'Million Dollar Arm' pitcher Rinku Singh has impact beyond baseball

Cheering up children's hospital patients is just one of the ways Rinku Singh, whose story was told in the movie "Million Dollar Arm," works to improve other people's lives. Courtesy Lurie Children's Hospital

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's a warm, overcast summer afternoon, and Rinku Singh is offering food and water to the homeless people who gather downtown at Williams Park.

He's dressed casually in a plain white T-shirt, blue shorts and backward gray baseball cap, and the people he approaches have no idea he's a professional athlete whose life story helped inspire a movie. They are simply grateful that someone thought enough to stop and help.

He makes his way around the park, speaking with a dozen or so men and women and handing out snacks. He shakes hands, asks questions and learns about their lives and circumstances. A middle-aged woman rises from a bench to give him a hug, and he shares a laugh with three middle-aged men who are sprawled across the lawn with duffel bags.

Eight years after Singh made international headlines by signing a baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the 28-year-old native of India finds himself at a crossroads in his career and life. He has battled injuries for most of the past four years, and after becoming a free agent on Nov. 8, his professional future is uncertain.

There is little doubt, however, that Singh will continue to help others. For him, it's a core belief, and he's determined to use his story to motivate people everywhere.

"When we leave this world, we will be remembered for the good things we have done for the community," Singh said.

When he first arrived in the United States, Singh was a wide-eyed 19-year-old who spoke only Hindi and was in awe of American culture. Less than two years later, he was presenting a Pirates jersey to President Barack Obama at the White House. Now, he's poised, confident and worldly, and multinational companies hire him as a motivational speaker to share his experiences with executives and employees.

He knows how fortunate he is that the Pirates took that chance on him eight years ago.

"This organization has totally changed me," Singh said. "They haven't just built me as a baseball player. They've built me as a man."

In 2007, sports agent J.B. Bernstein teamed up with investors Will Chang and Ash Vasudevan to launch the "Million Dollar Arm" reality television competition in India. The show sought to tap into India's millions of young cricket bowlers to find the most promising pitching prospects. More than 35,000 contestants tried out, hoping to win a cash prize and a trip to America to learn the sport of baseball.

As it turned out, the top two finishers weren't cricketers at all. Both Singh, who won the competition, and runner-up Dinesh Patel were javelin throwers and Olympic hopefuls from a sports academy in the city of Lucknow.

Singh and Patel then traveled to Los Angeles, trained with pitching guru Tom House and tried out for major league scouts in a six-month whirlwind. When the Pirates decided to take a chance on the duo, many observers viewed the move as a publicity gimmick. Regardless, by signing with Pittsburgh in November 2008, Singh and Patel took a huge leap of faith. They left their families, friends, educational pursuits and Olympic dreams behind in order to learn a new vocation from scratch in a foreign culture where they didn't speak the language.

"If you're afraid to be challenged, then you can't have success," Singh said. "That's what my journey has taught me. Don't be afraid of doing something new. Don't be afraid of doing hard work."

It was a tale seemingly made for Hollywood, and Disney turned it into a movie with the international release of "Million Dollar Arm" in 2014. The film concludes with Singh and Patel signing their pro contracts.

But the story didn't end there.

Singh grew up in a rural village near the Ganges River in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His father worked long hours as a truck driver, while his mother cared for Rinku and his three sisters and three brothers. While modest by American standards, Singh describes his upbringing as middle class, and he recalls joining his family in donating food to the homeless as a child. It was a custom that made a lasting impression on him.

The Pirates organization mandates that players perform community service, and the work Singh did on the team's behalf as a minor leaguer reinforced the charitable beliefs he learned at home. He began to see how he could use his status to help people and change lives.

"He's been actively seeking these opportunities and actively contributing his time and energy," said Vasudevan, who became a close friend and advisor to Singh. "It's remarkable to see. He's a believer in using his platform for good."

In speaking with Singh's family members, Bernstein learned that the pitcher has made a point of going out of his way to assist others since he was a child.

"He was always the one who would stand up to bullies," Bernstein said. "He was always the one who would be there for his friends, for his brothers, for his family. He was always the one willing to make whatever sacrifice necessary to help somebody else."

Singh has provided school tuition for children in India, where he's also committed to women's rights issues and the abolition of sex trafficking. To wit, Singh shares the story of a girl he befriended in New Delhi several years ago. The teenager was uneducated and had turned to prostitution to support her family. He arranged a job for her in a hotel, and she ultimately rose to a managerial position. In turn, she went on to find jobs for other girls in similar situations.

"Sometimes people need direction," Singh said. "Once you point them, it can truly change their life."

Singh regularly visits children's hospitals in the United States, and Jessica Merar joined him when he recently spent time with pediatric cancer patients in Chicago. Merar is an events coordinator at Lurie Children's Hospital who has accompanied celebrities on many similar visits, but she came away inspired by Singh. He talked, played and signed photos with patients. Noticeably absent were the television cameras and media that often follow athletes as they make the rounds.

