Saturday, March 7, 2009

Indians playing for the Pirates, and I'm not talking about a spring training transaction.

A reader and blogger sent along word of this piece from ABC News last week, a three-minute clip about Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two Indian 20-year-olds who the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates signed as pitchers last fall. As they had no experience as baseball players before being signed, they're in camp learning how to field, bat, and other basic mechanics of the game. Just like the rest of the Pirates, now that I think about it. Otherwise nothing remarkable about the video, though the two pitchers' stories are kind of interesting.
Singh and Patel came to the United States six months ago after being the top finishers in an Indian reality TV show called the “Million Dollar Arm” that drew about 30,000 contestants. The show sought to find athletes who could throw strikes at 85 miles per hour or faster.

While neither pitcher threw hard enough to earn the $1 million prize, Singh made $100,000 from the contest and Patel made $2,500, plus his trip to the United States.

. . .
Neither pitcher has taken the mound in a game situation, no doubt a first for a Pirates prospect. They have pitched in scrimmages against junior college competition.

Both threw the javelin in India, a country best known for producing cricket players, and neither the right-hander Patel nor the left-hander Singh had left his small village before coming to the United States. Singh was born in Bhadoni, Uttar Pradesh, and is the youngest of nine children. Patel is from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and has four brothers and sisters.

The attitude in Pittsburgh seems to be "well, they can't do any worse." The Pirates are set to begin their 16th consecutive losing season in April, and over the last two decades have become notorious for bad trades, bad drafts, bad signings, bad management, and bad players.

Something I've thought about---I mean, if they have no serious intention of competing anyway---is to go ahead and have, say, 75% of their draft comprised of Western Pennsylvania players. Okay, I don't think there are that many eligible players each year, but it's not that far-fetched an idea to grab up all the players in the area, and rather than fielding a glorified minor league team every year---a team comprised of players nobody else wants and prospects who are about a year or two away from becoming busts---why not at least bring out fans to watch local boys do good? And when you consider that the Major League Baseball draft has 50 rounds, and that few of the Pirates' picks ever turn into decent players, why the hell not?

Pittsburgh isn't really a hotbed for young baseball talent---raising a generation of fans who have never seen a winning Pirates' season will do that---though there are some players who make it. The Pirates' first round choice in the 2004 draft was Neil Walker, a catcher turned third-baseman from a high school just up the road from mine.

Consider, again, that each year teams draft 50 players, and consider how few of the Pirates' picks have done anything. If you go back through the drafts this decade you can usually count on one hand the number of players who played in the big leagues. The number gets smaller when you take out the players who made it with other teams.

There are no star players in the majors from Pittsburgh, but I think Pirates' fans would rather cheer for an average local guy than for an average guy fresh out the minors or signed to a one-year-and-done contract. For instance, a name I hear in my house a lot is Cory Sullivan, a fringe Major Leaguer two years my senior who graduated from the same high school as me (though he's from Tulsa). He's not exactly . . . good, but does that disqualify him for playing in Pittsburgh? The Pirates also had Sean Casey, "the friendliest player in baseball," for part of a season, although his suckage was greatly distorted because of his inflated salary. (And like most other Pirates, he became much, much better after he left.) If The Baseball Cube is to be trusted, there are dozens of other Pittsburgh-born players eitehr in the minors or in college, though you really can't go solely off that. Pittsburghers are proud, but not Korean-proud: if you were born in Pittsburgh but grew up somewhere else, you're not really from Pittsburgh. You'd have to look at people who played high school or college ball in the area, and at people who grew up in nearby cities and in regions within the Pirates' ever-shrinking sphere of influence.

