wielding a machine gun, curling his left forefinger around an imaginarytrigger, "we'd be fighting terrorists." (Two of his three olderbrothers are in the armed services.)

Last winter,however, a javelin coach told them about a reality TV show in which the winnercould earn big bucks by throwing a ball, hard. With their powerful shoulders,the coach reasoned, Singh and Patel might have a chance. "We didn't know ithad anything to do with baseball or America or anything like that," saysPatel. "We agreed to compete because of the money."

The Million DollarArm was the brainchild of J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent based in NorthernCalifornia who figured that, by the law of averages, a nation of 1.1 billionpeople—most of them nuts about cricket—must have plenty of young men capable ofthrowing 90 mph. More than 30,000 Indians signed up to compete across 30cities. After three rounds of competition, Singh was declared the winner lastMarch, with a top speed of 89 mph. That earned him $100,000 (a king's ransom inhis hometown of Bhadohi), a Gatorade shower ("I thought, Why are theypouring juice over me?") and a shot at another $1 million if he could throwthree consecutive strikes at 90 mph. (He could not.) Patel, who came in secondwith an 87-mph pitch, received $2,500, and both entrants earned a trip to L.A.,where they would live and train on the USC campus for the next six monthsbefore auditioning for major league scouts.

From footage ofthe two teens on the TV show it's hard to imagine how they generated that kindof velocity. The lefthanded Singh, in particular, seems to have the worstpossible delivery, his throwing hand too tight, his 6'2" body too stiff andhis windup almost cartoonish. He looks like, well, a javelin thrower. Therighthanded Patel, at 5'11", appears more comfortable, but only slightly.He giggles with embarrassment as we watch the video. "Nobody told us how todo it right," he says, defensively. "We needed lessons."

Which they wouldreceive from one of the best teachers in the game. When the teens arrived inSouthern California last May, Bernstein (now their manager) hooked them up withUSC pitching coach Tom House, the guru known widely as the Professor for hiscerebral approach. Over the next nine months they went through a demandingregimen of pitching drills and physical training. Off the field, they lived anisolated existence. "We didn't want distractions," Singh says. "Wedidn't come all this way to eat dhal and speak Hindi. We had to eat baseballand speak baseball."

A skeptic atfirst, House had one objective, he says: "to take those good arms and givethe pitchers some skills to go with their genetic talent." The two spenthours and hours in the bullpen and the classroom, learning the mechanics ofpitching. By the middle of last summer House concluded that their previousinexperience was actually an asset: It gave him the opportunity to work with ablank canvas. "Because they hadn't played before, they didn't have any badhabits," House says. "I came to realize that it was easier to teach anew skill to someone who doesn't know than to unteach someone who thinks theydo know."

Before long, Singhhad developed a decent breaking ball and was getting the hang of a changeup, apitch that comes late to even the game's top prospects. Patel was consistentlythrowing around 90 mph. House sent them off to play a series of simulated gamesagainst high school kids at a baseball camp and against Vanguard University."When they first faced real-life batters, they got a little anxious andwild," House says. "But they got better with every game."

By early November,Bernstein was confident enough in Singh and Patel to arrange a tryout in Tempe;scouts from every MLB team were invited. It was a disaster. Just a few of theirpitches reached the high 80s, and they showed little control. They now blamethe unfamiliar setting and the mound—"too slippery," says Singh. Thescouts were unimpressed, and the players shattered. "I thought, This is it.Now they'll send us back to India, and I'll go home empty-handed," Patelrecalls. "At least Rinku had his $100,000. Me, I'd have to go to the armyafter all."

Bernstein,however, was able to persuade several scouts to take a second look, this timeat USC. On what was effectively their home turf, Singh and Patel hit 90 mph anddisplayed a serviceable array of curveballs and sliders. The scouts sat up andtook notice—and the Pittsburgh Pirates snapped them both up. "I was verycynical going in," says Joe Ferrone, one of the two Pirates scouts whorecommended the signings. "I thought, If two kids can learn baseball infive or six months, then that minimizes what everybody else does, players whospend a lifetime learning the sport."

But when thePirates saw them, "they didn't look like two kids just five to six monthsinto their baseball careers," says Sean Campbell, the other Pittsburghscout who attended the USC workout. "They looked like they'd been doing it10 to 12 years."

EVEN TO anuntrained eye, the sight of Singh and Patel hurling fastballs from the practicemound in Bradenton looks a lot more like the real thing than those javelinthrowers from last year's TV show. A week into spring training, this is theirfirst stint on the mound, and they're being watched intently by Pirates minorleague pitching coach Miguel Bonilla and field coordinator Jeff Banister.

