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Unusual Prospects

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Former Pittsburgh Pirate Barry Bonds, center, with Dinesh Patel, left, and Rinku Singh
  • Former Pittsburgh Pirate Barry Bonds, center, with Dinesh Patel, left, and Rinku Singh

Rinku Singh and Dinesh Kumar Patel are not conventional ballplayers -- in fact, up until a year ago, they'd never even heard of baseball. But that didn't stop them from following a most unlikely path around the globe and onto the payroll of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008.

In March, Singh won $100,000 in a reality show contest to discover hidden baseball talent in India. Patel took second, and the pair moved from rural Indian villages to southern California, and into the highly public world of professional sports in America. Despite having just learned the game, Singh and Patel signed with the Pirates in November -- the first Indians ever contracted by an American baseball team.

"Sir, this is a very, very big change in my life," Patel told City Paper via phone after a recent workout. "Village life was very hard, sir. And then I came here. I saw, everything is new for me."

Patel is 19 years old; Singh is 20. They're both pitchers. And while Singh is a lefthander and Patel throws right, observers say they both face a long road ahead.

"I think it'd be a big success this year if they made it through rookie ball and got up to single- or double-A by next year," says agent J.B. Bernstein, who created the contest in India and is now handling marketing for Singh and Patel. "There's a lot of hoopla around the fact that they're the first Indians to sign pro contracts, but the development plan for these guys is just like anybody else. It's going to be years before they will be ready to pitch in the major leagues."

And that's the optimistic outlook. On Nov. 26, Alan Schwarz wrote in The New York Times that Singh and Patel were "two pitchers who even management knows will almost certainly never wear Pittsburgh uniforms."

"While it was probably a publicity stunt, it was also, 'Hey, why not?'" says Paul Alexander, a sports reporter with FSN Pittsburgh. "Right now, with the economics of the game, they have no other choice."

Alexander notes that the Pirates' limited payroll makes it virtually impossible to compete for free agents with big-spending teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox -- which is why the Pirates must rely on creative drafting and developing.

Even so, Alexander says, "you probably would have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than these guys making the majors."

In a way, lightning has already struck Singh and Patel. Before winning The Million Dollar Arm, they'd never seen a baseball game, let alone played in one. The contest amounted to a pitching contest, with first-time players encouraged to give it a shot. Singh won last year's competition with a top speed of 89 miles per hour.

Bernstein says he's confident that Singh and Patel "have the same chance as any other 19-year-old single-A guys. ... They're throwing in the low to mid-90s. They both can move the ball. They can control their pitches, and they've got great work ethics."

But, he adds, "the things that they need, obviously, [are] consistency, instincts, reflexes."

On their blog, Patel posted an end-of-year recap that celebrated the "best year we never imagine possible. We winning contest, travel Mumbai, travel U.S.A., training very hard, making money, meeting famous peoples, be on TV."

Still, they're thousands of miles from home, competing in an unfamiliar sport against people who've played it all their lives. They've also had to work on their English. Neither spoke the language prior to entering the contest, and now they are getting national media exposure: The two were profiled on ESPN's Outside the Lines.

So which is harder to learn: baseball or English? "Both are hard," Patel says. "Game very hard, sir. Language a little harder."

But they've faced tougher obstacles already. "My village life was very hard," Singh says. "People wake up, at 6 o'clock, working."

According to a schedule posted on their blog, Patel and Singh still wake up at 6 -- only now it's for an hour of meditation and yoga. From 7:30 to 3 p.m., they're working out, practicing or eating. They spend the rest of the day working out some more and watching movies, including DVDs of baseball history.

Singh's favorite player is Jim Thome, designated hitter for the White Sox. His favorite pitcher is Phillies starter Cole Hamels.

"He has a very good change-up," he says. "I saw him in World Series."

They share representation with homerun king and former Pirate Barry Bonds, whose house they've visited: Patel says Bonds taught him "a lot of things about the hitter's thinking."

Patel and Singh are also experiencing a far more affluent way of life. In a Dec. 15 blog post, Patel included a video describing such luxuries as a hot tub. Asked how his family responded to videos of him basking in the sun, Patel says with a laugh, "They have not seen those. There is not Internet in my village."

Singh says they talk to their parents every week, but it's not easy to explain what they're doing here to someone unfamiliar with professional baseball.

Singh's parents, meanwhile, "understand only, 'My son is [a] success.'" Before the contest, his father was working as a truck driver. Now his son is covering his expenses.

"In India, most people are struggling to meet ends, and have been unable to participate in solving issues that affect the society at large," says Gaurav Bhardwaj, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Association for India's Development, which works to benefit the underprivileged in India.

According to the World Bank, roughly one-third of the world's poor live in India, with more than 75 percent of Indians making less than $2 a day.

"There are a lot of talented people in India, but not everybody gets the chance to shine," Bhardwaj says. "I'm really happy for [Singh and Patel], that they were able to make the journey."

If they can convert their raw talent into a major-league career, the two could have a unique opportunity to bridge disparate cultures.

Indians "are really resilient, hard-working people," Bhardwaj says. "I hope they can convey that same message to the American public."

Patel says he feels the pressure of potentially being the first Indian major leaguer. "But sir, I don't think about it. I only concentrate on pitching."

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