MLB Invests in First Indian-Born Players
December 2, 2008 by Diane M. Grassi • Print Story •
There was some good news pertaining to India during the last week of November 2008. In spite of it being victim to abject terrorism and unfathomable loss of life in Mumbai, there remains hope for the second most populous country in the world amongst its people.
In fact, the story here, were it not documented as being true, could cause one to think that it was a crazy idea for a reality TV show. But wouldn't you know it? It was a reality TV show. And you can be the judge of whether or not it was a crazy idea.
So what happened? Well, the story involves the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. The same club that tied the Major League Baseball record by the end of the 2008 season for the most consecutive losing seasons of any MLB team ever, totaling 16. And that even surpasses consecutive losing seasons by any other major league sport.
But now, the Pirates also have the sole distinction of signing two non-drafted free agents from India. Not only are the players the first Indian-born signed players from that country by MLB, but also for any other major league sport outside of India.
But what makes this signing so intriguing is the back story of how it came to be and who exactly these players are.
It all started with Jeff (J.B.) Bernstein, of Pro Access Inc., a Miami-based sports marketing agency, which also represents Barry Bonds, once a Pirate himself. Bernstein produced the idea for a Million Dollar Arm. And that is what set the stage for the Million Dollar Arm television show, broadcast on Indian television in March 2008.
The goal of the show was to award one winner from a group of 26 finalists aged 16-21 years old. The one who threw a baseball faster than 85 mph would win up to US $1,000,000 and a trip to the United States, with the opportunity to train with a former MLB pitcher and pitching coach for six months and be given a shot to try out for MLB scouts.
Tom House, the former MLB pitcher and also a former MLB pitching coach, agreed to work with the winner. He was previously noted by Nolan Ryan during his Hall of Fame induction speech for being one of those people who helped him most in his career while with the Texas Rangers. Presently, House is the pitching coach at the University of Southern California (USC) for the Trojans' baseball team.
But even more remarkable than how this Cinderella story played out is how the winner of the Million Dollar Arm competition turned out to be signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with another of his countrymen.
20-year-old Rinku Singh, a left-handed pitcher, won the Million Dollar Arm competition and won US $100,000, but unfortunately did not qualify for the whole million. He threw 87 mph. And another young man named Dinesh Patel, 19, who came in second in the competition, won US $2,500.
Bernstein, so impressed with Patel in addition to Singh, also granted Patel a trip to California to train with Tom House. Patel's pitches had averaged 90 mph at the time, but apparently he did not have his best stuff during the competition that day back in March.
Most notable, however, is that neither pitcher had ever picked up baseball a year ago and had never even seen a baseball game before. Both were known for throwing javelin in high school and Singh had started out playing cricket as a youth, the country's most celebrated sport.
Both Singh and Patel headed to the USC campus in Los Angeles in May 2008 and began their six-month training as charges of Tom House. They got to observe their first glimpses of baseball games by watching the USC Trojans. There, they began familiarizing themselves with the basics of playing baseball, much like kids do in little league.
The six-month training period was the foundation for the workout before MLB scouts, as part of the deal. And on November 6, 2008 in Tempe, AZ, approximately three dozen scouts from all 30 MLB teams showed up to watch.
Singh and Patel were received quite well, according to their new agent, Jeff Borris, who also represents Barry Bonds as his managing agent, and signed the two Indian nationals. Even Allard Baird, assistant to Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, made sure he attended.
Patel, now hurling the ball up to 93 mph, is now the harder thrower of the two, and is developing a circle changeup. Singh now throws 90-92 mph and has a split-finger changeup in his repertoire.
As the result of the tryout, the Pirates showed the most interest in signing each of the players for US $10,000. Each also received an invite to spring training in 2009 in Bradenton, FL. They will first report to the Pirates' Sporting Complex in January 2009 in preparation for spring training. Thereafter, the two prospects hope to develop enough to be able to join the rookie level Gulf Coast League in June 2008.
Pirates Senior Vice President and GM Neal Huntington made the announcement on November 24, 2008. "The Pirates are committed to creatively adding talent to our organization. By adding these two young men, we are pleased to not only add two prospects to our system, but also hope to open a pathway to an untapped market," Huntington said.
And that "untapped" market refers to potential future MLB players amongst India's 1.1 billion people.
Rinku Singh is from the small town of Holepur in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. Singh is the youngest of seven children. His father, who had been a cement truck driver for 35 years, retired just six months ago at age 50. He has been interviewed by the Indian press and has been quite candid in stating that his family at times has lived in abject poverty.
Patel, from the town of Varanasi, close to Singh's home, comes from a family of five children. His family also comes from extremely modest means.
Had the two pitchers not been discovered through the competition, they would have joined the Indian Armed Forces. Two of Singh's brothers are presently serving in both the Indian army and India's Border Security Force (BSF) on the Bangladesh and Pakistan borders, at a time when terrorism envelops that area of the world.
Given the Pirates' budget constraints and recent non-investment in international players, their renewed interest in foreign players caught some around MLB by surprise, while others thought they had little to lose.
The Pirates only see this scenario as having tremendous upside and Borris expects Singh and Patel to require 3-4 years of training in the minor leagues prior to being ready for the big league level. Huntington added, "We are intrigued by Patel's arm strength and Singh's frame and potential."
But in spite of this feel good rags-to-riches story, it, still begs an important question: are two college-age men from northern India with no prior exposure ever to the game of baseball, including limited athletic experience, good enough to even be considered for baseball's minor or major leagues? If that is the case, then why not consider the youth from the inner cities across America, too?
The knock against pursuing such young men from our city streets, according to MLB's scouts and instructors stateside, is that they have not had enough exposure to the game as youngsters, given few playing opportunities for them.
The excuse heard over and over again is that by the time they reach high school, it is too late for them to learn the fundamentals of baseball. But these two guys from India pass the test? Gotta wonder...