Rinku Singh was a humble farm boy growing up in anonymity in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh in India when his life took a dramatic twist through a combination of fate, athletic skill and American ingenuity and glitz.
Six years ago, Singh threw a baseball 87 mph in a "Million Dollar Arm" contest to win $100,000 and a trip to the United States to pursue a professional career as a pitcher. He signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and dutifully worked his way through the minors while embracing numerous American traditions. Singh developed a fondness for pizza and pancakes with caramelized banana on the bottom, learned English by watching Stephen King movies and "Baseball Tonight," and bonded with teammates through shared goals and lengthy minor league bus rides.
Last summer, Singh experienced another ritual that's become increasingly more commonplace among young American and Latino males in his new profession: He underwent Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
The 'Million Dollar Arm' changed my life a lot. It solved my financial problems. I learned English and I got to learn baseball. It changed my personality.
"-- Dinesh Patel
Like Matt Harvey, Jose Fernandez and so many other All-Stars/household names, Singh is dealing with the emotional and physical fallout of an ulnar collateral ligament tear. He'll spend this summer rehabbing in an effort to return to the playing field in 2015. That's his ultimate goal, even as he attends movie screenings, fields interview requests and hangs out with Jon Hamm, the Hollywood star and devout St. Louis Cardinals fan.
"I believe it doesn't matter where you're coming from or what kind of job you have in life," Singh said in a recent phone interview. "If you're willing to give 110 percent on a daily basis, it doesn't matter how you feel. If you're ready to show up on time and give all you've got, you're going to succeed."
Singh and his friend and countryman, Dinesh Kumar Patel, are centerpieces to the new Disney movie "Million Dollar Arm," which stars Hamm, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin and Lake Bell and makes its nationwide premiere Friday. The film chronicles the saga of agent J.B. Bernstein and his efforts to find the "Yao Ming of baseball" from India's cricket-happy population of 1.2 billion.
The two young pitchers are easy to root for as a couple of fastball-flinging needles in a haystack. They work diligently, say "sir" a lot and are relentlessly upbeat even though the odds of success are stacked hopelessly against them. They're just two former javelin throwers who learned to navigate a new destiny when a reality TV show gave them license to dream.
It's only fitting that Singh and Patel got their shot with the Pirates, who have done their share of cultural trailblazing through the years and unearthed talent in international locales that aren't typically associated with baseball.
In 1971, manager Danny Murtaugh and the Pirates made history as the first Major League Baseball team to field an all-black starting lineup. Sammy Khalifa, a shortstop of Egyptian descent, broke new ground in the 1980s as the first Arab-American to play for a big league club. And when Singh and Patel first suited up for the Pittsburgh organization in 2009, they played on a roster that included teammates from Mexico and Australia, a pitcher from North Pole High School in Alaska and a South African shortstop named Mpho "Gift" Ngoepe. And you thought Marc Rzepczynski was hard to pronounce?
Cynics viewed Bernstein's reality show idea as a gimmick -- the baseball equivalent of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" -- but its plot line resonated with millions of fans who followed the exploits of Singh and Patel back home in India. The initiative also dovetailed with MLB's desire to reach new global markets and the Pittsburgh organization's mandate to think creatively in the quest to find new sources of talent.
"We've kept our finger on the pulse of some underdeveloped areas," Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. "But the reality is, you're hoping somebody hits and it creates a generation of kids who'll grow up playing baseball. So you might be looking 10 years down the road. If you can get a nation of a billion people interested in a sport and the kids start growing up in it, it increases the potential to find more players."
When Singh and Patel arrived in the U.S. after the Million Dollar Arm contest, they were so raw that they used baseball gloves more like self-defense shields than a means to actually catch the ball. But they honed their skills under the guidance of former big-leaguer-turned-pitching-guru Tom House in California and showed enough promise in a tryout to land modest bonuses with the Pirates. They made their mutual professional debuts for Bradenton in the short-season Gulf Coast League with a scoreless inning each against the New York Yankees' affiliate in July 2009.
"They both were quality kids," Stark said. "They were very respectful, and they were raised right. From the beginning there was an element of, 'There's no turning back now. This is our chance.'
"That being said, there were a lot of entertaining moments. They had never faced hitters, so the first time the ball came flying back at them it was a little bit of a rude awakening. Just think about what kids go through the first time they play T-ball. These guys were going through it at 20 years old -- at the professional level."
The pitchers soon went their separate ways. Patel, now 25, posted a 1-0 record with a 5.27 ERA in 13 2/3 professional innings before the Pirates released him in 2010. As a right-hander with mid-80s velocity, he simply lacked the upside to justify the organization keeping him around. Patel returned home to India to obtain his degree in Hindi studies and English from a college in the city of Varanasi, and in 2012 he traveled to the MLB academy in China to learn coaching techniques. He still spreads the gospel of baseball in his village and other parts of his native India.
I'm still thinking positive. The injury and being hurt are part of life. It's part of the journey.
"-- Rinku Singh
Patel received a prize of $10,000 in the Million Dollar Arm contest and used it to buy some land and help pay for his sister's wedding. But the cultural exposure and expanded world view that he received couldn't be measured in dollars. During his American adventure, he ate Indian food with Barry Bonds, met soccer star Ronaldinho and visited the White House with Singh and presented a jersey to President Barack Obama with his name on the back.
"The 'Million Dollar Arm' changed my life a lot," Patel said. "It solved my financial problems. I learned English and I got to learn baseball. It changed my personality."
Patel watched a screening of the movie recently in New York with officials from India's United Nations delegation. He admits that he cried at the end.
Singh, also 25, is more detached and less emotional about the film, choosing to focus on the challenges that lie ahead in his baseball career and taking pains not to let the movie be a distraction. He showed considerable improvement in 2012 with a 3.00 ERA in 39 relief appearances and 65 strikeouts in 72 innings for the West Virginia Power of the low Class A South Atlantic League. Then came the elbow reconstruction, followed by a second operation to remove a bone chip.
Realistically, he's too old and too far down the organizational food chain to harbor legitimate aspirations of pitching in the majors. But those obstacles won't deter him from making the most of the opportunity that's presented itself.
"I'm still thinking positive," Singh said. "The injury and being hurt are part of life. It's part of the journey.
"Seeing the movie and what we've been through in our lives, it's a reminder that we need to stay who we are. This story isn't done yet. There's more to do to keep this story alive and keep inspiring more young kids."