Hurler from India would rather play ball than pitch 'Million Dollar Arm'
Rinku Singh never stepped onto the field at PNC Park until Sunday. Standing in foul territory and talking with reporters, the Pirates' minor-league relief pitcher said he is happy to finally make it.
Still, he would have preferred to be between the lines with the Pirates players taking batting practice before their game against the St. Louis Cardinals. For the time being, he is talking about himself and a new movie based on his rather unusual experiences.
“This is not the reason I want to come to PNC,” he said. “I never expected I'd be here to do something else. I just want to pitch here one day. That's my goal.”
Perhaps he will achieve it. Meanwhile, Singh's poised presence and command of a second language constitute a remarkable feat in itself.
Not long ago, he was a young javelin thrower from the village of Bhadohi in India, trying to escape poverty and find his way in the world. Now, he is a 25-year-old professional ballplayer and a central subject of “Million Dollar Arm,” a Disney feature that opens today.
The top-billed actor is Jon Hamm, best known as Don Draper in AMC's hit series, “Mad Men.” Suraj Sharma, whose big role was the title character in the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi,” plays Singh.
The title references an American Idol-style competition to find, among India's approximately 1 billion residents, the person who could throw a baseball very fast (at least 85 miles an hour) with the most accuracy and groom him to be a professional pitcher in the States. Hamm plays sports agent JB Bernstein, who devised the idea and later went through some profound personal changes of his own.
In May 2008, Singh, who had thrown a javelin but never a baseball, beat out more than 37,000 entrants to win the first Million Dollar Arm competition (there have now been three). He won $100,000 and the chance to learn how to pitch. The runner-up, Dinesh Patel, another young javelin thrower from a village with no baseball experience, also was invited.
The pair trained for six months with then-USC pitching coach Tom House. At the same time, they learned English and baseball and soaked up the culture. They also ate a lot of pizza.
“We took everything as a challenge,” Singh says. “And I think we did really good at it. If you really want to succeed, you'll do everything to make your dream come true.”
Late in 2008, Singh, a left-hander, and Patel, a righty, auditioned for major league scouts. The Pirates signed both.
“The best thing about them was they had come so far in such a short period of time,” said Joe Ferrone, one of the Pirates scouts. “You could say there was some upside there. Being realistic, my report also said this is quite a unique undertaking, and it's gonna be a project.”
Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister recalls meeting Singh and Patel during their first day at the Pirate City training facility in Bradenton, Fla., and describes them as “very respectful.”
“You could see the athleticism in both of them,” Banister says. “You could see the rawness on the baseball side. No baseball experience. They had to learn absolutely everything about baseball.”
Considered the more polished pitcher of the two at first, Patel was released after one season. He is back in India, attending college and, yes, teaching baseball.
“I gave my 100 percent,” he says. “I'm happy I've done a good job. I feel proud of myself.”
Singh has pitched four seasons in the low minors, producing respectable numbers. After missing the 2013 season because of arm problems, he underwent elbow surgery in September. He had another operation last month to remove a bone chip and is expected to resume throwing in August. He said he is progressing well.
Singh has seen the movie several times, including at the Hollywood premiere. He called it “inspiring” and said he “loved it.” Typical of films based on a true story, some liberties were taken for the sake of art.
“It's called a movie,” Singh said. “You've got to put the cream on top to make it better.”
Bernstein said, “It's not a documentary. It's extremely close. Every major moment in that movie happened almost the way it did in real life.”
Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez became acquainted with Singh and Patel in Bradenton in 2009. Sanchez was the Pirates' No. 1 draft pick that year. Singh and Patel were curiosities.
“The story was still fairly fresh in the clubhouse when I arrived,” Sanchez said. “I went over to (Singh) and introduced myself. I had my questions, and he was eager to answer them.”
Sanchez said they spoke “good” English. Singh and Patel learned the old-fashioned way, by watching a lot of TV. They also took online classes.
Watching them pitch, “I thought, ‘Wow, it seems as if these guys have been playing baseball for a while,' ” Sanchez said. “You couldn't tell they had just picked up a baseball for the first time within a couple of years.”
Tom House, played by Bill Paxton in the film, was a well-known pitching guru when Bernstein convinced him to teach Singh and Patel from scratch. For two months, they did not set foot on a mound.
“To try to throw hard off the mound in large numbers and give them the intensity to be competitive, was it gonna blow 'em up?” House said. “It was health first and performance second.”
House had a modest career as a big league pitcher, but his claim to fame was catching Hank Aaron's record 715th home run in the Atlanta Braves' bullpen. He has written several books, including, “Arm Action, Arm Path and the Perfect Pitch: Building the Million Dollar Arm,” which inspired the name of the TV show in India.
“We were very comfortable with each other, but also friends,” House said. “They were motivated every day. It was the perfect coaching experience and a good learning experience for them. Like a perfect storm for a coach and athlete in every way.”