The Mound Is Flat
India's first two professional baseball players make a passage to Pennsylvania.
Matt Yglesias once argued that baseball's popularity around the world is a sorry vestige of American manifest destiny—and India is already hopelessly addicted to cricket, which Yglesias dismisses as "the rotting corpse of British imperialism." Throw in a crass reality-show talent search by an American agent, and you have all the makings of a cross-cultural disaster.
Yet judging from the glowingly proud reaction to their signing in India, as well as their own giddy blog entries about their experience so far in America, it's hard not to be happy for Singh and Patel—and to believe that this might be the best thing the Pittsburgh Pirates have done for baseball in a very long time.
Both young men come from villages in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Singh is the son of a truck driver; his mother told the Hindustan Times, "He was often dubbed a loafer because he played sport. Now every villager prays for a loafer like him." The newspaper reports that Patel was raised by an aunt and uncle because his mother and mentally challenged father couldn't afford to. Patel's new contract means his uncle won't have to close his handlooms.
Since they arrived in the United States six months ago, the two men have kept an online diary of their experience. It's endearingly ridiculous, too. First through an interpreter, and later in their own spare, broken English, Singh and Patel take turns gushing about what it's like to learn a silly game like baseball in a silly place like Southern California. If the greatest sportswriter of all, Ring Lardner, could return to write a 21st-century version of his classic You Know Me, Al, he would find inspiration in these two's adventures.
More than baseball—a fantasy that is new to Singh and Patel—their blog is about the power, magic, and challenge of trying to make it in America. "People often hope to conquer this great, so-called 'American Dream' back home in India," Patel told their interpreter in May. "But here we are, the lucky ones blessed with this dream." Singh reflects, "You may think I'm building castles in the air, but there's no hope without a dream, is there?" Both players want to usher in a "baseball revolution" by launching baseball academies in India, and their villages are already swept up in baseball fever. Patel is still learning the rules but goes to bed "dreaming of returning home as the first baseball hero of my country."
Their poignant, comic initiation to Southern California culture seems destined to generate screenplays in Hollywood and Bollywood alike—a cross between Field of Dreams and Slumdog Millionaire. Indeed, this week Patel wrote, "We have been spending free time meeting with many movies and TV peoples. It is unreal to believe someday our friends could see film about me and Rinku." He posted a photo of himself with a producer who knows the Rock.
Singh and Patel gleefully recount one mishap after another. The first time Patel goes up to bat, he tries the underhand uppercut used in cricket. "No surprises, it doesn't work," he admits. Their coach teaches them to swing the bat like an ax instead. After a day of fielding practice, Patel confesses that he's "nervous about the speeding ball hitting me." They do yoga, get their first salon haircuts, visit Barry Bonds, and marvel at his mirror that turns into a TV. A "disastrous outing at the Laundromat" convinces them to write, "We are quite incompetent at laundry."