SBJ/July 15-21, 2013/In Depth

Story of beating the odds too good to pass up

Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi’s credits include inspirational sports films such as “Miracle,” “Invincible” and “The Rookie.’’ Ciardi’s career as a pitcher plateaued after four appearances with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, so he’s familiar with the universal sports theme of overcoming insurmountable odds.

Nonetheless, when Ciardi first heard the story on which his next film is based, he rejected it. It’s the story of a reality show seeking the hardest throwing cricket “bowler” in India. The winner would receive $100,000 and have an opportunity to fly west and become the first Indian to play pro baseball in America. “I thought the idea was crazy,” Ciardi said. “Since I played baseball, I understand the odds of making it. So I wished [them] good luck and moved on.”

The story follows cricket players Dinesh Patel (left) and Rinku Singh and their attempt to pitch their way to Major League Baseball.
Photo by: Getty Images
Six years later, Ciardi was speaking to SportsBusiness Journal from the Atlanta set where Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” is being filmed. The universal theme of overcoming insurmountable odds had again proved irresistible for a filmmaker.

The movie is scheduled for release next year and stars “Mad Men” protagonist Jon Hamm along with veteran actor Alan Arkin and two Indian actors familiar to the American film audience: “Slumdog Millionaire” star Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi.”

The “Million Dollar Arm” concept was the brainchild of Jeff “JB” Bernstein, the former Major League Soccer licensing chief who is more familiar to the sports marketing world as the marketing agent for the likes of Barry Bonds, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. As the increasing number of international players in the NBA created unprecedented growth for that league in China and Europe, Bernstein wondered if he could replicate that success in India.

“I wanted to find my ‘Yao Ming’ and got the thought to do something like ‘American Idol’ in another country with a huge population,” said Bernstein, portrayed by Hamm in the movie. “With all the cricket players, I knew India would have the raw talent.”

Bernstein secured funding from Will Chang, minority owner of the San Francisco Giants and D.C. United;
succeeded in getting a “Million Dollar Arm” reality show on India’s Zee TV; and started setting up cameras and grassroots competitions next to cricket ovals across India.

The reality show began airing in 2007, and 37,000 players competed, leading up to the finals in 2008. Rinku Singh, a 6-foot-2 lefthander from Lucknow, won the $100,000 first prize. At the time, Singh’s father earned $25 a week as a truck driver. Dinesh Patel finished second.

While neither Singh nor Patel had heard of or seen a baseball, much less a baseball game, they knew how to throw with velocity. Bernstein brought the pair to America, where they trained with coach and former major league pitcher Tom House. In front of MLB scouts, Singh threw faster than 90 mph.

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed them for $10,000 bonuses each, and on July 4, 2009, wearing the uniform of the Bradenton (Fla.) Gulf Coast Pirates, the pair of reality show winners became the first Indians to play American pro baseball. Twelve days later, when Singh because the first Indian pitcher to win a pro game in the U.S., his teammates had to explain to him what that accomplishment meant.

Patel was released by the Pirates in December 2010 and returned to India. Singh was promoted to the Pirates’ Class A teams in State College, Pa., and Charleston, W.Va., and also has pitched in Australia and the Dominican Republic during the offseasons. He is recovering from a bone bruise and is doing rehab assignments in Bradenton but should pitch later this summer, Bernstein said.

On the “Million Dollar Arm” set in Atlanta, Jeff “JB” Bernstein (foreground) poses with actor Madhur Mittal (left), Patel, Singh and actor Suraj Sharma. Bernstein developed the concept for a reality show that tested the pitching skills of Indian cricket players.
Photo by: Mark Ciardi
Like any prospect, whether Singh, 24, will eventually play Major League Baseball is unclear. “I can’t tell you the future,” Singh said, “but I can tell you that I will keep working hard as I have been, so then it’s not going to take long.”

He may soon be joined by other Indian players, as well. A similar contest and reality show in 2011 attracted 200,000 entrants and another is planned for 2014. Noting the popularity of a grassroots skills contest in a country where baseball had been invisible, MLB International lent its support after the first contest. With MLB on board for use of IP, future iterations of the contest will be called “MLB Million Dollar Arm.”

Several sponsors have also taken note. Under Armour has a product deal with the movie, along with Singh and Patel, and Disney is selling other sponsorships. Wilson, Upper Deck and Topps also have deals with Singh and Patel.

Ciardi said that while “Miracle” and his other films were traditional inspirational sports dramas, “Million Dollar Arm” is different. The story is told from Bernstein’s perspective and centers on JB’s transformation, as the pair of Indian expats initially frustrate but then eventually inspire JB to a catharsis.

“Any great sports movie is not really about sports,” Ciardi said. “This film is about a man’s growth and finding a family he didn’t know he was looking for. That kind of redemptive arc in a character happens in any great movie.”

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