A little over a year ago, JB Bernstein had an idea for a television show in India. He figured in a country of over one billion people he could find a few that could throw a baseball fast and with accuracy. He named the show “The Million Dollar Arm” with the winner receiving $100,000 and a major league tryout. Earlier this month two contestants, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, held try-outs for about 20 scouts in Arizona, and on Monday they both signed minor-league contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
While these signings may not be as earth-shattering as any we will see this off-season they are important. Singh and Patel are the first Indian-born athletes to sign a professional contract in North America, and have now opened the doors of India to baseball. With baseball on its death bed for entrance into Olympic competition in 2016, having another country with professional players can only help. An Indian baseball team for 2016 is highly unlikely, but a year ago Singh and Patel were working on their family farms. With the population base that India has, and the popularity of cricket, it is plausible that there are a few more guys farming who could pick up a baseball and compete.
Of the two, Singh has the most upside. He is tall (6’2″), was clocked at 93mph in those major league try-outs and the winner of “The Million Dollar Arm.” Still while watching videos of him pitching, (which you can do at the show’s website) I thought he looked awkward. I was not expecting the guy to look like Greg Maddux, but it looked like someone who has only been pitching a year. Obviously, the Pirates are gambling a bit with these signings, and if either of them even make the majors the gamble paid off.
Last season, the Yankees signed two players from China, and set up academies there as well. Now, with the the signing of Singh and Patel the two largest markets in the world are open to baseball. I do not anticipate a flood of players from either country into the majors, and Singh and Patel could be the only two players we ever hear of from India. Of course, Major League Baseball is not worried about players coming from these countries to play here, it is more worried about marketing the game to India and China to help the game grow internationally.
Basketball obviously has the upper hand when it comes to marketing its game to foreign countries, but baseball can have that mass global appeal also. We are not going to see a kid in Kenya playing hockey, and no one understands American football outside of the United States, but baseball and basketball are fairly easy to play and understand. You may laugh, but you could hopefully teach someone to play baseball with basic rules in a few hours. There are no need for pads or ice, and helmets are optional. You don’t need a large area to play because there are no set dimensions to baseball. When I was a kid the trees at the back of the yard was a home run, and we used whatever flat surface we could find for bases. I have had arguments about all the stuff you need to play baseball, and really all you need is a ball and a bat.
Baseball can be a global game, and MLB wants it to be. Singh and Patel will be in the Pirates minor-league spring training camp in February, and while we may not see them in Pittsburgh this season, or ever, they have made the Pirates the most popular team in India. Let’s hope they show a couple of Red Sox or Cubs games as well because this experiment will be over quickly on a diet of Pirates games.