Editor's note: This story was originally published in the September 2009 edition of SI Kids as a special SI Teens supplement. We're reprinting it online to mark the release of the new movie Million Dollar Arm, which tells the story of Rinku and Dinesh's experience being discovered on a reality TV show. The movie opens in theaters on May 16.
by Rebecca Sun
How many pitchers can say they made history in their first baseball game? Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel can. When they pitched in back-to-back innings during a Gulf Coast League game on July 4, they became the first Indian players to appear in an American professional baseball game. It was fitting that their official debuts in America's pastime happened on Independence Day. The two young men from India are learning as much about their new country as they are about the game it loves. "We were very excited to play on the Fourth of July, because [of what it represents]," Singh says.
Singh, 21, and Patel, 20, had never picked up a baseball until just a year and a half ago. The two grew up in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. Their families didn't have much money. Singh's father was a truck driver who became a sharecropper when he had to leave trucking because of a bad back. Patel lived with his uncle, a construction worker, because his father couldn't afford to raise all three of his kids. Two years ago, Singh and Patel left home and began training as javelin throwers at a state-run institute. Their goal was to win enough medals to attract the attention of an employer who could provide a stable career. "We were hoping to find some job with the police, army, or railway," Singh says. "Maybe the air force, something like that. Those were the best jobs."
Then last year a coach at their school told them about the chance to win a cash prize by throwing a small, white ball as part of a new reality TV show, The Million Dollar Arm. They had never seen a baseball, but figured they had nothing to lose. The Million Dollar Arm attracted more than 30,000 participants. It offered $100,000 to the contestant with the most strikes above 85 miles per hour and a $1 million bonus to anyone who threw three additional strikes of at least 90 mph.
"My javelin coach told me to go out there and throw the ball and make some money, so I went out there and threw the ball," Patel says. "Then we found out what it was for. This was big money."
Big money indeed, especially in a country where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Although no one claimed the bonus money, Singh's 89-mph pitch won him the crown. Patel came in second with an 87-mph fastball and earned $2,500.
Singh and Patel were now reality TV show stars in India, and their lives were about to change dramatically. As part of their prize, they earned a trip to Los Angeles in May 2008 for a crash course in baseball taught by former major league pitcher Tom House. After six months of grueling training, they received the last part of their prize — the chance to try out for MLB scouts. Singh and Patel's incredible journey could have ended there. But what they lacked in pitching technique and baseball knowledge, they made up for in raw talent and work ethic. On November 24 the Pittsburgh Pirates made them the first athletes born in India to sign professional contracts in any sport outside the country.
Now residents of Pirate City (Pittsburgh's minor league complex in Bradenton, Florida), Singh and Patel have a daily routine that is not too different from their lives as athletes-in-training in India. The roommates wake up at 6 a.m. for conditioning drills. They have a game in the afternoon and then more practice in the early evening. They also take English class twice a week and do more baseball studying with the free time they have left.
Determined to catch up to their Pirates peers, who grew up dreaming with mitts under their pillows, the two have impressed coaches and teammates. They are especially close with second baseman Gift Ngoepe, a history-maker himself as the first black player from South Africa to turn pro. "Gift is my best friend here," Patel says.
"[Singh and Patel] are outstanding," says Pirates minor league pitching coach Miguel Bonilla. "I wish all my players could be like they are. Those guys are respectful. They want to do everything perfectly."
They've already come a long way. The righthanded Patel can throw fastballs consistently in the mid-80s, while Singh, a southpaw, has developed a breaking ball that strikes out batters. Both pitchers say their biggest on-field challenge is reading situations. "If the ball is [hit] back to me, and there are runners on second and third, what do I do?" Patel explains. "When we're off the mound, we know, but when we go on the mound, we feel like we forget everything." Adds Singh, "It takes more experience."
Spending the summer pitching in relief is helping. In four innings Patel had yet to allow an earned run. In mid-July, Singh entered in the history books again by becoming the first Indian-born player to win a professional baseball game in America. (In his next appearance he earned the more dubious honor of becoming the first Indian pitcher to lose a game.)
They are growing with every win or loss. Singh and Patel dream of making it to the majors someday, but for now they are focused on absorbing as much baseball as possible. Bonilla says it's not uncommon for prospects to spend a couple of seasons at the same level, but adds that Singh and Patel are quick learners. "It's like seeing a little kid grow up," says Bonilla. "Experience is the thing they need the most. When they have more experience, they will get better. Absolutely."
Photos: Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated