"Million Dollar Arm" is the latest baseball movie about the incredible story of Indian baseball prospects Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, who were given a chance to make it in professional baseball despite not having a background in the sport.
Scott Miller had a cameo in the film and had behind-the-scenes experiences and firsthand access as a result of his time on set.
We’re in an Atlanta steakhouse, a handful of us, talking St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers and Indian monkeys.
No, not Cleveland Indians.
This is late last June, deep into the filming of Million Dollar Arm, and the actor/weekend baseball player Jon Hamm has just finished explaining that some monkeys in India are absolutely, positively not to be trusted. Some of them are trained to snatch purses and scamper up a hill and then sit there, holding the purse hostage, while their handler negotiates a “fair exchange” of money (for the handler) and bananas (for, well, you know) with the perplexed, ripped-off, now-purseless people.
It sounds like a hoot. Unless it is you and your purse.
Filming in India wrapped up only a couple of weeks ago. Hamm, who enjoyed the country and the experience immensely, passes his cell phone around our small table, sharing pictures.
Sorry, ladies, I did not surreptitiously export his number.
What do you think I am, a sneaky monkey?
No way. But me and five of my baseball-writer pals are poised to act like trained monkeys—or, ahem, I mean, professional actors—on a real, live movie set in the morning.
Take 1: Of Dreams and Pirates
The results are in theaters everywhere beginning this weekend. And, as much as I’d like to tell you that we writers steal the film, well, now I’m talking with Dinesh Patel, one of the two kids from India whose life both will charm and move you when you see it.
This is a Tuesday morning earlier this month, and Dinesh is speaking from Hollywood, where the Million Dollar Arm red-carpet premiere will take place in a matter of hours.
“You know, this is a big moment in my life,” Dinesh says. “I got to play baseball, solve many problems. A lot of changes happened.”
By winning the Million Dollar Arm contest and signing with the Pirates, the kid who grew up in a rural farming village earned enough money to build a brand-new house for his family back home in India. He is no longer playing baseball, but it remains a big part of his new life. Thanks to the contest and to the Pirates, baseball’s gospel continues to spread across a new frontier with a population of over one billion people.
And now maybe more kids will be afforded the privilege of dreaming.
That’s what really struck this movie cast and crew during their time in India last May and June.
“Those kids never dream,” says Mark Ciardi, the movie’s producer, who also has The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible and Secretariat in his credits. “They don’t dream. They never get out of the villages.”
J.B. Bernstein, the real-life agent who is played by Hamm in the movie, tells of his first visit to India for the initial Million Dollar Arm contest and asking one of the kids there, “What do you want to be? What do you dream of?”
The answer was sobering: “No dreams, sir.”
“There, you either go into the military or spend your life working on the farm,” Ciardi says. “So, to get this opportunity, it’s like going to the moon.”
Just like so many of his fellow American players, Dinesh is proud of what he’s been able to do for his family because of baseball. And the movie, my gosh. The premiere will not be the first time he’s seen it. That came earlier this month in New York, with the Indian ambassador to the United States.
“It’s a really good movie,” Dinesh, 25, says. “I was crying.
“It reminds me of my old days.”
Take 2: Rinku and Dinesh Go to School
Spoiler alert: The Pirates—and skip this paragraph if you have no idea about what happened to these two—signed Dinesh and Rinku Singh after scouting them at a tryout in November 2008. The two started their professional careers during spring training of 2009 and played at the Pirates’ Class A Gulf Coast League affiliate in Bradenton, Florida, that season.
Singh remains in the Pirates’ organization, though like too many other pitchers these days, he recently underwent Tommy John ligament transfer surgery and will not resume throwing until August.
Neither player advanced beyond the Class A level. Patel is retired.
But that’s not what matters in this film. And my guess is, if you see it, you will agree.
This is a different type of sports story.
“It’s not about the big game and whether you win,” Ciardi says. “It’s about these two kids getting a moment.”
In the end, Rinku and Dinesh are not the only two to learn a few things. Hardly.
They not only trained under pitching coach Tom House at the University of Southern California, but that winter, several major leaguers were working out there as well. The Phillies’ Cole Hamels, the Padres’ Ian Kennedy and former pitcher Anthony Reyes were among them.
“We had heard all about this,” Kennedy says. “We heard they were javelin throwers and were trying to figure it out. You could actually see the progression from the beginning to when they went to go sign and play with the Pirates.
