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'Million Dollar Arm' throws spotlight on Indian athletes

Can good cricket bowlers make great baseball pitchers? That is the question behind new film "Million Dollar Arm," a true story about a Major League Baseball agent who goes to India to find the next big thing.

hollywood Updated: May 15, 2014 11:31 IST

Can good cricket bowlers make great baseball pitchers? That is the question behind new film "Million Dollar Arm," a true story about a Major League Baseball agent who goes to India to find the next big thing. Out Friday in North America, it tells the astonishing tale of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, discovered in India by MLB agent JB Bernstein and hired a few months later as professionals for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Actor Jon Hamm, famous for his role as Don Draper in the hit TV show "Mad Men" and who plays JB, said he had to pinch himself when he first read the screenplay. "I read the script and... loved it, and then looked back to the title page and went like, 'Wait a minute... this is true?' I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar and I didn't know.

"So I immediately, like two hours later, was in like a Google hell of finding out everything I could about this, and I was like, 'Oh my God, this actually happened.'" It was by watching a cricket match on TV that Bernstein -- whose career had been stumped when a deal fell through -- noticed that bowlers in the wildly popular sport in India are vaguely similar to baseball pitchers.

He decided to organize a nationally televised competition in India, called "Million Dollar Arm," to find the first there who could pitch a ball at over 80 miles (130 kilometers) an hour. Singh (played by Suraj Sharma) was the winner of the 2008 contest -- with a prize of $100,000 and a trip to America -- while Patel (played by Madhur Mittal) also came along as runner-up. The only problem: the two 25-year-olds had never played baseball in their lives.

Life changed a lot
Intensive training initially didn't help -- speed is not the only attribute required by a baseball pitcher -- but just in time, they came through. "My life has changed a lot for me and my family. But I'm exactly the same person, I carry the same heart as when I came first to America," Singh told AFP.

"But it wasn't easy. Every step had a doubt. I'm pretty sure JB had that too, we were afraid of failing." Indeed, the two men drew inspiration from the real-life JB's determination and willingness to take a huge risk. "Even not knowing English, I did kind of understand what kind of business he's doing, that was a lot of risk what he did to bring in kids from nowhere to a different planet," said Singh in sometimes still halting English.

"I thought: if he can take that big risk and make them professional baseball players, if he can do that, then we can become professional players too." Patel was later released by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but Singh is still there. It is not clear whether Patel has returned to India.

Bernstein, now 46 and the head of an athlete management company, was the first MLB agent to search for talent in India. "As an agent, I knew that no one was going to India and realizing, from a probability standpoint, that there was likely to be thousands of guys there," he told AFP.

In India, there are about 200 million young men in the appropriate age group."A lot grow up doing something athletic. Most guys grow up playing cricket, and in that talent pool, there is no pro sport other than cricket. All these natural athletes are out there," Bernstein said.

"We saw 38,000 kids in our first year, 31 of them were throwing in the 80s (miles per hour). So of course that means that 37,969 kids were terrible, and of the 31, three of them were actually good enough.

"But when you're talking about a couple of hundred million kids, not 38,000, there are literally thousands and thousands of kids out there that have that raw ability.

"India is unique in that respect," he said, adding that looking for baseball players there was "like a lottery where I'm the only one buying the ticket."