New film to explore journey of pitchers from India
PHOENIX -- "Million Dollar Arm" is the next big baseball movie, and it began shooting this month in Mumbai, India. Slated to be released next spring, the Disney film is the story of how an entrepreneurial American sports-marketing agent created a reality show five years ago in India that produced the first two Indian pitchers.
The winner and runner-up from 37,000 contestants -- Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel -- were subsequently signed by the Pirates to Minor League contracts in 2008. That marketing agent, J.B. Bernstein, sold the rights for the film and accompanying book to Disney, and he is working to collaborate on a documentary with ESPN.
The film, directed by Craig Gillespie, dramatically details the voyage of those kids. But the back story is so much more. It's about how Major League Baseball International ultimately joined forces with Bernstein and is growing baseball in India, a cricket-obsessed country of 1.2 billion people -- 200 million of them men between the ages of 20 and 29.
"You can find a pitcher anywhere in the world who can help your team," Bernstein said before departing to India for the initial filming this past week. "The advantage to India is that you have these billion fans. The movie, the book, the documentary, Rinku's continued success and sponsors getting involved has a snowball effect. You hit it right on the head. At the end of the day, this is an opportunity that is being placed on a silver platter for baseball to find the Yao Ming of India."
Singh isn't quite there yet, the left-hander having pitched no higher than Class A. Patel didn't make it and went back home to India. But Bernstein knows how to parlay talent. He created marketing opportunities for megastar athletes when they reached huge career milestones: Wayne Gretzky as the NHL's all-time goal scorer, Emmitt Smith as the NFL's top rusher, Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron for the most home runs.
The movie has an A-1 cast. Jon Hamm, a huge baseball fan and better known as the complex Don Draper in "Mad Men," is playing J.B. The ageless Alan Arkin is a scout. Suraj Sharma, who played a kid marooned in a row boat accompanied by a wild tiger in the phantasmagorical "Life of Pi," is Singh. Lake Bell is J.B.'s wife. And Aasif Mandvi, of "Daily Show" fame, is playing Bernstein's Indian business guru.
Hamm, appearing on the "Daily Show" last month to talk about the movie, expounded on his baseball roots and chided Jon Stewart, who is a lifelong Mets fanatic.
Asked by Stewart if he's a big baseball fan, Hamm said:
"I am. I'm a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. You're a Mets fan, I'm sorry. That was a nice rivalry we had in the '80s. You guys won one World Series. We went to three and won one and a few [more lately]. We won in !"
"Yeah, we're thinking about starting a team again," Stewart responded in feigned dejection.
About the film, Hamm added: "It's exciting. It's based on a story about an agent who goes to India to find two cricket players who can play baseball. It's a dead true story!"
And cricket really is the thing. Indians value cricket the way Canadians worship ice hockey, and this is where MLB has an advantage in trying to educate the country to the game with a mound instead of a flat pitching surface. The NBA has made no secret recently that it's trying to mine India the way it did China. Commissioner David Stern went on a fact-finding trip there this past month, and he hopes he might have the Indian Yao Ming in Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7-footer with size 20 basketball shoes, who's training in the States.
"It doesn't depend ultimately on whether Satnam Singh is the next Yao Ming," Stern told Sports Illustrated for a recent lengthy article on the NBA's Indian marketing incursion, "although that would be nice."
The success of Satnam could translate into the sale of a billion jerseys, but the problem is, basketball is not a native sport to India, and the playing conditions are at best archaic and grungy. For baseball, cricket pitches are easily converted to baseball fields, and MLB has done that before in other countries where cricket is the first love.
"Does it give us a leg up? I think it does," said Jim Small, MLB's vice president of Asian baseball operation during a phone interview from his Tokyo office on Wednesday. "Certainly, Australia is the best example, but also in South Africa, the ability of kids to play a bat-and-ball sport that is transferable to baseball. It's much different teaching baseball in a cricket-playing country, throwing a ball and the hand-eye coordination that comes with that."
To be sure, Small said MLB is taking its time in India, building relationships and sending coaches and equipment to the country through its baseball federation. MLB used the same approach a decade ago in China, establishing academies and working with the government. It is now seeing developmental fruit in young players who eventually may be able to ascend to the Major Leagues. In China, MLB still has yet to find the baseball equivalent to Yao Ming. But its international arm is working on it. Like Tokyo, MLB has a permanent office in Beijing.
Not so in India, where baseball's immediate future is still to be determined, Small said. An academy there or even a berth for an Indian national team in the qualifying round of the next World Baseball Classic certainly isn't out of the question.
"We really need to understand the market," Small said. "The key is, if baseball is going to be strong in any country, you have to have local roots. In India, we're really starting from scratch. We really want to understand the market and the cultural differences before we commit to what I would say is 'all in.' And I think in China, we are all in."
In India, baseball will certainly use the movie as a stepping stone. Singh, the son and one of seven children of a truck-driving father, undoubtedly will become more of a star than he ever could have imagined.
Bernstein knew he was taking a flyer on the project when he and Will Chang, a minority owner of the Giants, joined forces and formulated that first "Million Dollar Arm" contest. They went to India, offering big cash prizes and signing Zee TV, then a Indian cable network, to carry the reality show across the nation.
It was a big hit, and kids flocked in. And after Singh and Patel signed, MLB created the joint venture, and nearly 100,000 players applied for the second contest. This month, Disney is using the same fields in Mumbai, Agra and Lucknow where the original contest was staged. The third one is slated for later this year.
Colleagues dismissed the whole notion as crazy back then, Bernstein said. But sometimes even the craziest things take off. In the end, it's called vision.
"We did something that's never been done before," Bernstein said. "We took a kid who had never heard of a sport, had never seen it played, didn't know it existed, and within seven months, had that kid signed to a deal with the Pirates. And within a year of that kid first picking up a baseball, he won a game in the Minor Leagues.
"That's the most unbelievable story."
And now, it's baseball's next big movie.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.