'Mad Men' star Jon Hamm pitches new movie at PNC Park

Production based on Indian pitchers signed to Pirates' farm system

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Motioning to the Downtown skyline behind him, actor Jon Hamm pronounced it "absolutely gorgeous."

And, clad in a gray window pane check suit and blue shirt with his hair neatly but not fussily styled, the "Mad Men" star didn't look too bad himself as he and pitcher Rinku Singh fielded questions from the media before Sunday night's Pirates-Cardinals game.

The gates at PNC Park had yet to open, but the business of baseball was unfolding, as some of the Pirates posed for Mother's Day photos with their moms and then stretched, warmed up and cracked balls to the opposite side of the field, where the Heinz ketchup bottle and other reachable surfaces had been wiped down.

Company was coming, after all, with ESPN televising the 8:07 p.m. game, and Mr. Hamm, Mr. Singh and sports agent J.B. Bernstein here to promote the movie "Million Dollar Arm."

"I'm Jon," said the St. Louis native, dubbed "Hollywood's handsomest leading man" by Vanity Fair, shaking hands with each of the writers or photographers in the scrum around him.

This was Mr. Hamm's first time in Pittsburgh, but his visit was going to be short-lived, thanks to his day job on "Mad Men" as Don Draper. "From the ballpark tonight, I will get on a plane and go back to L.A. and get up at 7 o'clock in the morning and go back to the set."

Vanity Fair asks if there is life after Don Draper, and "Million Dollar Arm" answers with Mr. Hamm playing Mr. Bernstein, a sports agent who launches a contest to find baseball's next great pitching ace in India. The movie is based on the real story of how Mr. Bernstein discovered the hard-throwing Mr. Singh and Dinesh Patel and brought them to California. The pitchers eventually were signed to the Pirates' minor league system. Mr. Patel was released in 2010, while Mr. Singh remains a prospect.

"I think a big part of the story of the movie is hard work," Mr. Hamm, 43, said. Part of it is "the work that these guys put in, which is epic in scope -- never having touched a baseball to being a prospect at the major league level in under a year is the stuff of fiction, but it actually happened."

Mr. Bernstein is the other part of the equation.

"What kind of gets overlooked is the fact that J.B. went to India, a place where that he had no connection to, a place he had no idea how to manage, and I was there, it is a very different place, the other side of the world, and wrangled somehow this thing into existence and was successful at it. ...

"He's a hard worker, and I think he instilled that work ethic into these guys, too," Mr. Hamm said. "This was an opportunity and there's no such thing as squandering an opportunity.

"It's a nice lesson to learn, especially for a certain generation of kids in the States, where there's an expectation of everything being brought to you and laid at your feet. It doesn't work that way, that's not how real life works; you gotta work for everything."

But baseball is the backdrop to a story about families, real, makeshift and ultimately surprising. "It's not just about the deal and about money and about this and about that, it's about who you choose to be with in your life," Mr. Hamm said.

When Mr. Hamm read the script and flipped back to the beginning to see the "based on a true story" note, he wondered, "How did this one miss me? I immediately got on line and started Googling and got fascinated. This is unbelievable."

The movie and Mr. Bernstein's book carry the tagline: "Sometimes to win, you have to change the game."

"There's always someone that's going to say, 'That can't be done, that can't be done, you're wasting your time, that's stupid, there's no point.' And it takes effort, it takes concerted effort and hard work and commitment to bash through the naysayers and get to a place where now, they're in the sixth or seventh season of doing this and it's growing exponentially," Mr. Hamm said of the pitching competition.

"There's over a billion people in India. There's going to be more and more guys coming over that are going to have this experience, and they won't come over like Rinku and Dinesh did, never having seen a baseball," but with some training and grounding in game fundamentals.

He acknowledged there once was an unwritten role in Hollywood that baseball doesn't work on screen -- or it better be funny to appeal to overseas audiences. But a lineup card of factors, from the increase of international players to easy availability of games by satellite or Internet, are changing that outdated notion.

If skeptics thought "42" wasn't going to succeed, given its threads about baseball and race, audiences proved them wrong. "It was a great film, and I think we made a great film."

It opens in theaters Friday.

Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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