By Andrew Bagnato
The Associated Press
TEMPE, Ariz. — Squinting into the desert sun, the scouts huddled behind a screen, their radar guns cocked. The catcher went into his crouch as the lanky lefty pawed at the mound, then rocked and fired. The only sounds were a grunt and the pop of the ball in the mitt.
At first glance, it looked like any other big league tryout. This one had a twist: the pitcher, Rinku Singh (right), had never picked up a baseball before May. And he’s from India, better known for producing world class cricketers than pitching aces — although Singh hopes that will soon change.
“Baseball,” Singh said later in halting English. “Love it.”
Singh and Dinesh Patel, both 19, pitched in front of some 30 major league scouts on Thursday at a Tempe sports clinic. The tryout was among their rewards for winning an Indian reality TV show called “The Million Dollar Arm,” which drew more than 30,000 contestants.
A California sports management firm organized the contest. The rules were simple: pick up a baseball and throw it as hard as you can.
Singh and Patel pitched in the Delhi region and topped out in the high 80s mph. That earned them a trip to the U.S., where they’ve spent the last six months training with former USC and major-league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House in Los Angeles.
They’ve pitched in a handful of scrimmages against junior college competition, House said, and spent the rest of the time preparing for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to throw in front of big league scouts on Thursday.
“I don’t know if your bosses made you be here, but I’m glad you’re here,” House told the scouts. “Think of them as two Dominican kids. They’re very raw. But I think this has a huge upside.”
When a scout asked how the teens had adjusted to life in the U.S., House replied, “They hold their own. They speak just enough English to be dangerous. They’re kind of shy, but they get it.”
Neither Singh nor Patel had ever left their respective villages before coming to the States, according to their interpreter, Ash Vasudevan. But while both were understandably nervous on Thursday, neither seemed overwhelmed by the tryout. Both Singh and Patel said they have competed in the javelin in India.
The short, stocky Patel hit 90 on the radar gun during a 30-pitch stint, leading House to call him “a right-handed Billy Wagner.” Singh was clocked at 84.
Singh and Patel threw mostly fastballs, mixing in a handful of breaking pitches. Most of their deliveries were right around the plate, although Patel uncorked one pitch that whizzed past the screen as the scouts flinched and ducked.
“I’m confident,” Patel said through his interpreter. “I think I have a real shot.”
Singh and Patel may not be stars yet. But they have a prominent agent — Jeff Borris (above), who said he decided to represent them after watching a workout at USC.
“I was somewhat of a disbeliever at first, but I had an open mind,” Borris said. “When you think of it, with a billion people (in India), the odds are that someone can throw a baseball hard enough to make the big leagues.”
Indian-born pitchers may be the ultimate niche market, and Borris said he expects to field “multiple offers.”
Ten minutes after the workout, Borris was already making his pitch through the media, noting that Singh and Patel have “hardly any wear on their arms.”
“No one’s saying they’re going to pitch in the big leagues in 2009, but with the proper development, maybe three, four years,” Borris said. “I just wanted them to show promise, throw hard, show their athleticism. I’ve signed guys who are a lot worse. Pitching’s pretty thin.”
For now, the only Indians in major league baseball play in Cleveland. It is not believed that India has ever produced a major leaguer.
Most of the scouts were taking a break from scouting the Arizona Fall League, which wraps up later this month, and several said they were intrigued by what they saw.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ron Schueler, a former big-league pitcher and a senior scout with San Francisco. “You’ve got two athletes who had never picked up a baseball before. Obviously, they’re very crude. The fact that the one kid touched 90, that’s stuff to work with. Their country should be proud of them.”