Tale of pitchers from India gets Hollywood treatment
'Million Dollar Arm' actors meet real-life counterparts, talk filming and experience
The story of Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, India-born kids who parlayed winning a reality show contest into signing professional baseball contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the stuff of Hollywood legend when it happened back in 2008.
The full-length movie based on that story, entitled "Million Dollar Arm," is currently in production, with a star-studded cast that includes Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, and Lake Bell, with Suraj Sharma of "Life of Pi" playing Singh and Madhur Mittal of "Slumdog Millionaire" playing Patel. Those involved with the movie, which doesn't yet have a release date, stopped in Atlanta on Friday to film some baseball scenes at Russ Chandler Stadium on the campus of Georgia Tech.
The day presented a fascinating opportunity, as the cast and real-life people they will portray in the film came face-to-face.
"Million Dollar Arm" is the story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein, played by Hamm, who is searching for the next big, undiscovered talent. Bernstein teams up with a pair of venture capitalists, Will Chang (played by Tzi Ma, "24"), who is on the executive committee of the San Francisco Giants, and his partner, Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi, "The Internship" and "The Daily Show"). The trio decides to hold a contest in India looking for the country's hardest thrower.
"The gold standard of reality TV is 'American Idol,'" said Bernstein, whose clientele included Barry Bonds and Barry Sanders. "What if you took a microphone out of these guys' hands and put a baseball in it and just took a radar gun, went around the country to see who could throw the fastest? We'll put up some prize money, make a TV show and see what happens."
Bernstein's idea and his sports background went hand-in-hand with a theory Chang had about athletes.
"I gave Ash this theory that professional athletes are supernatural human beings, and if I'm right, the larger the sample size, the higher the probability I'm going to get this supernatural human being," said Chang. "They said, 'Yeah, we agree. In technology and science, it's that way. These guys who are geniuses, there's something innate in their DNA that makes them genius. [It's true about] athletic ability, too.' I said, 'OK, where do they have the biggest population?' J.B. came up with doing a reality show like 'American Idol.'"
They settled on India, where pretty much the only sport is cricket, which has similarities to baseball.
After traveling around the country and auditioning some 40,000 kids, a pool of 30 contestants was chosen, with Singh and Patel eventually winning. Neither had touched a baseball. In fact, neither had played cricket. Both pursued track, specializing in the javelin.
They came to America, where they were briefly trained by Tom House, a former Major League pitcher and currently the University of Southern California's pitching coach and guru.
Following an unimpressive first tryout on a subpar field in Arizona, the pair had a second tryout, during which both dazzled scouts and signed with Pittsburgh.
On Friday, Russ Chandler Stadium was dressed in USC colors to replicate Dedeaux Field on the Southern California campus.
It proved to be as special a place for Singh and Patel, who sat in the stands, watching the action.
"It's been a reunion of sorts -- I know everybody's excited to get together," said Mark Ciardi, the film's producer. "It's funny. The real guys are nervous to meet the actors [and] the actors are nervous to meet the real guys. Having done movies and bringing actors together with the real people, from both sides, there's that kind of awe and nervousness and then very quickly, a couple of minutes later they really jell. So it's really fun to watch that."
The actors really enjoyed being on the field, showing how they captured their counterparts' personalities.
"J.B. is like a force of nature -- he's hilarious," said Hamm. "You listen to that guy's story. He's a hard worker and an interesting guy and came up with this idea. It's a smart idea and it's a forward-thinking idea. That's a pretty impressive place to start.
"The boys are amazing. They're these kids who have literally never touched a baseball and made it into the Minor Leagues. That's something. I grew up playing baseball. I probably couldn't have made a Minor League squad on my best day. So the fact that you could take this total raw material, this raw talent and apply incredible training methods and incredible focus by the fact that they took that opportunity, and the fact that they applied themselves and worked as hard as anybody, says amazing things about their character."
"To meet the real Rinku and the real Dinesh is something else," said Paxton. "To meet Will Chang and the real J.B. Bernstein, to meet the real Ash, it's crazy! But it's wonderfully helpful."
Mittal and Sharma were just as excited to meet Singh and Patel, who have gained celebrity in India.
"When I actually met Dinesh, I've never played a character like that, in the sense that he's very, very shy, very innocent," said Mittal, who plays the elder Salim in "Slumdog." "There's a sense of purity about him. He's very rooted to his culture, to his homeland. There's something about his eyes. I've always kind of played the bad guys, but to play something like this is awesome and very exciting."
"I really needed to meet Rinku because I'm trying to grapple with his character," said Sharma. "I'm trying to understand what he's doing. It was a great thing meeting him. He's massive, a gigantic guy. I do not wear my glasses when I shoot, so I can't see anything, but I can still see Rinku. I knew it was Rinku all the way back there. I was just like, 'Wow -- massive.'"
And how did he do pitching?
"I did get, like, five out of six pitches for strikes today, so I'm happy," he said.
The scenes being filmed included the simple acts of actors Sharma and Mittal playing a clumsy game of catch, recreating one of their first days actually throwing a baseball in front of House
It's a scene Singh says is a little bit Hollywood.
"We were not that bad," he said, with a laugh. "It's just kind of ice cream on top to make it taste good."
Regardless, the scenes brought back fun memories for the 24-year-olds. Singh finished 2012 with the Class A West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League, and Patel was released in 2010.
"It's nice," said Patel when asked about being played by Mittal. "They're doing really nice. It looks like they're pitching well. It's a hard game to learn, but they are learning really good."
"It's kind of amazing what they're doing," said Singh. "It's very exciting. Seeing and meeting those guys, especially Jon Hamm and Suraj Sharma, this is amazing. It feels like I'm living a dream."
Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.