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From the Mound to the Movies: Former Brewers Pitcher Mark Ciardi is Producer of Million Dollar Arm; Film Opens Friday

Disney’s highly-anticipated baseball film Million Dollar Arm is set to open this Friday, May 16.

Based on a true story, sports agent JB Bernstein (played by Jon Hamm) 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, JB 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, JB learns valuable life lessons about teamwork, commitment and family.

I’m sure Brewers fans have seen the trailers, if not on TV or in theatres, then when they are played before games at Miller Park…but what Brewers fans may not be aware of is the direct tie to their home team.

One of the film’s producers is Mark Ciardi, former Brewers pitcher.

I had a chance to catch up with him last week. We discussed his time with the team and how he made the leap from the Majors to Hollywood.

 Read on.

Mark was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1982 out of the University of Maryland, but chose to finish out his college career instead of signing with the team. However, the Club showed a lot of interest in Mark and drafted him again the following year.

Mark Ciardi Brewers

Mark Ciardi pitched in the Brewers organization from 1983-1988.

This time, Mark signed with the team and spent four seasons in the minor league system before making his Major League debut on April 9, 1987.

A Member of Team Streak

Yes, that 1987, as in Team Streak 1987. April 9 was game 3 of what would end up to be a record-tying 13-game winning streak to start the season.

Mark came into the game against the Red Sox in relief of starter Mike Birkbeck and pitched four innings that day, striking out 1 and giving up 3 hits, 3 walks, and 5 earned runs. Yet Team Streak prevailed in what turned out to be a slugfest, winning 12-11.

Mark Ciardi, pitching for the Crew in 1987. Those weren't "retro" uniforms back then.

Mark Ciardi, pitching for the Crew in 1987. Those weren’t “retro” uniforms back then.

“The first game I got in was the third game of the year,” Mark recalled. “I got in, I was kind of long-long relief. I got in to face the Red Sox at County Stadium. I think the first guys I faced were Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, so it was a lot of fun.”

The next time Mark pitched was April 14, game 8 of the streak. He started that game and ended up with the win (his line: 5 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 4 BB, 2 K), as the Brewers beat the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards 7-4.

“I pitched at the University of Maryland and got to go to Baltimore and see a lot of family and friends,” he remembers.

But then…

“Unfortunately, I got the ball in game 14 and didn’t fare so well,” Mark said.

April 21, 1987, Brewers at White Sox. In 2.1 innings, Mark struck out 3 batters, but gave up 7 hits and 1 walk and was tagged with 5 earned runs and ultimately, the 7-1 loss.

“But it was just great during the streak,” he recalls, “There were some great comeback wins… Juan Nieves’ no-hitter…. To start the season off like we did really put a spotlight on things which was pretty incredible. I think it was covered in Time Magazine, there were interviews everywhere, tying a Major League record to start the season. Every year, I look at the start of the season and you know, maybe 7-0, 8-0 was the closest…. and to think that we got to 13-0…”

After that fateful game, Mark pitched in one more contest (April 28, 1987) with the Crew before being sent down to the minors. At the time, Mark thought he’d be called up again soon, but unfortunately it didn’t work out and due to nagging injuries, he ended up retiring during the 1988 season.

“I thought I would get back up and I didn’t, but I’m glad I got to spend some time in the big leagues. I really, really enjoyed my time there,” he said.

Everything Happens For a Reason

Well, I for one have always believed that things happen for a reason though, and it seems like that is certainly true in Mark’s case.

During his time with the Brewers, he had moved out to Los Angeles because his agent was there. Looking for an off-season job and “try[ing] to get the highest-paying least amount of work possible,” Mark says he ended up walking into a modeling agency and started doing that. Modeling led to doing some commercials which ultimately led to acting classes.

So, seven years after his playing days had ended, he used the money he made from modeling and acting, as well as his West Coast connections, to partner with Gordon Gray and start the production company Mayhem Pictures, which possesses a first-look production deal with Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group.

Mark’s Rookie Film…. The Rookie

 And in his very first “at-bat” in Hollywood, Mark hit a home run. His first credit as producer was for another popular baseball film, 2002’s The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid and he can trace that success back to the time he spent with the Brewers.

The Rookie is based on the true story of Jim Morris, a promising young pitcher who was forced to drop out of the minor leagues due to injury. Twelve years later, as a high school teacher and coach of the school’s baseball team, he makes a promise to his players—If they win the district championship, he’ll try out for the big leagues. Well, the team holds up their end of the bargain and so does Jim, which ultimately results in him finally realizing his dream of playing in the big leagues at the “ripe old” age of 35.

Jim Morris was originally drafted in 1983. By the Brewers. The same year as Mark.

