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Disney’s new baseball film: A Million Dollar Yarn

Mad Men's Jon Hamm as desperate sports agent J.B. Bernstein Credit: Credit: Disney

Even Mickey Mouse is kicking the lowly Mariners. The Ms appear to be resurgent this season (it’s only May, give it time), but Disney Pictures sends a little trash talk their way in its latest film, A Million Dollar Arm.

First some Million Dollar scene-setting. J.B. Bernstein, a down-on-his luck sports agent played by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, decides to launch a competition spanning the Indian sub-continent. Bernstein's looking for baseball pitching talent, and a new supply of clients to save his struggling business.

Drunkenly channel surfing one evening, flipping back and forth between a singing competition and a cricket match, Bernstein has an idea: an American Idol-like pitching competition whose winners travel to the U.S. for a tryout with Major League Baseball. It's not so crazy. The overhand motion, power and finesse of a cricket bowler are quite similar to a baseball pitcher's. And with more than a billion cricket fans in India, Bernstein reasons, surely the next King Felix or Hisashi Iwakuma is hiding somewhere in Goa or Mumbai.

The first winning contestants come to the States. Gobs of scouts turn out to see them throw. After a dismal tryout, Bernstein is seen talking up one of the grizzled old scouts about the potential of these Indian pitchers. And here’s where the film’s writers decide to have a little fun at the Mariners’ expense.

We just don’t see the potential, says the Mariners scout. Even we wouldn't draft these guys.

With that, the entire theater erupted in laughter at a recent screening of the film at Northgate Mall. Later, satisfied viewers filing out of the theater could still be heard yucking it up about the Mariners’ inability over the years to spot talent. The Mariners might have been right back then, but the fans aren’t cutting them slack anymore.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who back in 2008 had suffered through 16 consecutive losing seasons, took the two Indian prodigies. Both went on to win games at the professional level and one, the left-handed Rinku Singh, is still on the Pirates' minor league roster. The right-hander, Dinesh Patel, has since returned to India where he continued to work on the Million Dollar Arm competition.

Back in 2008 The New York Times was among the first to report on  the story. The film based on the story opens this Friday. “I’m not saying we’ve created the next Dominican Republic by any stretch,” Pittsburgh General Manager Neal Huntington told the Times six years ago. “But it’s an intriguing market to get into, and who knows where it’s going to lead? We figured there was no cost, and it’s worth a shot to see what might develop out of it.”

Million Dollar Arm will likely be a short-lived, feel good summer film. It joins an ever-growing library of quirky baseball pictures with an international flavor (Think Mexico's The Scout and Mr. Baseball from Japan), as well as a growing number of Americans-discover-India films (Think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the Darjeeling Limited.) It is not the best of either genre, yet I found myself truly enjoying it. The treatment of baseball scouting is pretty accurate and the swelling Indian music coupled with the cinematography — beauty and poverty — captures today’s India.

Last year I wondered around the cricket fields of Seattle where growing numbers of Indians who come here to write code for technology companies play their beloved game, often in plain sight of Little League, high school and college baseball games. I fell in love with the game while on a trip to India several years ago.

I couldn’t help but think of the tens of thousands of Indian programmers who came here yesterday, or years ago, when I watched a scene midway through the film. One of the boys has just won the pitching competition, He is standing at the center of a large farewell ceremony in his rural Indian village. Soon he will travel to America for a tryout with Major League Baseball. Bernstein and his associates are so excited for the young man yet the faces of his family are filled with tears and anguish. Opportunity comes with sacrifice, as so many immigrants can attest.

Disney, ever the opportunist, clearly sees value in connecting its brand with the Indian experience. Last month the Disney-owned ESPN surprised the sports world by broadcasting an Indian Premier League cricket series in the U.S.. The move caught the eye of Tonight Show host, Jimmy Fallon. “It’s like baseball," joked Fallon, "only worse.”

Humor is the glue that holds this film together. While Hamm is clearly the star, the Indian actors often steal the show with their eager English speaking and observations about Indian life. 

When Bernstein asks his Indian partner why there is so much honking, Vivek explains, “Indians love honking.” Later when Bernstein asks him how he will spread the word about the Million Dollar Arm competition, Vivek says, “Indians love honking and spreading the word.” Even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, Vivek maintains that “things are working very smoothly.”

Indian culture is increasingly visible here in the Northwest. Wednesday’s front page of the Seattle Times presented the opening of a new Hindu temple in Bothell, and the Seattle Globalist recently reported on how local Indians are watching the elections carefully back home.

You might not boost your baseball, cricket or geopolitical IQ by seeing the Million Dollar Arm, but you will definitely enjoy a couple of hours watching the cultural mash-up.  

As the pitchers say just before their American tryout: “India on three!”

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