A skeptic at first, House had one objective, he says: "to take those good arms and give the pitchers some skills to go with their genetic talent." The two spent hours and hours in the bullpen and the classroom, learning the mechanics of pitching. By the middle of last summer House concluded that their previous inexperience was actually an asset: It gave him the opportunity to work with a blank canvas. "Because they hadn't played before, they didn't have any bad habits," House says. "I came to realize that it was easier to teach a new skill to someone who doesn't know than to unteach someone who thinks they do know."
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.