There's an unforgettable shot at the beginning of one of my alltime favorite sports movies, Bull Durham. Susan Sarandon's character is giving her famous Church of Baseball speech, and she walks from the dark out onto the most glistening emerald field you've ever seen in your life—it's like The Wizard of Oz, when everything switches to color. That's what going to games at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis was like: The ballpark was a concrete doughnut, but when you stepped inside, it was magical. One of my greatest childhood memories is sitting in the stands with my dad at Game 7 of the 1982 World Series, then seeing the celebration spill out onto the streets, fans crooning Kool & the Gang with their car windows rolled down. There was nothing I wanted to be more than a ballplayer for the Cardinals.
This is an article from the May 19, 2014 issue
I still live and breathe baseball. Game 6 of the 2011 World Series was my most exhilarating moment as a sports fan—I was watching from a trailer on the Mad Men set and, sadly, not at the new Busch. But until I read the script for Million Dollar Arm, I'd never heard of the strange, amazing story of the two teenagers who grew up in the countryside of India and went on to sign contracts as minor league pitchers. Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel—their story was told by Sports Illustrated in 2009—are subjects of the movie in which I play J.B. Bernstein, the agent who discovered the two young javelin throwers on the American Idol--like reality show he concocted for Indian television. Two months after Singh and Patel laid eyes on a baseball for the first time, Bernstein brought them to train with pitching guru Tom House at USC. Six months after that they were signed by the Pirates.
The reason there's never been a major leaguer out of India (Singh and Patel made it as far as Class A and rookie ball, respectively) isn't that they don't have the physical talent to play baseball. They've never had a system in place, just as there once wasn't one in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. That's changing. There are now training clinics in India, and permanent facilities in China, Australia and Brazil. The baseball world is becoming flat, and I promise you this: We will see an Indian kid in the majors someday soon.
Of course the best sports movies aren't really about sports, and the story of Rinku and Dinesh isn't about their 90-mph fastballs or how baseball can unite us. It's about two boys who grew up in poverty and triumphed over circumstance, bravely veering off the path they were born into—baseball, of all things, was their ticket. There are nearly half a billion kids in India, and sports doesn't have the value it does here. If you're a good athlete here, you get put on a travel team when you're six years old; over there, you're headed to the army. Now, kids across India see Rinku and Dinesh's story and think, Well, I'm the best cricket bowler in my village—if they can chase the dream, why can't I?
We spent a month shooting in India, from Mumbai to a tiny village named Virar, and we learned quickly how to wing it. In one street scene there were thousands of people between me and the cameras, with livestock wandering around set like clueless extras. The country is a fascinating study of extremes—we were in a van one day stuck in traffic behind a sparkling Rolls-Royce, held up because there was a cow in front of the car and a local pushing a cart loaded with electronics.
There's a scene in the movie in which J.B. and his team are holding tryouts in Agra, in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. The sun was setting on another long day, and I was standing in awe of that breathtaking, 380-year-old structure, while watching Indian kids of all ages toss baseballs, trying to learn to play the game on a hopelessly chewed-up field. It was a beautiful sight, a Church of Baseball of a different kind. A strange language, mosquitoes and a thick haze filled the air, but at that moment I really didn't feel all that far away from home.
Jon Hamm is the star of Million Dollar Arm, in theaters nationwide on Friday.
The baseball world is flattening, with coaches working in India, China, Australia and Brazil. I promise you:
We will see an Indian kid in the majors soon.
What's the best baseball movie of all time?
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