“I lost touch with [Jim Morris], like most of the guys you play with, and then I read a story in Sports Illustrated and didn’t know it was Jimmy. I was reading the story thinking this would make an amazing movie. This was right when my partner and I had started our company and I couldn’t believe it….Later on at the end of the story, it said he signed with the Brewers in 1983, never got above A-Ball… and I was like ‘Oh my god, it’s Jimmy Morris,’” Mark recalls.

Mark was able to get in touch with Jim and, although he wasn’t the only one with the idea that this story would make a great film, he does believe that the Brewers connection helped in securing the rights.

“I think ultimately it came down to comfort. We didn’t have a list of movies to point to, but I think having us and Disney gave the agent and Jimmy great confidence and I’m glad it worked out that way,” Mark said.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“It was kind of the perfect movie to come out with and to brand what we do now. With Million Dollar Arm, it’s our seventh movie with Disney and we have another one we just finished….We’ve really got a brand in sports films, probably bigger than any other producers in Hollywood. It’s exciting,” he says.

It’s true. After The Rookie (2002), Mayhem has also produced Miracle (2004), Invincible (2006) and Secretariat (2010), among others, earning him a reputation for producing heartwarming, feel-good, inspiring sports movies.

With movies about baseball, hockey, football, and horse racing under his belt (and a movie on the way later this year about a high school track team [McFarland]), because Million Dollar Arm is now his second baseball motion picture, as a former Major League Baseball player, does he find that baseball movies have a special place in his heart, or resonate more with him?

“Yeah they definitely do. Having played, you know… I didn’t set out to make baseball movies, but boy when you get the opportunity, especially with The Rookie, to have that as your first movie….I just can’t imagine if we didn’t get the rights and weren’t able to tell that story, what would have happened to our careers or the path we would have been on, but it was great. We get first crack at a lot of these sports stories now and it was all really a result of that first movie and 10 years later to be able to tell another baseball story…” Mark said.

Million Dollar Arm

Like his connection with Jim Morris in The Rookie, Million Dollar Arm came about because of another personal connection for Mark.

“I’m friends with JB (Bernstein)….I ran into him right before he was going over to India to start this thing (the “Million Dollar Arm” competition) and I was like ‘Good luck man’ and a year and a half later he comes into my office and he’s got these kids signed. It was an amazing, amazing story,” Mark says.

“You always look for underdog stories and you know, much like The Rookie, Million Dollar Arm is that. These kids never even knew what a baseball was and six months later, they’re getting signed.”

“You either have a story like Secretariat or Miracle where everybody knows this is a famous story, or you get the smaller ones like The Rookie, or Invincible or Million Dollar Arm, where it’s not like these guys are perennial all-stars or it’s a huge event,” Mark continued.

These are small stories and underdog stories and I think sports fans love those. And you know, to see these kids signed at the end and all the real photos and images afterwards is just a lot of fun. I think it’s such a great movie and the good thing is, you don’t even have to be a big fan of baseball. There are no games to watch. It’s a lot of training and then really tryouts, so you don’t get stuck really having to go through tons of games and building all these different things…so in a way, it will appeal to people who don’t understand baseball and that was really our hope going in, that it would appeal to baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike,” Mark says.

And, since Million Dollar Arm centers on pitching, with a pitching contest that offered a prize of $100,000 to the pitcher who could throw the most strikes over 85 mph in a 20-pitch span—and the chance to win $1 million if he could follow that feat by throwing three consecutive strikes of at least 90 mph, as a pitcher in the ‘80s, I had to ask Mark: What was the top speed of his fastball?

“You know I was consistently in the high 80s and touched maybe 90s every now and then….I used to chart pitches in AAA and so many of those guys reached the big leagues, but there were maybe only 3-4 guys who would go consistently above 90 mph and even then, they’d be in the low 90s….and that was Chris Bosio, Rob Dibble, and a couple of other guys. Everybody else was mid-to-high 80s, so yeah, I was upper 80s. I had a good change-up, good slider. Better minor league stats,” Mark said.

And, while on-set in India, Mark recalled working with the actors and throwing knuckleballs:

“It’s the only thing I can throw now that I have arthritis in my shoulder….We were messing around with pitches there. It was always that pitch that you’d never throw in a game but you can dazzle people with on the sidelines. It was really funny working with the kids getting them into baseball,” Mark noted.

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Baseball in India

And just as the kids in India may have had a big learning curve when it comes to baseball, in turn, Mark says he was not at all familiar with the intricacies of the game of cricket before tackling this project.

“I do understand the game now, which we laughed at with Jon Hamm. Hamm is a big baseball fan and we finally kind of have this basic understanding of (cricket). We were there in May shooting and that’s when they have the IPL,” Mark said.

The IPL is the Indian Premier League. It is a Twenty20 cricket tournament where different franchise teams participate for the title.

