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11/25/08 10:00 AM EST

Indian hurlers' inking opens new market

Contracts for Singh and Patel could pave way for their countrymen

PITTSBURGH -- At this time last year, Rinku Singh didn't know anything about luxury. He was one of nine children, a typical Indian teenager. He made his home in a small town in the northeast corner of the country, on a piece of land that the family had bought, in a house that his family had built.

It was a one-room house, with a curtain serving as the divider between where his parents slept and where he and his eight siblings lay at night. His father earned a living driving a vegetable truck, with the family income totaling about $25 a week.

That was enough to put daal -- a form of creamed lentil beans and rice -- on the table every night. If the family was lucky, maybe it would have enough to enjoy a piece of chicken or fish at the end of the week.

When it came to baseball, Singh had never heard of it. He was a javelin thrower and played some cricket, but baseball was an unknown. As for the United States, it was nothing more than a place he had read about.

But Singh and his friend Dinesh Patel, who lived in similar conditions in another tiny village nearby, entered a contest for the sport they had never seen. That contest led to an opportunity for both to come to the U.S. to not only learn about baseball, but to try to make a career out of it.

Singh, 20, and Patel, 19, now have that chance.

The Pirates signed both as undrafted free agents on Monday, paving the way for the two Indian players to be the first men from their country to play professional baseball. No Indian-born player had signed a professional sports contract of any kind in America.

"This is really big news," said JB Bernstein, a promoter and marketing agent who created the "Million Dollar Arm" contest in India that got both players noticed. "I think when the boys return to India, that's when it will really reach its crescendo."

Singh and Patel will soon return to India for a 10-day visit. They haven't seen their families since the beginning of May, when both moved to the U.S. to train under University of Southern California pitching coach Tom House.

Considering the U.S. ambassador to India held a press conference at the embassy about the signings, their return is expected to create a media frenzy.

It all started with an idea from Bernstein to see what type of baseball talent could be found in India. He developed the idea for a contest for boys and men between the ages of 16 and 21. The parameters were simple: see who could throw a baseball faster than 85 mph and for strikes.

Patel and Singh were among more than 37,000 people to try out, and both quickly emerged as finalists. The winner of the contest was set to receive a $100,000 prize and the opportunity to train with House.

"Imagine if either of these boys makes it and plays with the Pirates. You could have 300-400 million [more] people tuning into that. I think that would be hard to find in other places."
-- JB Bernstein, creator of the "Million Dollar Arm," on the impact the Indian market
could have on baseball

Singh, a left-hander, won the contest and the money, but the right-handed Patel also piqued the interest of observers with even better velocity. As a result, both were invited to live with Bernstein and prepare for a tryout in front of Major League scouts.

But before Singh and Patel could worry about throwing in front of a crowd, they first had to learn exactly what sport they were trying to play. On their first day in the country, both players attended a baseball game at USC.

It was a crash-course education of sorts, as both tried to figure out exactly what was going on. Bernstein still laughs when recounting the many questions the men asked. What did the shortstop do wrong, Patel asked Bernstein, to not be given a base in the infield?

"You do a double-take, because the question almost makes sense from their perspective," Bernstein said. "To ask what the shortstop does wrong makes no sense to us, but it's a logical question from someone who has never seen the game before."

Immediately, however, both Patel and Singh became students of the game.

"When I came here, I saw baseball and I learned," said Singh, who has learned English through online courses and watching Baseball Tonight on ESPN. "I work hard. All night I watch baseball, how to play baseball. I am working hard, training hard."

They developed favorite teams -- the White Sox for Singh and the Yankees for Patel. Both are big fans of Cleveland pitcher Cliff Lee, who recently won the American League Cy Young Award.

"The first time I saw him in Major League Baseball, he finished every inning in 11 pitches and 12 pitches," Patel said. "He is a good pitcher."

They also became students of the culture. Watching action movies has become almost a nightly ritual at Bernstein's home. Patel and Singh have also taken a liking to Chinese food and pizza. Their next task is to learn how to drive.

And now, for obvious reasons, they've taken interest in the Pirates. Though they can't name anyone on the team, both talked about watching Pirates player videos on the team's Web site.

"Right now, I love the Pittsburgh Pirates," Singh added.

For House, he had the opportunity to mold two raw athletes into pitchers. Though they had no foundation, they also had no mechanical flaws. How could they?

Six months of preparation led to three separate tryouts earlier this month. The first was in Arizona, where the pitchers threw in front of 38 scouts representing 28 teams. About 20-22 people, representing about 10-12 teams, watched them throw again at USC. The last sets of eyes came 10 days ago, when the two threw for the Major League scouting bureau.

The Pirates had special assistant Joe Ferrone and area scout Sean Campbell observing the two pitch. Their reports back to general manager Neal Huntington piqued his interest.

"With Patel, we saw up to 93 [mph]," Huntington said. "We saw immediate arm strength from a guy who had been throwing a baseball for only six months. With Singh, we saw a left-hander looking like what a left-hander is supposed to look like. We like his body frame. We're enthusiastic to try and build on the six months of instruction they have had with Tom House."

The 5-foot-11 Patel is the harder thrower of the two and also throws a circle change. The 6-foot-2 Singh can reach the low-90s and has learned a split-finger changeup.

The two pitchers will have a throwing program to follow while back home in India and will be reporting to the Pirates' Spring Training facilities in Bradenton, Fla., in mid- to late January to begin throwing and conditioning programs under staff supervision.

The two have a long way to go before thoughts of a Major League career become realistic. In the meantime, the signing of Patel and Singh represents the beginning of a possible new fertile market for baseball talent.

To what degree baseball catches on in the world's second-most populous country remains to be seen. But with 3 million males between the ages of 16 and 24, India surely seems like a country primed to produce fertile athletes. The country also has the ability -- and desire -- to market athletes.

"I don't know how many other untapped markets are out there, but India is truly a unique country," said Bernstein, who is expecting between 500,000 and 1 million participants in this year's Million Dollar Arm challenge. "Imagine if either of these boys makes it and plays with the Pirates. You could have 300-400 million [more] people tuning into that. I think that would be hard to find in other places."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.