x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Indians on a strange pitch

A competition to find the fastest throwers in India has allowed two young men to chance their arm at becoming professional baseball pitchers.

BRADENTON, FLORIDA // Rinku Singh should be on his way to a career in the Indian army. With a little luck, the 20-year-old collegiate athlete may have had a shot at India's Olympic team as a javelin thrower. No one expected him to end up here, among the neatly manicured baseball fields of south-west Florida, as a pitching prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mr Singh, after all, knew nothing about baseball last year, when he won a competition in India called The Million Dollar Arm, which awarded the fastest thrower a chance to pitch for professional scouts in the United States. Now he is living a life that American boys only dream about.

"When I first got here, I didn't know anything about baseball," Mr Singh, who is from a small village in northern India, confessed in a recent interview. "Now, all day I am watching baseball, playing baseball, listening, learning, talking about baseball." His once-awkward throwing style - with his arm cocked above his head as if he were throwing a javelin - has now been refined into a fluid pitching motion, the result of training with some of the top coaches in the country. He has added a curveball and change-up to his repertoire, a source of pride for the left-hander, whose fastball has been clocked at up to 148kph, fast enough to give him a shot at the major leagues.

"Everything is getting easier for me," he said. "If I keep focused on what I am doing right now, maybe I will be much better." In November, Mr Singh signed a contract with a Pirates team on the lowest rung of minor league baseball. So did Dinesh Patel, 20, the runner-up in The Million Dollar Arm, and Mr Singh's constant companion. Like Mr Singh, Mr Patel knew little about the sport until recently. Now he talks about it as if he has been playing for years.

"Right now my slider is not working," he said during an interview last week, referring to a pitch that breaks downwards and laterally as it approaches the batter. "My fastball is my best pitch." The two unlikely prospects represent what some baseball scouts and promoters hope will be a major expansion of the sport into India, a country of more than a billion people where cricket is enormously popular. Jeff Bernstein, the sport promoter who developed The Million Dollar Arm, said a second round of the competition will begin in November, this time with an estimated half a million contestants.

Baseball - once known as "the American pastime" - has a strong following in such Asian countries as Japan and South Korea and has been popular for decades in such Latin American countries as Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Two-thirds of the players on the Pirates' rookie-league team are foreigners. Many of the team's meetings are offered in English and in Spanish. But few people in India have an interest in or knowledge of the game. It is a struggle for the two men to explain the sport to their families back home.

"They don't understand what I am talking about; they don't know what is baseball," said Mr Singh, who won US$100,000 (Dh367,000) as part of his prize, much of which went to his family in India. "They just say keep working hard and doing well." Part of the job description so far has been to answer the near-constant stream of questions from the media, which the men do politely and without the slightest hint of weariness. They make frequent appearances on US television; they have been featured in newspapers and magazines.

And there have been endless references to Slumdog Millionaire, the fictional film about an impoverished Mumbai teenager who achieves sudden success by winning the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But no one is sure yet how this real-life drama will end. Coaches here estimate that only about five per cent of players starting out in the minor league ever make a major league roster. For two prospects who have only been playing the game for a year, the odds are even longer.

"There is no question that they are behind," said Troy Buckley, the Pirates' minor league pitching co-ordinator, citing the fact the neither men grew up with the game, as almost every other player at this level has. "The learning curve is a lot steeper for them," he said. "But that doesn't mean they can't compete." Like the rest of the men on the 32-man roster, Mr Singh and Mr Patel follow a gruelling workout schedule that includes weight training, pitching drills and an 11pm curfew. They never complain or show signs of fatigue, according to their coaches and teammates; they answer most questions with a ready "Yes, sir".

They are also learning English, in class three times a week, and picking up the finer points of American culture. Mr Singh, for example, sometimes wears his baseball hat backward. He loves action movies and is inseparable from his iPod Touch. Mr Patel, meanwhile, tries harder to hang on to home. He watches Bollywood movies on his laptop and enjoys music videos that remind him of his village outside the Indian city of Varanasi.

Mr Patel has appeared in just four games, but he has recorded three strikeouts and has yet to allow a run. Mr Singh, who is considered a better prospect because he is left-handed, has appeared in five games, most recently on July 25 when he gave up three runs on six hits in two innings. This month, he became the first Indian-born player to win a game, a milestone that has brought a new round of media attention and talk of his one day playing for a major league team.

But he said he tries not to think about where his improbable journey will end. "I don't think about the future. I just keep focused by what I am doing right now," he said. Mr Patel added: "I only know if I work hard and things go well, maybe [making the major leagues] is possible. If I don't make it ? and they release me, I'll go back to India. I'll just go back to my home and work." sstanek@thenational.ae