As Christopher Hitchens eloquently suggested in the wake of last week's tragic terrorist attacks, India may well be America's most important ally. If so, last week also brought news of our most improbable form of foreign aid: the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a move that underscored both the common bonds and the cultural distance between India and the United States, the lowly Pirates signed two young pitchers who will become the first Indians ever to play professional sports in America.
Before last Monday's signing, few in India had ever heard of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is just as well. This year the Bucs tied the all-time record with their 16th-consecutive losing season, and next year they're on track to become the biggest losers in the history of professional sport. The Pittsburgh franchise is the General Motors of baseball, still reeling from disastrous mismanagement in the 1990s and early years of this decade. If TARP covered the major leagues, the Pirates would be first in the bailout queue.
But in India, baseball is such a novelty that the Pirates might as well be the New York Yankees. The Hindustan Times reported, "Two Indian teenagers created history in the US sports Monday when they were signed up by prestigious baseball team Pittsburgh Pirates, five times World Series Champions." Never mind that the Bucs' last world championship was 30 years ago. With one grand, unlikely gesture, a team from western Pennsylvania has introduced America's national pastime to the second-most-populous nation on earth.
In many ways, the whole episode is like the Pirates themselves—endearingly ridiculous. Pittsburgh discovered the two Indian pitchers, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, thanks to an Indian reality show called The Million-Dollar Arm, the brainchild of Miami sports agent J.B. Bernstein. The show's premise—that any nation with 500 million men must have a Nolan Ryan somewhere—sounds like Tom Friedman trying to peddle a sequel, The Mound Is Flat.
Bernstein promised a cool million to any Indian who could throw a baseball accurately at 85 mph. Of the 20,000 Indians who competed, Singh and Patel came closest, doing well enough to earn some cash and a chance to try out here in the United States.
Neither man stands much chance of pitching in the big leagues, even for the Pirates, who gave up more runs by far than any other team in the National League this past season. In fact, neither Singh nor Patel had ever pitched in an actual baseball game. Both athletes trained as javelin hurlers. When they arrived in the United States this spring, they had to be taught to wear a baseball glove and not try to catch the ball with their bare hand. "What did the shortstop do wrong?" Patel asked their coach. "He's the only one without a base."