"He was truly focused on making patients smile and interacting with our families," Merar said. "It was not about him."

When patients asked which of Singh's arms was the million-dollar one, he showed them the scar on his left elbow from Tommy John ligament reconstruction surgery and urged them to maintain a positive attitude. On his way out of the hospital, Singh told Merar about one teenage boy who had made a particular impact on him that day.

"He took off his jersey, signed it and asked me if we could go back to give the patient his jersey," Merar said. "He literally took the jersey off his back. He made instant connections with our patients. They felt comfortable opening up to him, and he did it for the right reasons."

Singh faced an uphill battle in the world of pro baseball after joining the Pirates organization, but he eventually showed potential.

Singh and Patel debuted in the same rookie-level Gulf Coast League game in July 2009. Soon after, Singh became the first pitcher from India to win a professional baseball game in the United States. Patel was released by the Pirates in November 2010, but Singh remained committed to chasing his major league dream. The 6-foot-2 left-hander became fluent in English, competed hard and traveled around the world to hone his craft. In 2011 alone, he played for teams in Florida, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, the Dominican Republic and Australia.

Tony Harris, an international scout for the Pirates and longtime assistant coach for the Australian national team, was Singh's manager with the Adelaide Bite of the Australian Baseball League. He said Singh quickly made an impression with his commitment and desire to improve. Singh sought feedback after every performance and asked lots of questions about the finer points of the game.

"He was an absolute pleasure to have on board," Harris said. "I rank him 10 out of 10 as far as makeup and commitment are concerned. The kids and fans loved him. He integrated very, very well down here."

Singh pitched fearlessly despite lacking a blazing fastball, Harris said. Like many minor leaguers, however, his execution in Australia was inconsistent. He did pitch well in 2011 and '12 at Class A West Virginia, three levels below the major leagues, posting a 3.03 ERA with 78 strikeouts and 25 walks in 51 games out of the bullpen.

"You're talking about one of my favorite guys I've ever managed or coached," said Pittsburgh third-base coach Rick Sofield, who managed Singh at West Virginia in 2012. "He wanted the ball so badly he couldn't see straight. [He was] in my office once a week telling me that he was the answer -- just give him a chance and give him the ball."

Then came a series of injuries, which derailed Singh's progress, undermined his goals and tested his will. He underwent three elbow surgeries, including the Tommy John operation in 2013.

Those setbacks kept him from a chance for promotion to a more advanced Class A league or higher.

"I thought he was capable of pitching in Double-A," Sofield said. "That means [improving] makeup and command, [adding] another pitch and always investigating how to be better. I thought he could compete and pitch out of the bullpen in Double-A, and as he progressed, [with] his work ethic and his attitude ... you never know where it all goes."

Undeterred, Singh persevered through more than three years of arduous rehab. He and other injured Pirates players motivated each other, and he kept watching and studying the game. All the while, coaches, office staff and teammates at the Pirates' facilities in Florida were incredibly supportive, he said. That meant a lot to him, and in late 2015 the team offered him a one-year contract that would allow him to continue his rehab.

"That was like new energy for me, knowing [the Pirates] have got my back," Singh said. "They've treated me like more than a player. They've treated me like family. I have huge respect for them."

Singh maintained a rehab regimen this summer in hopes of getting healthy enough to play again in 2016. He threw a scoreless inning on July 1 in a rookie-level game, but it would be his only appearance of the year. No matter how diligently he worked, his arm just wouldn't perform as it once had.

Singh's motivation to play baseball was initially just to provide a better life for his family. Now he also sees himself as an evangelist for the sport in India, where it remains a niche activity. Patel, with whom Singh remains in touch, has done work to promote the game in his home country as well.

"Baseball is what made me the person I am today," Singh said. "I can never imagine being the person I am today [had I stayed] in India."

But the grind of physical rehabilitation and injury setbacks, coupled with not seeing his family for two years, took an emotional toll. Last month, he traveled home to India to spend time with his parents, rest his body and recharge his spirit. He's uncertain about what comes next.

"The past three years I've been rehabbing, it has become more challenging than coming to America when I didn't know anything about baseball," Singh said. "At some point in life, people need to reset the button, and I think that's where I am at."

He is considering writing a book about his journey and isn't quite ready to shut the door on his playing career. After all, he's a year younger than former college football star Tim Tebow, who has just begun a much-publicized baseball career with the New York Mets organization at age 29.

"He's never lost sight of his original goal to become the first [major league] pitcher from India," Vasudevan said. "It's going to be challenging, but I can't think of a better person who can take on the challenge."

Whenever Singh does ultimately decide that he's done playing, he would be a logical choice to coach or serve as a baseball ambassador in India. MLB would very much like to cultivate a fan base in the world's second most populous country, and it would make perfect sense to involve the most successful player in the nation's history.

But that day isn't here yet.

"Deep down in my heart, I'm an athlete," Singh said. "I'm not thinking of dropping baseball forever. Right now, I'm just taking time off. ... I'm a big believer in God, and it's all going to work out."