The new film Million Dollar Arm is a dramatisation of one of the most unlikely stories in the history of professional sport. On the hunt for the next baseball star, a maverick agent turned his back on American talent – the traditional pipeline for the Major League – and devised a TV contest to unearth a star pitcher in India, a country famously obsessed with cricket.
Acting on a hunch that a fast bowler could be turned into a fast pitcher, JB Bernstein, played by Jon Hamm in the film, ended up unearthing two talents – neither of whom had ever heard of baseball – and won them both contracts with the Major League team the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was the first time Indian men had been signed by a professional sports side in the US.
The son of a successful toy industry executive from Huntington, Long Island, Jeff Bernstein is an adman-turned-sports marketing agent. Over a high-octane career he has built up a roster of elite clients, many of whom he has made rich via endorsements, personal appearances and merchandise sales. His most famous client, until now, was the baseball star Barry Bonds, who hit a record-breaking 762 home runs but had his reputation tarnished by a doping scandal in 2003.
Disillusioned with his job after a fruitless two-year courtship of a college football player (who told Bernstein he would sign a contract only if the agent gave him $1 million in a duffel bag) he found himself watching the basketball player Yao Ming on television one night.
Yao, the first Chinese athlete to enjoy major success with an American professional sports team, had an enormous fan base in his native country and was making around $50 million a year. He had also made his agent extremely wealthy. “Could I replicate the same success?” wondered Bernstein.
Later that night, the sports channel ESPN aired a cricket match in India. According to the statistics on screen, some of the bowlers were delivering balls at 93mph and, as Bernstein, 46, puts it in a memoir published to coincide with the release of the film, “a lightbulb went off”.
“What if I could tap into the undiscovered talent in India, import it to this country and translate it into a great baseball pitcher?” he asked himself. The next question was how to unearth this talent, but Bernstein thought he had the answer: an American Idol-style television show aimed at finding the contestant with the strongest throwing arm in India.
Within a few days, he had discussed his idea with two Californian venture capitalists and, six months later, they had a format for the show and a title (Bernstein had also, in the meantime, learnt conversational Hindi). The programme would offer $1 million to anyone who could throw three consecutive balls at more than 90mph. It would be called Million Dollar Arm.
The show, which aired for the first time on the Indian cable and satellite channel Zee TV in 2007, was a huge success, attracting more than 38,000 contestants. Oddly, while almost every contestant was a cricketer, both the winner, Rinku Singh, 19, and the runner-up, Dinesh Patel, also 19, were javelin throwers. Neither was able to win the $1 million prize for throwing three balls at 90mph, but Singh got $100,000 for coming first and Patel got $5000 – significant sums for two young men from rural Uttar Pradesh. As part of their prize, they were invited to move to the US and try to break into professional baseball.
On arrival in Los Angeles, Bernstein moved Singh and Patel into his apartment and persuaded Tom House, a pitching guru at the University of Southern California, to take on the young men. House embraced the challenge. Most pitchers train for two to three hours a day; Singh and Patel worked for six to seven. House put them in motion-capture suits to assess their mechanics and set out a protein-intensive diet. “They went from eating 25g of protein a day to 300g,” Bernstein says. The effect was startling: Singh went from 6ft 2in and 180lb to 6ft 4in and 220lb.
By the time of their professional trials, both were pitching fast and, although they failed to impress scouts at the first time of asking, a second trial was a success. The Pittsburgh Pirates offered them both professional contracts, with a $10,000 signing-on bonus each.
Although Patel had a good first year in the minor leagues, he struggled in his second and was let go. He is now back in India studying to be a teacher. Singh has had more success. He is still on the Pirates’ books, but for the past two years has struggled with injury.
Bernstein is keeping the faith. “I think he’s got a great chance of breaking into the major leagues. He’s aching to get back on the mound. I still think Rinku is very likely to be the first Indian male to play a professional team sport in the US. His arm is still young and he has great desire.”