Prior to the opening of Disney’s latest baseball film, Million Dollar Arm, you may recall that I had the chance to interview Mark Ciardi, one of the film’s producers…who also happens to be a former Brewers pitcher.
Well, the summer has flown by, but somehow, in between baseball games, I had a chance to not only finally see this wonderful film, but to also read the book by the same name and catch up with J.B. Bernstein, the man behind all of it.
In case you’re not familiar, Million Dollar Arm is based on the true story of J.B. (played by Jon Hamm), a sports agent, who finds that the business has changed and his career isn’t going well. In a last-ditch effort to save his livelihood, he concocts a scheme to find baseball’s next pitching ace. Hoping to find a young cricket pitcher he can turn into a Major League Baseball star, J.B. travels to India to produce a reality show competition called “The Million Dollar Arm.” There he discovers two 18-year-old boys, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, who have no idea about playing baseball, yet have a knack for throwing a fastball. The boys are brought back to America to train, and, while they learn the finer points of the game, J.B. learns valuable life lessons about teamwork, commitment and family.
I’m not a film critic, but in my personal opinion, the movie was extremely well done. It was full of touching moments, comic relief and a lot of heart. You definitely don’t have to be a baseball fan, cricket fan, or even a sports fan for that matter, to appreciate the messages that come through (more on those in a bit).
After I saw the movie, I was made aware of the book, which was written by J.B., so I picked that up as well…and then couldn’t put it down. I thought that it might be a little redundant, or boring even, since I had seen the movie first, but that was definitely not the case. The book added a lot more detail and extra anecdotes to the story which obviously had to be cut due to time for the film. The book made me fall in love with the movie and the story all over again, giving me yet an even greater appreciation for what Dinesh, Rinku and J.B. all accomplish in the end.
And, when I spoke to J.B. I told him just as much.
After thanking me, J.B. said, “The book is a great illustration… you realize how much how much of the stuff happened [in the film] exactly as it did in real life. They changed a few things around for dramatic effect, but the real salient parts, the parts people want to be all true….about how we came up with the idea, my trip to India, the boys coming here, me screwing up their first tryout, them being successful at the second one, how I met my wife…those are all pretty much things that happened exactly as they happened in the movie so it was cool to see them stay so close to the true story.
The book affords the luxury of being able to go into more detail, not necessarily needing to have the dramatic effect you have to have in a movie–you know, with two hours, sometimes you have to make up a couple of things or change a couple of things in order to fit it to a movie format.”
As a sports agent, J.B. had some experience in film and publishing through projects with the athletes he represented, but he had never been involved in a feature film.
“It’s very, very different,” he said.
The ball got rolling on turning this story into a film through J.B.’s friendship with Mark Ciardi, the former Brewers pitcher turned Hollywood producer with a reputation for producing heartwarming, feel-good, inspiring sports movies such as The Rookie (2002), Miracle (2004), Invincible(2006) and Secretariat (2010).
“We had a bunch of mutual friends. We bumped into each other the middle of the first contest. I had come home for Super Bowl for a week that last week of January (2008). I bumped into Mark and told him what I was doing and he said: ‘Well you’ve had a lot of crazy ideas that have worked, but this one’s out there, buddy,'” J.B. recalled.
At that time, a movie was the furthest thing from J.B.’s mind as he traveled back to India to continue on with his pursuit of finding the Million Dollar Arm.
It wasn’t until after Rinku and Dinesh had signed on with the Pirates that the pair connected again, this time with the idea for turning the story into a film.
“[Mark] was really excited about it. He was able to get Disney on board pretty quickly,” J.B. said.
[As an aside, J.B. pointed out that two of the major forces involved in Million Dollar Arm have Milwaukee Brewers ties. In addition to Mark Ciardi, Ray Poitevint, the scout that was brought over to India to work on the contest, once served as Scouting and Farm Director and eventually Vice President of International Operations in 15 years with Milwaukee. B.J. Surhoff, Teddy Higuera and Juan Nieves were among his most notable signings with the Club.]
After the project was a go, J.B. says, the producer, director and writer spent months with him, his business partners and Rinku and Dinesh, getting the story and then pairing it down into a script.
