All was normal on Hollywood Boulevard last week — or as normal as it gets, anyway — save for a strip of AstroTurf and a pitching mound that had been erected in the middle of the street. Outside the El Capitan Theatre, nine wide-eyed hopefuls sat nervously on a bench, baseballs in hand.
Each was about to try to throw a 100-mph strike, and if someone succeeded, they’d win $1 million. Bleachers had been set up, and a handful of baseball legends including Steve Garvey and Dave Winfield looked on at the novices, but they weren’t there to offer a rousing pep talk.
Instead, that task fell to Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two 25-year-old men from India who had not even heard of the sport seven years ago.
“I wish for you guys to make your dream come true tonight,” said Singh, dressed in a three-piece Calvin Klein suit. “Opportunity knocks on your door only once.”
He would know. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that he and Patel were in the same position as the athletes they spoke to last week — and their story served as the inspiration for the new Walt Disney Pictures movie “Million Dollar Arm,” which opens Friday.
Singh and Patel were discovered as teenagers during a similar 2007 competition in India called “Million Dollar Arm,” the brainchild of sports agent J.B. Bernstein. Though he counted pro football’s Barry Sanders and home-run king Barry Bonds as his clients at the height of their respective careers, Bernstein suddenly found himself down on his luck and desperate to revive his once-thriving business.
After stumbling upon a cricket game while channel surfing one day, his mind began to race: Cricket players threw balls at an alarmingly fast speed. Was it really all that different from pitching a baseball?
So he persuaded some backers to give him enough dough to fly to India and create a reality show called “Million Dollar Arm,” on which more than 37,000 participants came out to throw a fastball. In the end, no one actually won a million bucks — to do so, you had to throw consecutive pitches of 90 miles an hour or over — but Singh came out as the top contender. For his 88-mph pitch, he was given $100,000, and he and runner-up Patel were promptly sent to America to train for a Major League Baseball tryout.
That’s the starting point for “Million Dollar Arm,” an inspirational drama directed by “Lars and the Real Girl” filmmaker Craig Gillespie and starring “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm as Bernstein. As the movie details, Singh and Patel defied the odds after arriving in the States. Both were ultimately picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization after training with USC pitching coach Tom House for six months.
But adjusting to life in the U.S. proved difficult for the young men, who could barely speak a word of English when they touched down in Los Angeles. Bernstein — at the time a lifelong bachelor — reluctantly agreed to house the boys in his Marina del Rey pad, where he taught them how to cook and use a dishwasher. Because Singh and Patel owned only a couple of T-shirts apiece, they frequently sported Bernstein’s surplus clothing — much of which displayed the names of clients Bonds or Sanders.
The young men had grown up 40 miles from each other in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh but still attended the same sports academy, where they were accomplished javelin throwers. It was their school cricket coach who told them about the “Million Dollar Arm” competition.
“He said, ‘Go in there and throw the ball and you will get some money,’” Patel recalled, sitting in the stands with Singh at USC’s Dedeaux Field last week before the “Million Dollar Arm” premiere screening. Both were wearing jeans and blue dress shirts, though Singh was the flashier of the two with his silver chain necklace, diamond earrings and large chest tattoo.
When Singh and Patel arrived in L.A., their diets changed significantly. As a result, he says Singh gained over 30 pounds; he’s now 6 feet 5 and weighs about 220. Though he has been sidelined by an arm injury for the last year, he still plays for the Pirates in the minor leagues. After two years in the Gulf Coast League, Patel was released in 2010 and returned to live with his family in India, where he is studying English and history at college.
“When most players get released, I hear them saying, ‘I wish I could have done this or that,’” said Singh, who is more comfortable speaking English than his counterpart. “Dinesh don’t have that. Even though he’s not playing baseball, he’s really happy. He gave everything, but that wasn’t good enough.”
When “Million Dollar Arm” came to film in India last year, Patel served as a local baseball coach for its young stars, who themselves were unacquainted with the sport. Madhur Mittal, who plays him in the film, said he was surprised by how shy the athlete was. At first, the actor said, Patel couldn’t even hold eye contact with him.
“He’s so innocent and connected to his roots,” recalled Mittal, who costars with “Life of Pi” star Suraj Sharma in the film. “When we were shooting in Atlanta, he came to visit and I asked him how it felt to be back in America. He said, ‘I already miss home.’”
At the film’s red-carpet premiere May 6, Patel was the quieter of the two, politely shaking hands and smiling for photographs. Singh continually checked his cellphone and stayed by his girlfriend, who was dressed in a traditional outfit he had bought for her in India. Bernstein snapped pictures of his protégés amid the glamorous scene. When it was announced that their story would serve as the inspiration for a movie, the agent said, Singh and Patel had no comprehension of how the industry worked.
“They did an interview where they were asked who they wanted to play them, and they said Rambo,” Bernstein said with a chuckle. “They thought the same actor could play them both, guns blazing on the mound. They didn’t really understand how this was gonna come together.”
Singh, who has shown signs of promise in the minors, says he is still hopeful he’ll eventually make it to the major leagues once his arm heals. He’s not sure if the movie will affect his baseball prospects, though he says the organization has helped to “build [him] up as a man.”
It has also helped to change his family’s life. Between his $100,000 prize, his Pirates salary and money he received from the movie and an upcoming book about his journey, he has been able to build his parents a new house and allow them to retire.
“When money comes in, it goes right to their families,” Bernstein explained. “They don’t pop bottles at a club or buy cars, and that says a lot about them and their culture. They’ve done really well by their families’ standards. Over 30 years in India, they couldn’t have accumulated this kind of money.”