By Amlan Chakraborty

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Young men all over India are flexing their muscles in the hope that a strong arm will carry them into a money-spinning career in professional baseball in the United States.

Despite the lack of a baseball tradition in India, the dream is not an impossible one, as Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel proved in a tale that is being immortalized in a Walt Disney film.

Singh beat 35,000 rivals three years ago in a talent-hunt in India dubbed "The Million-Dollar Arm" (TMDA) and is tipped to break into Major League Baseball (MLB) after a spell with the minor-league Pittsburg Pirates.

Patel, second in the throwing contest, also earned a contract with the Pirates and, after a lucrative stint in the U.S. which included a meeting with President Barack Obama, is back home looking for a coaching job.

Now, India is looking for someone to follow in their footsteps, with the second TMDA contest beginning in Bangalore last week and due to trawl 60 cities, towns and villages in search of potential baseball talent.

"India's rural belt has unbelievable potential," said Vivek Daglur, vice president of Turn On, TMDA's official partner in India.

"So many are pursuing sports just to get a job in the army or the railways. Their dedication is unbelievable. Some I met could afford only one meal a day but still ran 20 kms just to be a marathon runner.

"TMDA is the perfect platform for anyone with that simple thing. You just need to have a strong arm, nothing else. There are tremendous possibilities that we would take you and sculpt a champion out of you."

The last contest changed the lives of Singh, son of a truck driver, and Patel, whose father was unemployed. Both were javelin throwers nursing Olympic dreams before they won the chance to leave their homes near the north Indian holy city of Varanasi and go to the U.S.


"I don't know how to put it in words; I'm still living the dream," the soft-spoken Patel told Reuters by telephone.

"I had not even seen a baseball before turning up for that talent show. Suddenly I found myself training in Los Angeles," the 23-year-old added, briefly hesitating before abandoning broken English for fluent Hindi.

"One day, we went to Washington to meet President Barack Obama. You don't get such opportunities. I did not say much, just met him, shook his hand and told him we are baseball players from India.

"He said something in English...we gave him a jersey with his name on the back."

Patel said he was proud to have been a pioneer.

"It gives me tremendous satisfaction that we started the trend and many now dream of following us. Mark my words, you would soon have more Indians playing professional baseball.

"Already our story has spread far and wide and all the boys in my village are excited about TMDA's second season. In fact, most youngsters who have read about us want to have a go at it. After all, baseball offers incredible money.

"I expect Rinku soon to make it to the major league and that would draw more youngsters to baseball. We started the game so late, practiced for about six months and were picked (by the Pirates). If an under-16 boy is picked and trained, I'm sure he would make it to the major league by the time he is 20 or 21."

Daglur said the pair had lived out a rags-to-riches fairy tale.

"They didn't know English and walked into the White House and presented a jersey to the U.S. president. Now, even someone like (top Bollywood actor) Shah Rukh Khan can't meet Obama like that," he said.

"At times I wonder if these kids actually realize the extent of their achievement."


Singh was primed for greater glory, Daglur agreed.

"Rinku is doing extremely well. There is a very good chance that he would make it to the major league in the next two years, which would be unbelievable.

"Even when they were practicing in the U.S., some top players would come down to Los Angeles to see if these guys really existed or if it was just a story floating around.

"Sony Corporation bought the initial movie rights and then Walt Disney bought it from them. So Walt Disney is now making a movie on them," Daglur added.

"The scriptwriter was in India last month and he came to Delhi and visited Dinesh's house in Varanasi... it's going to be a better film than 'Slum Dog Millionaire' and should be released by the end of next year.

"Rinku could not believe it when he got his first cheque of $100,000. With MLB deciding to train the talent-hunt winners in its Beijing academy, Indian players now have a global market and not just the U.S."

Patel did not reveal the amount of his first cheque but said he had spent his money on his family.

"I married off my sister, renovated the house and built a proper bathroom," he said. "I also bought another plot for a new house. Now I want to buy a bike for my brother, a good one."

(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; Editing by Clare Fallon)