The Original Amazing Indian Reality Show (cont.)
Before long, Singh had developed a decent breaking ball and was getting the hang of a changeup, a pitch that comes late to even the game's top prospects. Patel was consistently throwing around 90 mph. House sent them off to play a series of simulated games against high school kids at a baseball camp and against Vanguard University. "When they first faced real-life batters, they got a little anxious and wild," House says. "But they got better with every game."
By early November, Bernstein was confident enough in Singh and Patel to arrange a tryout in Tempe; scouts from every MLB team were invited. It was a disaster. Just a few of their pitches reached the high 80s, and they showed little control. They now blame the unfamiliar setting and the mound -- "too slippery," says Singh. The scouts were unimpressed, and the players shattered. "I thought, This is it. Now they'll send us back to India, and I'll go home empty-handed," Patel recalls. "At least Rinku had his $100,000. Me, I'd have to go to the army after all."
Bernstein, however, was able to persuade several scouts to take a second look, this time at USC. On what was effectively their home turf, Singh and Patel hit 90 mph and displayed a serviceable array of curveballs and sliders. The scouts sat up and took notice -- and the Pittsburgh Pirates snapped them both up. "I was very cynical going in," says Joe Ferrone, one of the two Pirates scouts who recommended the signings. "I thought, If two kids can learn baseball in five or six months, then that minimizes what everybody else does, players who spend a lifetime learning the sport."
But when the Pirates saw them, "they didn't look like two kids just five to six months into their baseball careers," says Sean Campbell, the other Pittsburgh scout who attended the USC workout. "They looked like they'd been doing it 10 to 12 years."
Even to an untrained eye, the sight of Singh and Patel hurling fastballs from the practice mound in Bradenton looks a lot more like the real thing than those javelin throwers from last year's TV show. A week into spring training, this is their first stint on the mound, and they're being watched intently by Pirates minor league pitching coach Miguel Bonilla and field coordinator Jeff Banister.
Bonilla's heavily accented English is a special challenge for Singh and Patel, but his body language is clear enough. In Singh's first few throws, his body flings too far forward, leaving him slightly off-balance; Bonilla steps in and mimics (with some exaggeration) his mistakes. "Like this, like this," he says, displaying a more compact windup and motion. Singh watches intently and says, "Yes, sir." Then he copies his coach, throwing with less velocity but more correctly -- and accurately. Banister, the day's catcher, shouts encouragement. Five or six throws in, Singh begins to turn up the heat. The ball thwacks into the glove of Banister, who nods approvingly. Bonilla arches his eyebrows. "He's ready to bring it, baby!" he exclaims. "Oh, yeah," Banister grins.
"Yes, sir," says Singh, politely. But there's triumph in his eyes.
It's Patel's turn. With his shorter, more muscular frame, he looks less like a natural pitcher. But his arm speed seems to compensate for any physical disadvantages. Having watched Bonilla direct Singh, he's better prepared than his countryman. Thwack, thwack, thwack. Banister grunts as each ball smacks the glove. Bonilla stands back, satisfied. "Gooooooooood," he says. "Gooooooooood."
Patel bumps fists with Singh. They're learning American hand gestures almost as fast as the language.
The next day Banister watches as a Pirates coach puts six young pitchers through running drills. Singh and Patel are constantly sprinting ahead of the pack, forcing the others to pick up their pace. During breaks between laps, Singh stands ramrod erect while the others collapse onto the turf. "Damn, you're a ma-chine," gasps Michael Felix, a minor leaguer who's in his third spring training with Pittsburgh. Singh, not understanding the reference, looks away, embarrassed.
Banister is satisfied with what he's seen so far. "The fact that they have to be first, even in [running drills], tells me these guys want to compete," he says. "They know they have a long way to catch up to the others, but they're not worried about that."
In the evening after the grueling running drills, Singh is showing off his pool skills in the Pirate City rec room. He's already hustled a member of the clubhouse staff into believing that he didn't know the game -- and promptly beat him. His thunderous break sends balls scattering. "Sometimes, I hit the white ball so hard, it flies off the table," he says, grinning. Clearly, he hasn't yet grasped all the objectives of this game.
With baseball, on the other hand, he and Patel are developing a firm command. In their hostel room they spend hours watching the great pitchers on YouTube -- Randy Johnson, a USC alum whom they met briefly in L.A., is a favorite. (They've met Barry Bonds, too, but know next to nothing about A-Rod, and I had to explain the whole sorry steroids scandal to them.) I help them find the video of that Johnson pitch that obliterated a dove during a 2001 spring training game. "That's amazing," Patel says. "Add it to my favorites. I want to learn from him to do that." What, kill a bird in mid-flight? "No, I want to pitch like that."
They also instruct and test each other from a well-thumbed copy of Baseball for Dummies. "Single to the right," Patel asks. "Runners on first and third. What do you do?"
"Back up third base," Singh replies.
"Single to the left, runner on first," says Patel.
"Follow flight of the ball, then decide ... usually [back up] third."
In any sport, there's only so much you can learn from books or videos. Even Bernstein concedes that his clients have "a 12- to 14-year deficit" relative to their peers. If they were hitters, House says, they'd stand no chance of closing that gap. "But a pitcher, if you have a good delivery, you can learn to strike people out pretty quickly," he says. The Pirates will likely keep Singh and Patel in extended spring training, get them into the Rookie Gulf Coast League and give them lots of short bursts as relief pitchers -- at this point, frequency is more important than duration. If the Pirates stick to this plan, House reckons, "there's a 75-25 chance they'll acquire the experience they need within a year."
Do Singh and Patel have a realistic shot at the majors? It's a long shot, and they're smart enough to set realistic goals -- for now. Patel says the low A squad may be within their reach this summer; Singh thinks high A is feasible. But that's still months away. For now, these two farm boys from Uttar Pradesh are content to push themselves harder and harder at Pirate City. "Learning, learning, learning...all the time," Singh says. "We don't want to go out, don't want to do anything else."
Before I leave, they ask me if I can help them learn a few phrases of Spanish, the better to communicate with Bonilla. The first phrase they want to learn?
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