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Million Dollar Arm: America’s Pastime Belongs to the World

Rinku (Suraj Sharma) wins the Million Dollar Arm contest in India.

Rinku (Suraj Sharma) wins the Million Dollar Arm contest in India.

Baseball is America’s pastime. If you believe the narrative, a man named Abner Doubleday invented it in Cooperstown, NY in 1839. Alternatively, you might recognize Alexander Cartwright as the founding father: He organized the first iteration of the modern game at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, NJ in 1846. Maybe you trace the game back to European stick-and-ball contests. Or maybe it’s another example of something European-Americans wrested from Native Americans.

Wherever baseball came from, it has stuck with us.

James Earl Jones’ memorable character of Terence Mann in Field of Dreams describes an America that “has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.” For Mann, “Baseball has marked the time.”

Indeed, baseball has persevered through world wars and turbulent social times that have stretched the fabric of our country. To quote the late, great A. Bartlett Giamatti, we “count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive,” particularly at the most difficult moments. But perhaps it’s the other way around – we’ve stuck with baseball.

Indeed, baseball has sometimes persisted despite itself. The game has endured gambling scandals, cheating, racism, labor strife, collusion, illegal drugs — impressive and ugly foes that bubble to the surface as they do in society. Many times we’ve presumed the game to be on the brink of death, the public’s consciousness for that old nag of a pastime eroded by the made-for-TV mayhem of American football, the cocktail of precision, power, and brutality that is mixed martial arts or some cooler pursuit. Baseball is uncool. But we prop it up.

We hold on to the husk of what remains of a game we played when we were 10 years old, when our wildest dreams were throwing a no-hitter or hitting a grand slam to win the World Series for our hometown team. That youthful enthusiasm smolders in our grown-up bodies as we get jobs, marry, and have children. And all over the world, matriculating 10-year-olds have the same dreams.

Such is the reasoning of sports agent J.B. Bernstein, portrayed by Jon Hamm in Disney’s new film Million Dollar Arm. Baseball’s reach has not yet extended to India. Yet, among 1.2 billion people, couldn’t one, with proper training, become a professional baseball player? And if one player makes it, how many more would want to follow in his footsteps? Bernstein hatches an American Idol­­-like contest to find the best young pitcher in the second most populous country in the world, offering a chance at a cash prize and a pro contract in America. The potential social ramifications of the experiment are enormous.

Major League Baseball, much like FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) did with the Dream Team in the early 90s, has made strides to promote the global game with the World Baseball Classic. The 16-team tournament debuted in 2006 and had successful curtain calls in 2009 and 2013. Teams from 18 countries have competed in the showcase over the years, with 10 additional participants appearing in a qualifying round in the most recent iteration. India was not among them.

The triumph of the Dominican Republic (a country of 10 million people) in the 2013 WBC, echoes an overwhelming trend of Dominican success in Major League Baseball in recent decades. The trickle of talent that started in the 1950s with Ozzie Virgil and the Alou brothers (Felipe, Jesus and Matty) became a regional flood: Approximately a quarter of Major League players today hail from Latin American countries. Ray Poitevint, portrayed by Alan Arkin in Million Dollar Arm, was one of the pioneering Major League scouts in this regard.

Asian countries are well-represented in MLB, too, with nine players from Japan, two from South Korea, and two from Taiwan. In fact, Japan, which has an established system of professional leagues, took the first two WBC crowns. In recent years, Japanese players arriving on American soil have commanded lucrative contracts, endorsements, and widespread media attention.

But little has been made of India, a country 120 times the size of the Dominican Republic. In Million Dollar Arm, Bernstein enlists Poitevint and takes his talent contest on the road, traveling through densely-packed cities and vibrant landscapes in search of a star. They find Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two youngsters with no familiarity with the game, but who can pitch in the high 80s on natural talent alone. Just imagine what they could do under the tutelage of American pitching coach Tom House (played by Bill Paxton), or with the support of a Major League organization. (The Pittsburgh Pirates eventually takes a chance on Singh and Patel – the same Pirates franchise that fielded the first all-minority starting nine back in 1971).

Million Dollar Arm touches on the issues of assimilation that Singh and Patel face in their journey from living in an Indian village to Los Angeles and its skyscrapers and superhighways. This is humorously played up throughout the film, notably in a scene that features an elevator with automatic doors. There is also the language barrier (Singh and Patel reportedly learned English by watching Baseball Tonight). These challenges, and more, have persisted over the years as talented foreign-born players arrived on American baseball diamonds.

But baseball is a universal language. The Anglo-American narrative of the game has received bursts of color and flavor as the years roll by. It is this pastiche and the enthusiasm of young stars like Yu Darvish, Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig, and Mike Trout that bring new fans from different neighborhoods, economies, and cultures to the sport. We’ve reached a point where baseball truly is a game that belongs to all of us. It has survived, thrived, and continues to stir passions in fleet-footed youngsters and lumbering old men across the globe.

In time, it’s entirely possible we’ll see a player from India in the Major Leagues, traveling a road for which the first pavers were set by Rinku Singh, Dinesh Patel, J.D. Bernstein, and Ray Poitevint. While it may never surpass cricket in popularity, the game will at least get 1.2 billion new casual fans.

Whomever came up with this old nag of a pastime would be impressed.

Photo: ©Disney

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