Three strikes…and you’re in! Meet the real-life players of Disney’s ‘Million Dollar Arm’
Baseball is a game of statistics. And the odds that the real-life plan behind Million Dollar Arm would work were about as high as that of hitting an inside-the-park home run. For those who don't follow the game, let's put it this way: It don't happen much.
Ah, but when it does, it's a thing to behold—it makes you believe in miracles, as the game is wont to do. And as the new Walt Disney film shows—in a way relatively faithful to the unlikely events that brought a sports agent to India to find pro-quality pitchers and take two of them to the U.S.—baseball can make you a believer in things you never knew you believed in.
In 2007, Miami-based sports agent JB Bernstein, played in the film by "Mad Men" star Jon Hamm, traveled to the Indian subcontinent to find baseball players, since, he says, other Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and China were already swarming with scouts. And since India has 1.1 billion people, well, statistically there should be at least a couple of young men who could throw a ball 60 feet and six inches at 93 miles per hour into an imaginary box a couple feet high and about a foot wide. The fact that baseball is virtually unknown in cricket-crazy India? Like we said—statistics.
"I believed we would find one, maybe two, prospects," says the affable Bernstein, speaking by phone in a joint interview with Rinku Singh, one of the pair of pitchers he and his business group brought back from India—discovering them through, of all things, a TV reality show.
The film's version plays out a little differently, but in real life it went like this: San Francisco real-estate mogul Will Chang (played in the film by Tzi Ma) and his partner, venture capitalist Ash Vasudevan (played by Aasif Mandvi), conceived the idea of looking in Vasudevan's native India for Major League Baseball-quality players. They brought in Bernstein, manager of San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who independently had an idea about scouting in Asia. And in November 2007—coincidentally the same month Bonds was indicted by a federal court on four counts of perjury and one of obstruction of justice in a steroids-using scandal—Bernstein and India's now defunct cable/satellite channel Zee Sports launched "The Million Dollar Arm," a reality show following the village-by-village pitching auditions that eventually attracted 37,000 hopefuls.
"Will and Ash were business partners," Bernstein recalls. "Will's part-owner of the San Francisco Giants, and Ash [co-founder with Bernstein of Seven Figures Management] runs his technology VC fund." The three devised a reality show where the winner would "get 100 grand plus three bonus pitches that would increase it to a million if they could throw three strikes. If they threw two strikes, they'd get 500 grand." In the film, Chang is merely the money man who tightens the pressure on Bernstein and Vasudevan's struggling shoestring operation to come through—or else.
And in truth, they did come through. In the reality show's March 2008 finals at CKT University in Mumbai, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal from Slumdog Millionaire) became, respectively, the winner and the first runner-up. That May, as the movie shows, they and Bernstein's interpreter/intern Deepesh Solanki (called Amit in the movie and played by the single-name actor Pitobash) traveled to Los Angeles to work with University of Southern California pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). And it's hardly a spoiler, given the large amount of coverage the two received, including in Sports Illustrated, to reveal that Singh and Patel made history on Nov. 24, 2008, when they signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates' Gulf Coast League farm team to become the first professional baseball players from India. (Singh is still on a Pirates' minor-league team, while Patel returned to India in 2010 to get his college degree and compete nationally in javelin throwing, his preferred sport.)
All that's enough for a Cinderella-story movie in itself. But Million Dollar Arm goes beyond it to a larger theme: how familial and romantic love can save a soulless, driven man. "I don't know about soulless," Bernstein reflects today. "That would be a tough word. I was myopic," he allows. "I was focused on being a great agent and it was the only thing I did, and I did it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The only thing I really got any pride or enjoyment out of was deal-making. I don't think I was soulless, but I was just so focused that I became one-dimensional. And I guess some people might have thought I was kind of a jerk."
That started to change when he realized how much of a responsibility he had shouldered, having to steer not only the three men's professional careers but take care of them down to making sure they got fed. "Because we were coming from a different country, not knowing anything about America," Singh recalls, "we stayed with JB and he was the one who took us for little baby steps to teach us about America, about the culture, about language." The movie shows them living in Bernstein's house, though in real life, says Bernstein, "we rented a house a couple of blocks away from the USC campus, and myself, Rinku, Dinesh and Deepesh all stayed there." Bernstein also owned a condo in L.A.
The movie also gives him a guesthouse with a tenant—Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell), a doctor doing her residency and who befriends the boys and later becomes Bernstein's romantic interest. The real Brenda Fenwick wasn't a doctor but aviation-industry executive Brenda Paauwe-Navori, who then was director of commercial aircraft sales and operator relations for Virgin Charter and now is business-development and sales director for a division of Embraer Executive Jets. "Brenda actually lived in the same condo [building in Los Angeles] as I did—I had a penthouse and she had a penthouse on the other side of the quad. So we met in my condo, not in the house that I was renting with these guys. But in essence, we kind of met the same way."
"I, personally, didn't get a chance to meet Brenda," says Bell, best known for writing, directing and starring in the well-received In a World… and for roles on TV series including the Adult Swim TV comedy "Children's Hospital." "But I met JB, Rinku and Dinesh, and JB had a lot to say about his wife and shared a tremendous amount of information about her. Actually, I remember him referring to her as a badass. I think what's important, when you're playing a true story, is that it's not about mimicking the real person—and in this case you're not playing an iconic person that the whole world will know. When you're playing [real-life] people, you have to respect and represent the heart and soul of what they went through and how they depicted themselves during that time."
That time included the movie's most fable-like scene, in which the boys surprise Bernstein with a romantic, Indian-style backyard dinner for him and Brenda, who's decked out in a sari. "Not only did that really happen," notes Bernstein, "but that's almost the exact sari I brought back from India for Brenda to wear. The only difference was that Brenda cooked [the food for] that Hindi-theme Thanksgiving [rather than the guys]. But the guys really did suggest very hard that I should marry her," which he later did.
Bell, as it happens, was real-life friends with Hamm long before playing friends-and-more opposite him here. "I've known Jon for many, many years," she says, "so when this came ’round I did audition a couple of times and then they were talking about [moving on to] 'chemistry reads.' And I was like, 'I've known Jon for many years—you can ask Jon what he thinks of me.' I think Jon vouched for me, and once Disney was psyched on me we made a deal."
And it's equally true, say Singh and Bernstein both, that the relationship the agent developed with his young charges did change him for the better. "I'm his family," Bernstein says simply. "It's truly one of those situations where the client relationship has been transcended and Rinku is family first, and I hope he feels the same way about me."
"I have the same feeling as JB," Singh affirms. "He's not [just] my agent—he's like family, he's like a father to us," he adds, speaking also for Patel. "He was there for us, making us feel like a family."
And that's enough to make anyone feel like a million bucks.