'Million Dollar Arm' tells the story of a Pirates prospect

The subject matter of “Million Dollar Arm” will ensure it tells the story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel in resplendent fashion: a rags-to-riches, against-all-odds Disney film, Don Draper leading the way, as the main characters hurdle obstacle after obstacle in search of success.

What the film, which hits theaters today, will not show is the difficult slog through the minor leagues that faced the two pitchers, the first players from India to appear in American professional baseball. That journey stymies thousands of promising young players from baseball-playing countries, let alone those from parts of the world without a strong baseball presence, and Mr. Singh is focused on completing the journey.

Mr. Patel is no longer in the Pirates organization, but Mr. Singh remains, rehabilitating from reconstructive elbow surgery and motivated to finish what he started.

“I got to focus on baseball,” Mr. Singh said by phone recently. “The story isn’t done yet.”

In countries where baseball is prevalent, kids grow up mimicking batting stances and pitching deliveries of their favorite players. Not so in Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, near the Nepal border. Mr. Singh, the son of a truck driver, grew up near there. He threw the javelin well enough to think of becoming an Olympian.

On the advice of his javelin coach, Mr. Singh, a left-hander who was then 19, tried out in December 2007 for a reality television show called “Million Dollar Arm” and won. Along with the right-handed Mr. Patel, then 18, a fellow javelin thrower who threw harder but with less control, Mr. Singh went to the United States and trained with former USC pitching coach Tom House. That fall, the duo threw three times for major league scouts.

“We were really kind of hopeless the first time,” Mr. Singh said. “The second time we really got the chance. When you fail, when anybody fails, they have that self-talk that, ‘I wish I could have done better.’”

The Pirates had a special assistant and an area scout at the auditions, and in November 2008 they signed Mr. Singh and Mr. Patel for a combined $8,000, beginning their crash course in American professional baseball.

“There was zero foundation,” Pirates director of minor league operations Larry Broadway said. “You’re essentially starting from scratch trying to build a professional player in a professional environment.”

Mr. Singh, who rises three hours earlier than his teammates to do yoga and pray, had to learn English when he arrived. In 2009, his first season of pro ball, he posted a 5.84 earned-run average in 12⅓ innings for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates. Mr. Singh’s delivery, honed under Mr. House and further fine-tuned by the Pirates, still retained a hint of his roots.

“I think there’s some javelin that’s always been in there,” Mr. Broadway said. “You can tell by the way he throws that there’s a little bit of it still in it. The whole throwing program was started from the first time he ever picked up a baseball: This is where your feet go. This is where your hand goes. This is where your other hand goes.”

The 2010 season was much better: In a season split between the GCL Pirates and short-season State College, Mr. Singh allowed only six runs in 22⅔ innings and struck out 21.

“[The Pirates] are not just a minor league system,” Mr. Singh, now 25, said. “They don’t make you just be a baseball player. They build you up as a man. And being here is amazing.”

Mr. Singh’s most recent appearance on a mound in the regular season came in 2012 for Class low-A West Virginia. He assembled his most complete campaign yet, striking out 65 batters and walking 18 in 72 innings and compiling a 3.00 ERA.

Pain in his left elbow affected him near the end of that season and forced him to return from the Australian Baseball League early. Last fall, Mr. Singh underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, which involves replacing the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow with a tendon from another part of the body. He recently had a bone chip removed from the elbow and should be ready for spring training in 2015.

Mr. Patel had a 5.27 ERA in 15 games in 2009-10 before the Pirates cut him. He is finishing school in India, Mr. Singh said, and according to reports is teaching baseball to kids.

Mr. Singh screened the movie for his teammates at the Pirates’ spring training facility in Bradenton, Fla. He said he understands the ramifications of the film but his focus is elsewhere.

“This is my future now,” he said. “Baseball is my future. I got nothing else in America. I’m here just for the baseball.”

Mr. Singh has not specifically mentioned what the movie could mean for the sport in India, Mr. Broadway said. He is focused on his place in the sport in America.

“He recognizes that he’s sold out to this,” Mr. Broadway said. “There is no plan B. He gave up plan B to come do this.”

READ MORE: 'Million Dollar Arm' winds up as much more than a baseball movie



Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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