“It was telling them what happened and then trusting them to make a great movie based on that,” said J.B.
And make a great movie, they did. It opened here in the U.S. in May and has been going through a geographic roll-out this summer, including launching in India.
“I know on Twitter every time it hits another country because my Twitter will blow up with messages in [other languages] and you have the translate button to find out if you’re getting good or bad reviews,” J.B. joked.
“It’s been exciting to see it get some traction in other countries. It’s been really well received [in India]. Any American movie over there is going to be different than a Bollywood movie.”
But, he says, the film has been very critically acclaimed.
“The thing that I’m most proud of, because the story is told through my eyes, are the comments that we’re getting back about the portrayal of India….I loved being in India and ultimately, I’m proud of the fact that you hear Indian people saying it was a fair and good portrayal of their country.”
One of the things I think that has led to the films success is its broad appeal. As I noted fan earlier, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the story’s message.
“To me, baseball is the context,” he says, but he feels the movie has two main messages.
The first, J.B. says is, “Achieving your dreams is possible in ways that are maybe unimaginable at the outside of your journey, but if you work hard and stay true to your talent and have good people around you….America is like no other country in the world, where you can come here and have an American dream and have that kind of success that in a million years you really couldn’t achieve in other countries.”
The second message, J.B. says, is “It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late in life to take the opportunity to be a better person. It’s never too late to try to make an impact on society and change who you are and who you want to be. Those are the two things I hope people walk away with from this movie.”
The first message relates more to Rinku and Dinesh, whereas the second message relates to J.B., who, as a jet-setting bachelor with a high power job, suddenly found himself outside of his comfort zone, causing him to re-evaluate a lot of things personally.
“I went through a metamorphosis that started in India….the people and the culture and being there, starting to remember some of the lessons of life… the importance of family…having the boys then come live with me… really reinforced the power of having a family, the pride you can take in being part of somebody else’s success. Those are things that I think Rinku and Dinesh really brought out in me that probably were dormant. Before that, I thought about my business–that was my job to create wealth, and deals and new paradigms or shifts in the way business was done. Those were all kinds of things that I was proud of, but as opposed to really being able to be happy for someone else, to help someone else prepare, to watch them succeed, to be kind of a bystander, to me, that was really unique.
“Those were some of the things that I think really prepared me to not only want to get married but to want to have a child of my own, to have my own family,” J.B., who is now married and has a 3-year-old daughter, reflected.
“At the end of the day, all of the things I spent most of my life running from were the only things in the end that really ended up making me happy which is one of the bizarre ironies of life.”
Indeed. And those two main messages are illustrated perfectly by the beautiful storytelling in both the Million Dollar Arm film and book.
As for the contest itself and the future of baseball in India?
J.B.’s driven business side has paid off. The Million Dollar Arm contest continues to flourish in India and is now officially partnered with Major League Baseball International and renamed Major League Baseball Million Dollar Arm. They expect to have over 500,000 kids try their hand at pitching in this year’s competition.
“To me, it’s not just a mutual benefit for the League to have inroads into India, but it’s a compliment to have them say this is something worthwhile, to be a part of, to help them further their goal of expanding into India,” J.B. said.
To say cricket is the dominant sport in India is an understatement, but J.B. believes that baseball does have the potential to reach new heights by tapping into India.
“Our opinion is that if you find that star, you have people following them out of nationalistic pride….You’re able to build your fan base, sell jerseys and ultimately that’s what creates demand, where all of a sudden the idea pops into a kid’s head,’ ‘Hey I want to be like Rinku Singh.’ That’s our goal, that’s always been our premise from day one. If you can find that guy that people can rally around, support and follow…in following him, you’ll just naturally convert people over to the sport,” he said.
“Realistically, baseball has made more inroads into India than any other international sport. Lots of leagues are over there, trying to develop talent, but MLB is the only league that actually has a guy from India playing anywhere in the ranks….It’s exciting to be part of something so historical, to think that I might have even the smallest part in finding the Yao Ming of baseball for India. That to me is just mind-boggling.”