“They still didn’t have the baseball sense. Like right before spring training, we were doing the PFP [Pitchers Fielding Practice] stuff. I didn’t feel like doing it, and Tom House told me, ‘Hey, I know you don’t want to do this.’ And I’m like, ‘Tom, I take enough ground balls during spring training.’ He said, ‘No, do this for them. They don’t know baseball. Pickoffs and all that stuff.’ So I was like, ‘All right.’ And we helped them out.”
In fact, at one point early on, Dinesh asked House what the shortstop had done wrong, because he was the only infielder without a base of his own.
At the end of “winter camp,” with the departure of spring training imminent, Rinku and Dinesh invited everyone to their rental house for an Indian dinner as a way of saying thanks.
“Really nice kids,” said Kennedy, who took his wife along because she had heard so much about the kids from Ian that winter. “Unbelievably nice.”
Late in the spring of ’09, with Kennedy still a Yankee, he traveled to Bradenton to pitch a game when he very randomly happened across…yes, his two Indian friends.
“I was like, ‘Hey, what’s up, guys?’” Kennedy says. “Everything they say, it’s ‘sir’ at the end of it. And one of them said, ‘Aw, my arm is tired, sir.’”
“It’s spring training. What the heck?” Kennedy shot back, grinning.
“I know, tell me about it,” came the answer.
All these years later, Tommy John surgery has not dampened the enthusiasm of Rinku, 25.
“Still going hard,” Rinku says in Hollywood on the day of the Million Dollar Arm premiere. “As long as I stay in America, I’m going to keep going no matter what. This is the only reason I was staying away from friends and family, one reason. That’s baseball.
“I’m going to constantly keep grinding. This is what you have to do, sir, when you have a million-dollar contest and leave your country, your friends, your family and live in a different country. I really want to make that thing happen.”
Take 3: The Leading Man and the Cardinals
Hamm is as likable and enjoyable in person as he appears on the talk-show circuit. Of course, when you speak the same language...
“I love baseball,” he says back in Atlanta last summer. “I’ve loved it my whole life. I still play.”
Growing up in St. Louis, his best friend was Ted Simmons’ son. His Cardinals bona fides are apparent and unforced, especially when he tells a great story about the classic Game 6 of the St. Louis-Texas World Series in 2011, the back-and-forth heart-thumper won by the Cards 10-9 in 11 innings after the Rangers twice moved to within one strike of victory.
They were filming an episode of Mad Men during that game, and between takes, Hamm and fellow cast member Jay R. Ferguson, a Dallas native and Rangers fan, raced back to follow along on their smart phones and iPads.
When the Rangers took the lead, Ferguson lorded it over Hamm, with words to the effect of, “Yeah! Take that you #@$!!”
When the Cardinals came back to seize the lead, Hamm similarly taunted Ferguson, along the lines of, “Yes! How do you like that, you #$%@@&!!”
Back and forth they went, just like the game, just a couple of trash-talking baseball fans trapped at work without a television.
Looking for his next project, Hamm wanted a good story to tell, and Tom McCarthy’s script for Million Dollar Arm hooked him.
“Trust me,” he quips. “If it would have been about swimming, I wouldn’t have done it. No offense, but Million Dollar Fins wouldn’t have done it for me.”
He was a catcher and an outfielder on his high school team and, at 43, he remains an active catcher in a men’s Sunday morning hardball league.
Scouting report on himself?
“Very easy out,” he says, chuckling. “Slow. Crappy arm.
“I’ve had [baseball] lace marks up and down my arms. I’ll come in to work and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’ It’s why I wear long-sleeve shirts.”
He refers to the “infectious nature” of the Million Dollar Arm story and says he keeps “coming back to the fact that this actually happened. They had a chance to make a major league team. It’s mind-blowing.”
Take 4: Is There an Actor in the House?
What’s also mind-blowing is that, following a long dinner that alternates between movie talk and baseball talk, the shuttle van is picking us up at 5:15 a.m. for our Hollywood debut.
We arrive at the strip-mall parking lot set outside of Atlanta—in the movie, it’s Tempe, Arizona—to find our own trailer awaiting and visits from, in rapid succession, a wardrobe person and a hair and makeup person. Gee, whom do you think should be insulted—me, Bob Nightengale (USA Today), Jayson Stark (ESPN), Ken Rosenthal (Fox), Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated), or Jeff Passan (Yahoo)?
By a little after 6, we were rolling through the breakfast-catering area (made-to-order omelettes! A smoothie bar! Every kind of juice you could want, including beet juice and watermelon juice!). Soon thereafter, we were, yes, acting.
Well, if you can call it “acting.” Gesturing in the background, shaking our heads and muttering in disgust at how inept these two Indian kids are at their tryout? Usually, we call that kind of behavior business as usual in the baseball-writing world.
