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A million dollar arm from India - and it's not a cricketer's!

Rinku Singh (L) and Dinesh Patel (R)

Rinku Singh (L) and Dinesh Patel (R)

The Indian obsession with cricket has been well-documented, but I wish we could say the same about the Indian indifference to baseball. The vast gap in the popularity of cricket and baseball in India despite the many similarities between the two sports is an intriguing subject that has largely been overlooked. But that seems set to change in a big way by the time 2014 rolls around. Or by the time 16 May 2014 rolls around, to be more precise. That’s the release date of Disney’s latest sports-themed movie Million Dollar Arm, and judging by its trailer, baseball may soon have a firm place on the Indian sporting map.

What makes the movie such a strong candidate to cure India’s baseball aversion is the fact that it is based on the real-life story of a couple of Indians who have played Major League Baseball (MLB) baseball. Yes, you read that right – there have actually been two Indians who have competed on the baseball world’s biggest stage. Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel made history in 2009 by becoming the first Indians to appear in a professional baseball game in the US, and considering how alien a sport baseball is to Indians, that certainly is an accomplishment worthy of being turned into a movie. Sportskeeda has been tracking the progress of these two prodigies since 2009, and it’s been a fascinating journey.

The trailer:

The plot – J.B. Bernstein and his Eureka moments

The movie ostensibly dedicates a lot more screen space to J.B. Bernstein, the athlete management agent who discovered Singh and Patel, than to the two baseball stars. Disney even got Mad Men star Jon Hamm to portray Bernstein – a major casting coup by most standards. But the ‘million dollar arm’ that the title talks about belongs to the pitchers, not Bernstein; there would be no story worth telling if the two Indians hadn’t been good enough to land professional contracts with the Pittsburg Pirates MLB team back in 2008.

The title owes its origin to the ‘Million Dollar Arm’ contest organized by Bernstein in India in 2008, which doubled up as a reality television show that aired on Zee TV. The contest was designed to unearth the most talented baseball players from India. Why India? Apparently, it was because Bernstein realized that the game of cricket requires a bowler to ‘pitch’ the ball at an incredibly high speed – a skill that most Indians are adept at – which could easily be translated to the sport of baseball. Whether you’re a bowler or a pitcher, the ultimate aim is to hurl a round-shaped object as fast as possible at an opponent handling a ‘bat’, right?

The protagonists – Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel

Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel were selected from the nearly 37,000-strong contingent of hopefuls that participated in the contest, and they didn’t disappoint when they travelled to the US. Although they didn’t exactly enjoy spectacular success in the world’s biggest baseball league, they weren’t pushovers either.

Singh finished his first season at the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League affiliate – the GCL Pirates – with a 1-2 record and a 5.84 ERA in 11 games, allowing just one run on three hits in his final six appearances. He did even better the next season, going 2-0 with a 2.61 ERA over 13 games in 2010. Since then, Singh has gone on to play in the Australian Baseball League, the Dominican Summer League and the South Atlantic League, and he even made the All-Star team for the 2011 Australian Baseball League All-Star Game.

Patel was relatively less successful. Although he finished his first season with the GCL Pirates in 2009 with a 1-0 record and 1.42 ERA, allowing two runs (one earned) on six hits in 6.1 innings, his 2010 record was more modest, with an 8.59 ERA in 7⅓ innings, over nine games. He was released from the team in December 2010, and after that he spent a bulk of his time teaching baseball in Delhi. He has even taken up javelin throw seriously: he participated in the national athletics championship in Kolkata in 2011 and the Federation Cup athletics championship in April 2012.

These may not be hall-of-fame baseball careers, but for a couple of underprivileged kids who had no idea what baseball was just a year before playing their first professional baseball game, these returns are nothing to be sneezed at.

The movie – key to baseball’s popularity in India?

How does all of this translate to greater visibility for baseball in India? Well, if you didn’t know it already, movies sell like crazy in the country. Bollywood, and by extension, Hollywood, are the only things that can get an average Indian away from his couch when a cricket match involving India is on. And with this big-budget Disney production devoting two hours of screen time to the story of two Indians playing baseball, there’s bound to be a tremendous spike in baseball interest in the country. There’s nothing like a good old popcorn flick to make even the most complicated-looking set of rules seem as simple as reciting the alphabet.

It’s not clear whether the MLB officials had any stake in the Million Dollar Arm contest organized by Bernstein back in 2008, or in the re-telling of the story by Disney on celluloid in 2014. But they probably know that the cash rewards they would earn if they manage to crack the lucrative Indian market – if they manage to teach the sizeable Indian masses the difference between a home run and a sixer – would be enormous.

And it is hard to ignore the suspicion that this movie can turn out to be the MLB’s ticket to solving the Indian puzzle.

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