This time last year, Rinku Singh had never picked up a baseball. Neither had Dinesh Patel.
The teens, living in a poor farming community in India, were just a month away from joining the army.
But in a twist worthy of a made-for-TV movie, the two javelin throwers triumphed over 30,000 others in the Million Dollar Arm contest to win six months in the United States, training to become professional pitchers.
Last month, Singh, 20, and Patel, 19, became the first Indians to sign professional baseball contracts when the Pirates acquired them. They will report to Bradenton in February to prepare for spring training and hope to participate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Even if Singh and Patel never reach the majors, they could pave the way for many more in their country of 1-billion to play catch instead of cricket.
With every decade, baseball becomes more global. The Rays recently announced plans to start a baseball academy in Brazil.
And as the Pirates showed years ago with Roberto Clemente, a medal-winning javelin thrower and the first Puerto Rican member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, all it takes is one daring step to open a door.
"This is groundbreaking stuff, for them, their country and for the Pirates," said former major-league pitcher Tom House, a USC pitching coach who taught the two. "They're making history."
Both grew up in farming villages, where many live in dirt huts with no plumbing. Singh was one of nine siblings living in a one-bedroom house. His father earned $25 a month.
Each had Olympic hopes as they honed their javelin skills. But at 18, both felt they needed to help earn money for their families. They met with an army recruiter. On the verge of enlisting, they found out about Million Dollar Arm, a reality-show contest that toured 30 cities in India, beginning in December 2007 and ending with the finals in March in Mumbai. The winner, the one most accurate at 85-mph-plus, would receive $100,000 and training in California to prepare for a professional tryout.
Men crossed rivers, walked or biked, some barefoot, to fulfill a dream.
One minor problem: neither Singh nor Patel knew anything about baseball.
In their first tryout, it showed.
"It was ugly," admitted J.B. Bernstein, creator of the Million Dollar Arm contest. "They gripped the ball wrong. They threw the ball wrong. Their entire body motion from head to toe was all wrong."
But they were throwing nearly 90 mph.
Singh, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound left-hander, won the contest — and $100,000.
Patel, a 5-foot-11 right-hander, finished second and also received an invitation to Los Angeles, where the two would live with Bernstein and train with House, who worked with the likes of Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
But when these pupils attended their first baseball game at USC, they asked why the shortstop didn't have a base of his own.
"They couldn't even play catch," House said.
The two got crash courses, in throwing curveballs and adjusting to American culture.
By day, they trained several hours with House, the founder and CEO of the National Pitching Association. To prevent injury, Singh and Patel didn't play catch for the first four weeks, instead focusing on conditioning, building arm strength. They absorbed pitching mechanics like they engulfed their new favorite foods (Singh, banana pancakes; Patel, pizza).
From learning to throw a curve to taking the elevator or using a paper dispenser, everything was novel. They picked up English by watching Baseball Tonight and taking online courses.
Patel, who takes turns with Singh maintaining a blog, was fascinated with Halloween. "Some have crazy costumes," he wrote.
Today, the contest winners are grocery shopping on their own. Said Bernstein: "They're very self-sufficient."
And they've held their own on the mound, throwing in the high 80s to low 90s and throwing fastballs, curves and changeups while playing simulated games against high school and junior college hitters. They know the rules but still need to learn the nuances of pitching, such as how to change speeds.
However, House said some of the 20 or so professional scouts who watched their tryout on Nov. 7 marveled at the smoothness of their deliveries.
They are raw, but they look like above-average junior college pitchers or college freshmen, said House, claiming Singh has better mechanics, a more pure delivery, than Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. House said that "in a perfect world," Singh and Patel could make the majors in four years.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington called them "intriguing" after their signing on Nov. 24. It's part of a move to get into some nontraditional markets.
The first thing Singh and Patel did was go online to locate Pittsburgh.
"It is in northeast part of USA and looks like very good city," they wrote.
It wasn't until four days later, when a package arrived with Pirates jerseys, jackets and DVDs, that they learned about Clemente's legendary path.
The historic moment finally set in. The pair, who could have been fighting in Mumbai during terrorist attacks two days later, were offered another fate with the contest.
"When we put on jersey it was first time since we win contest that this journey not feel like dream," Singh wrote on his blog. "It feel like I wake best dream, find it to be true."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.