Whether these two pitchers will pan out or not is anybody's guess. But their signing with the Pirates will have positive consequences, even though they're treated like sideshows and the subject of constant jokes like "Harold and Kumar go to Pittsburgh," or Pirates sign the wrong kind of Indian. It doesn't help that the gameshow basically was a sideshow, but the coverage often carries the tone of there being nothing more wacky in this crazy, mixed-up world we live in than two Indians playing baseball. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it having lived through "HOLY SHIT foreigners making kimchi!" or constantly making mockeries of foreigners on Korean TV, or acting as if putting a foreigner in hanbok is like putting boots on a poodle, or calling black athletes "black pearls."

And you just know that in a couple of years, when Singh and Patel make the team, they'll be around in the off-season helping out at a local Toys for Tots, when one of the resident dumb-ass Pittsburgh sports journalists will do a piece titled "Singh and Patel curry favor with local kids."

That's not the best attitude, and I'm not saying that only because it's degrading. These two will do in India what Hines Ward did in Korea; put Pittsburgh on the map, in the public consciousness. The average Korean knows Pittsburgh not for Carnegie Mellon University or for being a hub *cough* of cancer research, but for being where Hines Ward plays. Now, maybe they don't know who Hines Ward is---the Korean who did that thing good very handsome he Korean!---but when I tell people I'm from Pittsburgh I at least get more recognition than I would if I were from, say, Kansas City, Portland, or even Philadelphia.

Likewise, my girlfriend knew of Pittsburgh because of Masumi Kuwata, the past-his-prime pitcher who became the first Japanese player in Pirates' history. It would be infinitely better if the Pirates would sign Japanese, Korean, and Indian players who can actually stick with the club and do something, because it might give them a leg up in signing younger talent from those countries,

But for the time being they're a sideshow, at least to the casual sports fan. And they will be, probably, until they prove themselves. Nevertheless, ridiculing the two young men because of their nationality does nothing for Pittsburgh's reputation overseas, and makes the country as a whole look bad if the average Indian conflates the two. Constantly belittling them goes to show that---and let me trot out a cliche here---even though we have a black President, and more importantly for Pittsburgh a black running back, we're still not above laughing at the minorities. Even when those minorities number one billion.


kushibo said...

That fan map is way cool. It's true of California, that's for sure. I also remember reading a John Grisham novel about his childhood where they in Arkansas were always nuts for the St. Louis Cardinals, and I know my relatives who have had the misfortunate to live in either of the Dakotas can attest to the eastern part of ND and SD and their fandom for the Twins.

Anyway, I think being from an area where the home team is usually an underdog is a character-building experience.

jawick said...

It's hard to play in the shadow of those Superbowl happy Steelers and World Series Champs from across the state.

John from Daejeon

Douglas said...

Yeah, it sucks when you got a pro team that hasn't won in a generation. Could be worse though, just ask those poor saps in Toronto who haven't seen their Leafs bring Stanley home since 1967. But hey, who knows. Maybe those minor leaguers that the Pirates got for Jason Bay might turn out to be worth it.

Email Us said...

Baseball was the most popular sport in Korea till the 2002 World Cup. Now, I'm not so sure.

samedi said...

I'm curious how they came up with the stats that west coast Oregonians like the Giants and folks in Idaho leading into Utah are mostly fans of the Mariners. Anyway, that is a great map you put up.

Have you been following the World Baseball Classic over the past couple of days? Watched the game between Korea and Japan earlier tonight, but will refrain from posting the score if you intend to catch it from another source later.

Seattle had a top-level soccer team for quite some time until the leagues folded and were subsequently brought back in 1994 to coincide with the US hosting the World Cup. At that point the Seattle Sounders were only an A-League (second division) team but were granted a franchise expansion slot for this year.

The reason why I bring this up is to say that the General Management for the club have expressed an interest in signing a lot of local players as well as players from Asian countries represented by a sizable immigrant community in the area. On top of that, all season-ticket holders have voting rights for selecting GM members and other important club decisisons - which I assume may also include future signings. Nice to see power spread out to include the folks who show up at the games. The club have had Vietnamese-American and Hawaiian players, so it may only be a matter of time before someone from the K-League gets signed.