Indian pitcher pays his dues, no longer sideshow in minors
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The offseason can be a difficult time for Rinku Singh.
While most of his minor league teammates can return home, either in the United States or Latin America, and work on baseball conditioning, Singh finds that task more difficult when he returns home to India.
He'll travel with a ton of baseballs. He just can't find anybody to play catch.
"I have to do my long toss and throwing program against the wall," Singh said. "Throw each ball, then go get it. Come back and throw. It's kind of crazy. I enjoy it. I'm doing my work, but people watching me think I'm crazy."
When the Pirates signed a television reality show winner from India a few years ago, some thought the move was a gimmick. But Singh is proving this gimmick's got game.
The left-handed pitcher, who won "Million Dollar Arm" in 2008, is putting together another solid season in the minor leagues as he continues his ascent in the Pirates' system. Singh has a 2.95 ERA and has made 35 relief appearances for the West Virginia Power this season, only his third of competitive baseball.
The key to his success this season is a sense of comfort that has evaded him ever since he picked up a baseball for the first time in preparation for the reality show, which sought to turn some of India's top cricket hurlers into major league pitchers.
Singh, 24, never played cricket competitively. Instead, he was training to become an Olympian in the javelin.
He has immersed himself in baseball ever since he signed with the Pirates in November '08. This past offseason, Singh played in the Australian Baseball League to hone his skills. That means he spends about 51 weeks each year away from his native country.
"If you're looking to succeed, you need to leave everything behind," Singh said. "Home's always going to be home, not matter what, if you succeed or not. It's a huge opportunity, what the Pirates gave me."
No matter where Singh goes, the novelty follows. He is trying to become the first Indian-born player to make the major leagues, although he already has come much further than anyone else from his country. He signed with countrymen Dinesh Patel, whom the Pirates released before the start of this season.
"People have no idea what I'm doing here," Singh said. "Back home, nobody plays baseball. They don't exactly know what I'm doing, but they always ask how I've been doing. It's kind of funny."
Disney is set to produce a movie starring "Mad Men" lead Jon Hamm about Singh and the agent who signed him, J.B. Bernstein. Screenwriters have interviewed Singh about his story, and filming will begin at the end of the baseball season.
He said he does not like to focus on the movie and instead tries to put his energy into improving.
Singh is the first player to show up at Appalachian Power Park every day and the last to leave, manager Rick Sofield said.
"This guy never takes a day off," Sofield said. "This guy's never tired. This guy never looks sleepy. This guy's always dressed and ready to go early. He wants this thing bad. ... Not everybody wants it as bad."
Singh said when he was practicing javelin, he would work for seven hours a day. The baseball schedule, which is grueling for some, is a bit easier for him, he said.
He has added a third pitch -- a split-fingered fastball -- to his pitching arsenal, and it has made him an even better strikeout pitcher.
"I think he's still in his career trying to identify who he is and what he needs to do to have that right-handed plan and that left-handed plan," Sofield said.
He is also trying to find his identity in a foreign country. Singh lives alone in Charleston, although not by choice. His roommate, Josh Bell, a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, has been on the disabled list -- and out of town -- since April.
Singh also has made friends with an Indian couple who live in his neighborhood and invite him over for dinner from time to time.
His surroundings may be more familiar next season, when he is likely to start the year in high-Class A Bradenton, home to the Pirates' minor league complex.
At 6 feet 3, he has the downward plane on his fastball that scouts love. And he has added a bit more velocity to his fastball, which he will need as he begins to face more talented hitters.
Last season, Singh's fastball topped out at 89 mph. Now, it's climbed to 91 mph.
"I'm getting better," he said.
First Published August 17, 2012 12:00 am