We shoot our first scene, do 23 takes and, it turns out, we’re just warming up. There are many more after that. At one point, during a break, Bill Paxton, who plays House, wanders over for a chat.
“I wish I’d have had a little more time to hang with Tom House,” Paxton says. “He’s so interesting. So nurturing.”
Now there is an actor. House’s reaction to Paxton playing him?
“He plays me better than I play me,” House will say after seeing the movie.
There are takes, and more takes, and still more takes after that. Director Craig Gillespie maneuvers his actors as skillfully as Tony La Russa deployed his bullpens. There is a conversation about a GMC SUV that drives into a background scene—the strip-mall stores are closed for the day—and what to do with it. There is a woman roaming around spritzing faces with sunblock every 90 minutes or so. Another wardrobe specialist stops by at one point to straighten my collar.
Early afternoon, a drenching rain sends us scuttling into the shuttle vans, which deliver us to the catering tent and lunch (cheese ravioli! Tilapia! Corned beef! Hand-scooped ice-cream cones! Fresh squeezed lemonade!). And, who knew that there is such a thing as “weather insurance”? Apparently, there is, and film studios purchase it as a hedge if they lose a day of strip-mall shooting, for example, and need to pay the stores to close for another day or two.
By midafternoon, we discovered a snack area across the parking lot (hot dogs—both turkey and beef! Protein bars! Popsicles!). By 7:20 p.m., they were passing out cups of water, I’m quite sure with the sole intent, by that point, to prevent us rookie actors from passing out.
We do more takes so Gillespie can get “wide shots” of the same scenes we shot that morning. In our writer/scout roles, we gather en masse on the side of a batting cage.
Hamm, as Bernstein addresses us: “I’d like to thank you all for coming today,” he tells us. “Believe it or not, 10 months ago these guys hadn’t touched a baseball. They didn’t know what baseball was. We believe it is fertile ground over there, but that’s a conversation for later. So without further ado, I present to you…the pride of India.”
We did at least 32 takes of that scene alone. And let me just say, none of the re-dos were because Hamm flubbed a line. Oh, no. He was Mr. Perfect throughout.
You think acting is easy? You should have seen Hamm at work. And Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal (Dinesh), Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma (Rinku) and The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi (who plays Bernstein’s business partner).
Toward 8 p.m., somebody asks Hamm how his Cardinals were doing. He checks his phone and starts breaking down the scheduled Lance Lynn-Jered Weaver matchup out in Anaheim.
Finally, nearly 16 hours after we arrive, somebody calls for the “Martini Shot.” Turns out, that’s actor speak for the day’s final take. I can see why.
Take 5: Of Red Carpets, Green Carpets and Monkeys
So now we’re on Hollywood Boulevard on the red carpet—well, actually, tonight it’s a green carpet, just like a baseball field—and there are the real Rinku and Dinesh, and the actors who play Rinku and Dinesh, and all four of them are beaming on this very different sort of opening day.
From 2008 until now…from India to Pittsburgh…from the village outside of Lucknow—where the boys are from—to Hollywood…from Bernstein’s brain to the ball fields…what a journey.
“You never know how things are going to turn out when you sell your life rights,” the real Bernstein says. “There are stories across the spectrum.
“Ultimately, this turned out better than I could have dreamed. The movie is real, all of the major moments are interpreted in a very realistic manner. It showcases the thing I’m most proud of, what Rinku and Dinesh did, and how my journey with them changed me as a person.”
The conversation turns back to what we in this country take for granted, one of the inalienable rights of any child: the wide-open notion of what he or she wants to be when he or she grows up, anything from the president of the United States to, yes, an honest-to-goodness major league baseball player.
“It’s unusual, because here in America every kid, no matter who they are, has dreams,” Bernstein says. “Because there are examples in society of people who have done those things. In India, that’s very scarce. Especially as you get into the villages where Rinku and Dinesh were.
“It’s inspiring. It’s right where you need that spark for someone to believe there’s another option than doing what your dad did or, if you’re really lucky, getting into the army and having a predetermined life.
“Dinesh does a lot of that now in India, speaks to kids, goes village to village inspiring kids, telling them that there is this opportunity to dream.”
And Rinku is still chasing that dream, determined—just like Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey and many others—to overcome Tommy John surgery in order to pitch again.
It is a great story and a fun movie. I think you’ll like it. And in the end—caution, another spoiler alert—the monkeys did not make the cut. But, for a few seconds here and there, the baseball writers did.
Take that, monkeys.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here.
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