Bonilla's heavilyaccented English is a special challenge for Singh and Patel, but his bodylanguage is clear enough. In Singh's first few throws, his body flings too farforward, leaving him slightly off-balance; Bonilla steps in and mimics (withsome exaggeration) his mistakes. "Like this, like this," he says,displaying a more compact windup and motion. Singh watches intently and says,"Yes, sir." Then he copies his coach, throwing with less velocity butmore correctly—and accurately. Banister, the day's catcher, shoutsencouragement. Five or six throws in, Singh begins to turn up the heat. Theball thwacks into the glove of Banister, who nods approvingly. Bonilla archeshis eyebrows. "He's ready to bring it, baby!" he exclaims. "Oh,yeah," Banister grins.

"Yes,sir," says Singh, politely. But there's triumph in his eyes.

It's Patel's turn.With his shorter, more muscular frame, he looks less like a natural pitcher.But his arm speed seems to compensate for any physical disadvantages. Havingwatched Bonilla direct Singh, he's better prepared than his countryman. Thwack,thwack, thwack. Banister grunts as each ball smacks the glove. Bonilla standsback, satisfied. "Gooooooooood," he says. "Gooooooooood."

Patel bumps fistswith Singh. They're learning American hand gestures almost as fast as thelanguage.

The next dayBanister watches as a Pirates coach puts six young pitchers through runningdrills. Singh and Patel are constantly sprinting ahead of the pack, forcing theothers to pick up their pace. During breaks between laps, Singh stands ramroderect while the others collapse onto the turf. "Damn, you're ama-chine," gasps Michael Felix, a minor leaguer who's in his third springtraining with Pittsburgh. Singh, not understanding the reference, looks away,embarrassed.

Banister issatisfied with what he's seen so far. "The fact that they have to be first,even in [running drills], tells me these guys want to compete," he says."They know they have a long way to catch up to the others, but they're notworried about that."

IN THE eveningafter the grueling running drills, Singh is showing off his pool skills in thePirate City rec room. He's already hustled a member of the clubhouse staff intobelieving that he didn't know the game—and promptly beat him. His thunderousbreak sends balls scattering. "Sometimes, I hit the white ball so hard, itflies off the table," he says, grinning. Clearly, he hasn't yet grasped allthe objectives of this game.

With baseball, onthe other hand, he and Patel are developing a firm command. In their hostelroom they spend hours watching the great pitchers on YouTube—Randy Johnson, aUSC alum whom they met briefly in L.A., is a favorite. (They've met BarryBonds, too, but know next to nothing about A-Rod, and I had to explain thewhole sorry steroids scandal to them.) I help them find the video of thatJohnson pitch that obliterated a dove during a 2001 spring training game."That's amazing," Patel says. "Add it to my favorites. I want tolearn from him to do that." What, kill a bird in mid-flight? "No, Iwant to pitch like that."

They also instructand test each other from a well-thumbed copy of Baseball for Dummies."Single to the right," Patel asks. "Runners on first and third.What do you do?"

"Back up thirdbase," Singh replies.

"Single to theleft, runner on first," says Patel.

"Follow flightof the ball, then decide ... usually [back up] third."

In any sport,there's only so much you can learn from books or videos. Even Bernsteinconcedes that his clients have "a 12- to 14-year deficit" relative totheir peers. If they were hitters, House says, they'd stand no chance ofclosing that gap. "But a pitcher, if you have a good delivery, you canlearn to strike people out pretty quickly," he says. The Pirates willlikely keep Singh and Patel in extended spring training, get them into theRookie Gulf Coast League and give them lots of short bursts as reliefpitchers—at this point, frequency is more important than duration. If thePirates stick to this plan, House reckons, "there's a 75-25 chance they'llacquire the experience they need within a year."

Do Singh and Patelhave a realistic shot at the majors? It's a long shot, and they're smart enoughto set realistic goals—for now. Patel says the low A squad may be within theirreach this summer; Singh thinks high A is feasible. But that's still monthsaway. For now, these two farm boys from Uttar Pradesh are content to pushthemselves harder and harder at Pirate City. "Learning, learning, learning... all the time," Singh says. "We don't want to go out, don't want todo anything else."

Before I leave,they ask me if I can help them learn a few phrases of Spanish, the better tocommunicate with Bonilla. The first phrase they want to learn?

Si, señor.

Patel giggles as we watch the video from the realityshow. "Nobody told us how to [throw a baseball] right," he says."WE NEEDED LESSONS."
House found that their INEXPERIENCE WAS AN ASSET."Because they hadn't played before," he says, "they didn't have anybad habits."


Daily digital postcards from all 30 spring training sites, from Tom Verducci,Jon Heyman and Joe Posnanski.


PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansFOREIGN GAME Before 2008, Singh (far left and top right) and Patel were javelin throwers who hoped to join India's army.TWO PHOTOSJB BERNSTEIN/7FM[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansBY THE BOOK There's no resource the two pitchers won't explore in order to make up for their late introduction to the game.PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansLEARNING CURVE By following Bonilla's body language, Patel and Singh now can deliver tighter breaking pitches and better fastballs.TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Al Tielemans[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Al TielemansINDIAN SUMMER The Rookie Gulf Coast League is a realistic destination for Singh and Patel (left) this season.