Single-minded sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) gets home after another day of major league scouts not wanting to see his two pitching prospects from India. His house is dark, the boys are gone, and he's feeling as low as he can go. Then, he looks up to see lights in his backyard. He steps out, and in one of those scenes that only happen in movies, his Indian charges have cooked a romantic dinner for him and his friend Brenda (Lake Bell), who comes out resplendent in a sari.
And that only-in-a-movie dinner scene really happened.
"Not only did that really happen," says the real-life Bernstein, whose experiences inspired the movie "Million Dollar Arm," opening next Friday, "but that's almost the exact sari I brought back from India for Brenda to wear. The only difference was that Brenda cooked that Hindi-theme Thanksgiving. But the guys really did suggest very hard that I should marry her," which he later did.
"In real life, Brenda. . . cooked, but everything else was totally true -- she even wore a sari. It was beautiful. I felt very regal -- like a princess," Bell says.
And while the movie may seem too fable-like to be true, sports reporters galore covered the events when Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, "Life of Pi") and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, "Slumdog Millionaire") won a reality-TV competition to go to the United States, train and become what Major League Baseball called the first pro baseball players from India.
So what made Bernstein -- an East Northport native, John Glenn High School class of '86 -- go scout a subcontinent where cricket is the national pastime? It was a group decision, he says, involving himself, real estate investor and San Francisco Giants part-owner Will Chang (Tzi Ma) and Chang's business partner, Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi). A San Francisco Chronicle article in December has Chang crediting himself and Vasudevan, a native of India, with the idea, and recruiting a "reluctant" Bernstein -- who says today the paper got it wrong. The article's writer, Henry Schulman, told Newsday, "I have nothing to say on the record."
Bernstein's publicist emailed to clarify that "any endeavor has its kinks to work out," and explained, "Will and Ash wanted to look for talent in Asia. In meeting J.B. and learning he was also thinking about the same idea and looking for his next big client in Asia ... they came together as partners, hashed out all the details over several weeks and, ultimately, we all know how well it all worked out."
According to Disney, the movie germinated when Bernstein, at a Super Bowl party before leaving for India, described his quest to producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, whose fact-based sports movies include Kurt Russell's hockey film "Miracle" (2004) and the horseracing picture "Secretariat" (2010). Two years later -- the crazy idea having actually worked -- they made a deal with Bernstein and his group and brought on producers Joe Roth -- who already knew the real-life story from sports coverage -- and Palak Patel. They chose director Craig Gillespie based largely on the quirky tone of his 2007 comedy-drama "Lars and the Real Girl," and then screenwriter Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent").
"The Million Dollar Arm" pitching competition had launched on Indian television in November 2007. The next May, the two victors arrived in the U.S. to train under University of Southern California pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). And on Nov. 24, 2008, they signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates -- or more specifically, the Pirates' Gulf Coast League farm team.
Singh went on to another Pirates farm team, the State College Spikes (of the Class A NY-Penn League), and through 2011 and 2012 also played professionally during the offseason in the Dominican Republic and Australia. "I went through some injuries last year," Singh, still with the Pirates organization, says today, "and got surgery done five months back, and I'm still rehabbing. So I won't be able to get on the mound till August."
Patel returned to India after his contract expired in 2010. Says Singh, "I believe he is finishing his degree, which is very important. I wish I can get mine. He's doing that at the same time as javelin and volunteer community service for young kids, to inspire them and share his journey."
A FEW TWEAKS TO REALITY
And for all the differences between real life and reel life -- Brenda, for instance, wasn't a doctor renting out Bernstein's guesthouse but an aviation executive living in the penthouse opposite his -- the emotional core of a driven man who learns to be part of a family is true, Bernstein says.
"I was myopic," he muses. "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."
But he got better -- and Singh sings his praises. "He's like a father to us," he says, speaking also for Patel. "He was there for us, making us feel like a family. And Will Chang, and Ash. ... These people were the biggest support system I ever had besides my mom and dad."
Sports fantasies that came true
Making baseball pitchers out of cricket bowlers -- yes, that's what the guys who throw the ball are called -- is a daunting task worthy of being made into a movie. But the story of J.B. Bernstein, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel isn't the only cinematic tale of real-life unlikely athletes. Here are five more that may bowl you over.
RUDY (1993) Sean Astin stars as Daniel E. "Rudy" Ruettiger, a small-statured Midwesterner who dreams of playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Against all odds, he gets the chance to suit up for the final game of his senior year. Will the coach put him in?
COOL RUNNINGS (1993) There's plenty of grass in Jamaica, but no snow. That didn't stop four would-be Olympians and the (fictional) disgraced American bobsledder (John Candy) coaching them.
SEABISCUIT (2003) He was undersized and knobby-kneed, and his jockey was blind in one eye. Yet, the thoroughbred Seabiscuit and his rider, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), made horse-racing history in the 1930s.
THE WORLD'S FASTEST INDIAN (2005) As in Indian-brand motorcycles, like the one Marlon Brando rode in "The Wild One." Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) was no Brando -- but in his 60s, he set the first of three motorcycle speed records.
PRIDE (2007) In 1970s inner-city Philadelphia, former competitive swimmer Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), now with the city's parks and rec, has only an empty, dilapidated pool to work with, and kids who'd rather play basketball than form one of the first African-American swim teams.