As the Pittsburgh Pirates took batting practice Sunday, Rinku Singh recounted parts of his inspirational journey from India to the minor leagues.
The former State College Spikes pitcher remembered leaving his family behind. He mentioned his first dream of throwing the javelin in the Olympics. He recalled the endless days learning the game of baseball.
It was all part of a promotional appearance at PNC Park for Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” movie based on Singh’s story. But after telling his story for nearly 10 minutes, he stopped promoting the movie and spoke passionately about what continues to drive him.
“I’m happy that this story is going to inspire a bunch of kids around the world,” Singh said. “That’s really the one thing I’m happy about. Other than that, I could care less because guess what?
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“I’m real far away from my family, my friends, my country, just because of one reason — baseball,” Singh continued, holding up his left index finger for emphasis. “I want to keep that alive.”
His dream is to return to PNC Park to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 25-year-old reliever has pitched four seasons in the minor leagues — including two short stops with the Spikes — but he hasn’t climbed past Class A. Singh did not pitch in 2013 and will miss this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery in addition to having a bone chip removed from his elbow. Singh said he’s been rehabbing in Bradenton, Fla., and he plans to return to the mound next season.
Though his focus is on baseball, Sunday was about the movie.
“Million Dollar Arm” opens nationally Friday. The movie tells the story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein traveling to India, where cricket is popular, to find pitching talent.
Bernstein, who is portrayed by actor Jon Hamm, set up a televised, national contest called “Million Dollar Arm,” drawing 40,000 competitors. Singh and Dinesh Patel, then 18 years old, won and came to the United States with Bernstein with hopes to be signed by a Major League Baseball team. Patel has returned to India, Singh said, where he’s teaching baseball to kids.
“This was an opportunity and there’s no such thing as squandering an opportunity,” Hamm said. “It’s a nice lesson to learn and especially in a certain generation and kids in the (United) States, where there’s an expectation of everything being brought to you and laid at your feet. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not how real life works. You got to work for it.”
Singh embraced that mindset while training for tryouts at the University of Southern California.
Singh and Patel met then-USC pitching coach Tom House in May 2008. House, a former major league pitcher, realized he was in for a challenge after seeing them throw off the mound.
“We talk all the time about, ‘you throw like a girl,’” House said. “They didn’t even throw like a girl. They had absolutely no understanding of what was required to throw a baseball from the stretch or a windup.”
House knew he’d need to be patient.
They had the physical tools from throwing the javelin, but they needed to learn a foreign game before seeing results.
“Basically, these kids, as far as the skill of baseball, they were 5 years old,” House said. “But they were 18 years old maturity-wise, so the hardest thing to do was to be aware that while they had the athleticism, they just didn’t have the muscle memory.”
They had the work ethic, though.
Singh said he was willing to do whatever it took. If that meant a day of workouts lasted 12 hours, so be it.
“We did a lot of hard work,” Singh said. “I never picked up a baseball, and coming to a strange country and coming to a strange environment, we wanted to stay on the field as long as we can so we can learn.
“It wasn’t all about just going to show your face on the field and come back. If I would do that, I wouldn’t be here.”
The long days paid off in November 2008 when Singh and Patel signed with the Pirates, becoming the first Indians to earn a professional sports contract in North America.
Brendan Bagley, whose family hosted Singh during his time in State College, saw that same determination from Singh, who didn’t know English before arriving in the United States.
Singh was still adjusting to the culture by the time he joined the Spikes late in the 2010 season, but he picked up English easily.
“He didn’t know some specific words for some specific things,” Bagley said, “but in literally the short amount of time he had been here, I thought he did a fantastic job learning it, which tells me from a capability standpoint that he’s going to do whatever he can to hopefully be successful when it comes to playing baseball.”
Singh said he’s also learned some Spanish to connect more with teammates and their culture. And in the handful of weeks he spent in State College, the pitcher Bagley nicknamed “Googli” — the term for the equivalent of a curveball in cricket — left a positive impression.
He was good with Bagley’s son, Christopher, and daughter, Elizabeth. He’s kept in touch every now and then. He even came up with a nickname for Bagley.
It happened one night in 2010 when Bagley couldn’t resist dancing as Singh played music on his iPad.
“We were just messing around one night,” Bagley said. “And he was like ‘Oh, teach me how to Dougie.’ Dougie, that’s your new nickname.”
Singh started the 2011 season with the Spikes, boasting a 2.16 ERA in four appearances before he was called up to Class-A West Virginia. It was supposed to be a short stint, but Singh finished the season in West Virginia.
He pitched in a career-high 39 games in 2012 with the Power, going 3-1 with a 3.00 ERA.
But his path to the major leagues has slowed to a halt the last two seasons.
After undergoing Tommy John surgery, Singh said he rehabbed for six months. Singh was still having arm trouble and went back to the doctors for another examination, when they discovered the problem.
They removed a bone chip from his elbow, and he’s refocused on pitching.
“I already feel mentally and physically much better,” Singh said. “And now I know what I need to do to get back on track, so I’m happy. I’m pumped.”
Singh will have to wait until next season to start working his way through the minors. House said he has an “outside shot” of pitching in the big leagues.
But he was still far from that dream Sunday, posing for photos in a white dress shirt and khaki pants while the Pirates prepared to face the St. Louis Cardinals.
“This is not the reason I wanted to be at PNC Park,” Singh said. “I never expected to be here at PNC Park to do something else. I always wanted to be here to pitch one day. That was my goal.”
And that goal’s still driving him today.