'Million Dollar Arm' movie to tell story of Indian baseball player based in Bradenton

Upcoming movie to tell story of Indian baseball player based in Bradenton

jlembo@bradenton.comJune 23, 2013 

BRADENTON -- It wasn't long ago that Rinku Singh was growing up in India, unaware how life was lived more than 9,000 miles away in the United States.

He didn't know English. He didn't know baseball.

He didn't know a splitter from a spitter, or a ground-rule double from a tailor-made double-play ball.

Now he's a professional pitcher working his way through the Pittsburgh Pirates' farm system, and fresh off the best season of a career few saw coming.

Singh may become the first Indian-born player ever to wear a big-league uniform.

And his English?

It's near perfect.

If this all sounds a tad too corny for Hollywood, well, the folks at Walt Disney Pictures disagree.

Singh's story will be the focus of the movie "Million Dollar Arm," slated for release in 2014. It boasts an all-star cast that includes Jon Hamm of "Mad Men," Oscar winner Alan Arkin and veteran character actor Bill Paxton, whose resumé includes roles in "Titanic" and "Apollo 13."

Singh will be portrayed by Suraj Sharma, star of last year's award-winning "Life of Pi."

"The first thing I thought was, 'This is going to be amazing,'" said Singh, 24, who's in Bradenton working his way back from a forearm injury.

Amazing sums it up pretty well.

The story begins in 2008. Singh and another pitcher, Dinesh Patel, were cricket players who knew zero about baseball. But both managed to beat out 40,000 hopefuls on "Million Dollar Arm," a reality show dedicated to finding India's first pitching sensation. Think "American Idol" with ballcaps, gloves and cleats.

The show was created by sports agent JB Bernstein after he caught a game of cricket on television and watched as players threw a ball on a hop to a hitter standing 60 feet away.

At least one of these guys, Bernstein thought, has to be able to throw a baseball.

"Like any good idea, you have a lot of things flying around your head. And then you have what I call the 'Eureka!' moment," Bernstein said from California. "In India, there are 200 million men ages 16 through 29 and none of them are being scouted for any sports. There's very little opportunities in sports, very little scouting. ... It would be like in the U.S., you'd have the talents of players like Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson working regular jobs because there are no sports jobs."

After the show wrapped, Singh and Patel headed to University of Southern California in May 2008 to work with former major-league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, who will be portrayed by Paxton in the film.

The Pirates signed Singh and Patel in November of that year, and three months later, the pair reported to Bradenton for spring training.

"I came here with nothing," Singh recalled. "I had no idea how to speak English, I had no idea about American culture, and, at the same time, you're feeling homesick.

"I left my own game, where I had a ton of experience, and willingly chose baseball. It was very challenging for me."

Slowly but surely, Singh started becoming acclimated. He honed his baseball intelligence by sitting in the outfield and watching workouts, and learned English through talking with his teammates and taking classes.

"I stayed away from my own language and tried just speaking English," said Singh, who is in the process of earning his general educational development diploma so he can attend college. "I had to put a different head on things -- home is always going to be home, but why not stay focused while I'm here?"

While Patel was released after spending 2009 and '10 with the Pirates' Gulf Coast League team, Singh kept climbing the Pirates' chain. He put up solid numbers last season with the Pirates' low Single-A team in West Virginia, where he went 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 39 appearances spread over 72 innings.

While Singh credits some of the success to a splitter-change pitch he developed, he says his brief stint in West Virginia in 2011 gave him an edge.

"The same hitters were there, and I pitched to those hitters," Singh said. "I knew what made them comfortable and uncomfortable."

Now Disney has its hands on Singh's story, and there is plenty of clout behind it. The producers of "Million Dollar Arm" include the team of Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, who have helmed sports movies such as "Miracle," "Secretariat" and "The Rookie."

Joe Roth, a veteran producer who has 59 films to his credit, also has signed on to the big-screen project.

Bernstein will be portrayed by Hamm in the film, which made for a surreal experience when Bernstein visited the set in India for a few days.

"It's a big honor. This guy, at his point in his career, every big thing is coming his way because of what a good actor he is," Bernstein said. "But it's definitely a little weird to be standing there and you here, 'JB, change of clothes,' and my head is spinning around every which way. It's amazing, really, to see how they recreated the USC field at Georgia Tech, or how they recreated my office.

"A lot people would play it off and be cool, but I'm like a kid in a candy store. I never thought in a million years this would come to fruition."

Singh is excited about the project, too, but his main goal is to make it to the big leagues. He is scheduled to make some rehab appearances with the Pirates' GCL team and could get a promotion to the high Single-A Marauders once he is healthy.

"I'm trying to get myself focused on what I'm here for," Singh said. "Every single day, I need to put 100 percent effort on the field and off the field."

Bernstein is hoping Singh's story has a Hollywood ending and the pitcher winds up in Pittsburgh one day. But Bernstein said his interest in Singh has become parental as much as professional.

Like a good parent, he wants the kid to be happy.

"On a personal level, on an emotional level, he has a really good chance. But so many things have to go right," Bernstein said. "This is a special kid. I take a lot more pride parentally because I know where he's come from, improvements he has made to his house, his village. ... And I'm proud to have had a small hand in that."

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