“For a month they have the biggest cricket players in the world come to India and play for eight different teams in the area and they get a ton of money. It’s like an all-star game. It’s insane how popular it is… it’s the biggest thing in the world at that point cricket-wise. We watched some games and got a little hooked on it. It’s actually fun to watch and to learn. It’s a little more simple than I thought, but totally different than baseball,” Mark told me.

Since he began working on the film, Mark has spoken publicly about how he believes that India is a largely untapped country with immense potential to help grow Major League Baseball into a truly global sport. And he hopes the forays made by Bernstein, as well as the film itself, will help.

“It’s really putting the seeds down….You’ve got to get it started, then you hope five years down the line you can get a kid signed. Well, it happened in the first year and I think now that’s the first step. I think the second step would be getting a guy in the big leagues and having somebody for these kids to look at,” Mark said.

“You know, Yao Ming. China. The NBA wasn’t anything in China until he came. Now it’s a huge engine for the NBA and I think MLB would be looking at India the same way. It’s an emerging country with a huge population and if they can get a hero in baseball, you’d have a lot of kids. You’d see fields popping up. It starts with academies and that’s what happened in the Dominican Republic. You’ve got to put that investment in there, start getting kids from a young age playing the game. The work ethic of Indians is amazing. Rinku and Dinesh outwork everybody and if you can combine talent with that work ethic and that drive to get out, you know, kind of that pot of gold, that inspiration where you’ve got somebody from your own country or village that made it to the big leagues… that will ignite that country.”

“It’s a cricket country, no doubt,” Mark relented, “But with 100 million kids that play cricket, if you could take off even a slice of that, that would be more than probably the rest of the world combined that play this game.”

Back to the Brewers

Speaking of kids that play the game, Mark and his wife, Liat, have two sons, Hayden (10) and Luke (12) who enjoy playing (surprise!) baseball and, although he hasn’t returned to Milwaukee since his playing days, he says he would love to bring them back to the place where he began his career.

These days, Mark says he does still follow the Brewers, although not as closely as he did around his playing days.

“It was a great experience, such a great city to play in briefly. I also played in Beloit in A-Ball and just really enjoyed my time up there in Wisconsin. [The fans] really support the team and it’s great to see the Brewers are getting off to such a good start this year,” Mark said.

Although he hasn’t kept in close contact with many of his teammates, Mark has crossed paths with some of them over the years.

“It’s funny with athletes….When the season ends, even though you’re so close during the year, you just kind of go your own way. But you have these relationships and you’re so close to them. That’s why you see guys and even after 20 years, you pick it up like it is yesterday and I’ve gotten to do that a few times. I’ve run into Paul Molitor and Robin Yount and said ‘Hi’ and I think everybody remembers that streak and that time,” Mark told me.

“I saw Rollie Fingers, he was at our premiere,” Mark also mentioned. Although he didn’t play with Rollie, who retired after the 1985 season, Mark does share a connection beyond playing for the same organization.

“You know, I took his number after he left, which was 34. I think somebody did an article about the bad luck of that number. No one has really succeeded over the years since then and I was one of the guys listed, I thought that was pretty funny,” Mark laughed. (Yes, Mark, they did. Here’s that article. The number 34 was retired by the Club in 1992.)

And, while Rollie has already seen Million Dollar Arm, your first chance to see it is this Friday. I was already looking forward to the film before speaking with Mark, but after our conversation I am even more eager to see it.

It also doesn’t hurt that Jon Hamm is one of my favorite actors (I am a HUGE Mad Men fan).

However, Jon, a St. Louis native, is well-known to be a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan. He even narrated the highlight film for the team’s 2011 World Series and, in yet another Brewers tie-in, says the 1982 Brewers-Cardinals World Series is his favorite baseball memory.

“My best friend growing up was a kid named John Simmons. His dad happened to be a man named Ted Simmons, who played catcher for the Cardinals in the late ’60s and  ’70s and was traded in 1981 to the Milwaukee Brewers. Harvey’s Wallbangers. There’s another team – they were really good. Cardinals and Brewers meet in the World Series in 1982. My favorite baseball memory is my best friend’s baseball disaster. The bond was forged in the heat of that World Series then. To this day, that’s my best baseball memory,” Jon said in an interview with USA Today.

Mark Ciardi and Jon Hamm at the Taj Mahal.

Mark Ciardi and Jon Hamm at the Taj Mahal.

So, before I let Mark go, I did have one more thing to say:

“Mark, as one of my favorite actors, I’m a little disappointed that Jon is well known as such a big Cardinals fan. Obviously, that’s the Brewers biggest rival, so if you can work on him in some way, that would be great.”

“He’s die-hard, man, he’s die-hard. He’s a Brewers-hater,” Mark laughed.


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