- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Rinku Singh never stepped onto the field at PNC Park until a recent weekend. Standing in foul territory and talking with reporters, the Pirates’ minor-league relief pitcher said he is happy to finally make it.

Still, he would have preferred to be between the lines with the Pirates players taking batting practice before their game against the St. Louis Cardinals. For the time being, he is talking about himself and a new movie based on his rather unusual experiences.

“This is not the reason I want to come to PNC,” he said. “I never expected I’d be here to do something else. I just want to pitch here one day. That’s my goal.”

Perhaps he will achieve it. Meanwhile, Singh’s poised presence and command of a second language constitute a remarkable feat in itself.

Not long ago, he was a young javelin thrower from the village of Bhadohi in India, trying to escape poverty and find his way in the world. Now, he is a 25-year-old professional ballplayer and a central subject of “Million Dollar Arm,” a Disney feature that opened last week.

The top-billed actor is Jon Hamm, best known as Don Draper in AMC’s hit series, “Mad Men.” Suraj Sharma, whose big role was the title character in the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi,” plays Singh.

The title references an American Idol-style competition to find, among India’s approximately 1 billion residents, the person who could throw a baseball very fast (at least 85 miles an hour) with the most accuracy and groom him to be a professional pitcher in the States. Hamm plays sports agent JB Bernstein, who devised the idea and later went through some profound personal changes of his own.

In May 2008, Singh, who had thrown a javelin but never a baseball, beat out more than 37,000 entrants to win the first Million Dollar Arm competition (there have now been three). He won $100,000 and the chance to learn how to pitch. The runner-up, Dinesh Patel, another young javelin thrower from a village with no baseball experience, also was invited.

The pair trained for six months with then-USC pitching coach Tom House. At the same time, they learned English and baseball and soaked up the culture. They also ate a lot of pizza.

“We took everything as a challenge,” Singh says. “And I think we did really good at it. If you really want to succeed, you’ll do everything to make your dream come true.”

Late in 2008, Singh, a left-hander, and Patel, a righty, auditioned for major league scouts. The Pirates signed both.

“The best thing about them was they had come so far in such a short period of time,” said Joe Ferrone, one of the Pirates scouts. “You could say there was some upside there. Being realistic, my report also said this is quite a unique undertaking, and it’s gonna be a project.”

Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister recalls meeting Singh and Patel during their first day at the Pirate City training facility in Bradenton, Fla., and describes them as “very respectful.”

“You could see the athleticism in both of them,” Banister says. “You could see the rawness on the baseball side. No baseball experience. They had to learn absolutely everything about baseball.”

Considered the more polished pitcher of the two at first, Patel was released after one season. He is back in India, attending college and, yes, teaching baseball.

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