Nine months ago, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Kumar Patel from the impoverished villages of Holepur and Varanasi in central India, had never heard of baseball. Names like the Yankees, Red Sox, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson didn't mean a thing to them.
Things have changed for 19-year-old Singh and 20-year-old Patel, who are now in spring training at the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league camp in Bradenton, Fla., and in the running to become the sport's next big household names.
Baseball's most unlikely rookies got their start in a highly unusual way -- by entering an Indian reality show called "The Million Dollar Arm."
"We basically created 'Indian Idol,' but we took out the singing and put in pitching," said J.B. Bernstein, who created the show.
Bernstein, a California-based sports agent, came up with the idea for the show as a way to tap into the resources of the world's second most populous country, assuming that he could unlock a pool of hidden talent with the right incentives.
More than 30,000 young men showed up to compete for a chance at the prize money -- as much as $1 million -- and a trip to America to try out for a group of major league scouts. Singh and Patel, whose closest experience to pitching a baseball was throwing a javelin, were the standouts.
"Probability dictates that with that many men between the ages of 16 and 21, we were going to find guys who were great natural athletes, who could throw the ball fast," said Bernstein. "The issue was whether any of them could learn to pitch, play baseball."
Singh finished first by throwing an 89-mile-per-hour fastball, and won a $100,000 prize. He instantly became the richest man in his village, where his family of 10 had been sharing a one-room home. Patel was named runner-up after throwing 87 mph.
To determine whether their throwing power could translate into baseball prowess, Singh and Patel left India last May, moved in with Bernstein in Los Angeles, and began training at the University of Southern California.
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"They had never played the game, they couldn't catch, they couldn't throw, they didn't know any of the intricacies of anything that had to do with baseball," said former big league pitching coach Tom House, who agreed to train the raw recruits.
When he first saw them play, House said, "They stunk. They couldn't have played tee ball with little leaguers."
Singh and Patel trained tirelessly, working with House seven days a week for five months in preparation for their debut in front of the scouts. If they failed, they would return to India to join the army.
Incredibly, their hard work paid off. In November, after trying out for scouts from a range of major league teams, both men were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, making history as the first Indian-born players to sign professional baseball contracts in the United States.
"To have these boys do what they did is nothing short of a miracle. But it was an earned miracle," House said.
"Our greatest dream is coming to us," the two men wrote on their blog after getting the news. "We are so happy and excited it is unreal."
And so, they arrived in Florida this month, ready to train.
"Some people, they think this is a joke, but we are serious," Singh told ABC News.
So far, camp has been low key -- their first game is not for a few weeks. And if the presence of two Indian reality show winners at the Pirates' camp seems a bit like a novelty act, their work ethic has quickly impressed those around them.
Pirates minor league pitching coach Miguel Bonilla has taken the two young men under his wing, and he marvels at how far they've come in such a short time.
"I hope they make it," Bonilla said. "They can open the door for more people."
Bernstein said he is impressed as well.
"These kids went from not knowing what baseball was to signing a pro contract in less than 12 months," he said. "That's never been done in any sport."
He said he's hopeful that their success is not a fluke. After dropping them off in Florida, he is back home and hard at work on a second season of the show, which is scheduled to begin in October and will air on India's Zee Sports TV channel. He can only hope that he'll find more players like Singh and Patel.
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"They're just really two of the greatest kids that you'll ever meet," Bernstein said. "Really generous, really nice, and really so appreciative of this opportunity. If they actually make it, I think they'll set the bar -- not just for Indian athletes, but for all athletes, and wake them up and make them remember this is a real honor to play these sports, to make these salaries and to have these fans."
When the Pirates' major-leaguers break camp and head north for the season, Singh and Patel will remain in Bradenton to continue working with Bonilla, and they will likely be assigned to the Pirates' rookie league team in the Gulf Coast League.
As their skills improve, Singh and Patel believe they will one day have what it takes to make the major leagues -- a dream Neal Huntington, general manager of the Pirates, is hesitant to rule out.
"It's a long shot for anybody in professional baseball, and somebody who has only been doing it for six months, it's probably that much longer," Huntington said. "But they do have that chance. With what they did in six months, with the bodies they have, with the arm actions they have, with the arm strength -- they have a chance."
But for now, Singh and Patel are busy enjoying their time at spring training, and chronicling their adventures online for their followers.
"We working so hard at this dream," they blogged from camp Feb. 7. "We can't believe we here. We knowing we need more practice, but we telling all Indian boys, you working hard, you dreaming come true too!"
For more about Rinku Singh and Dinesh Kumar Patel, check out their blog at www.themilliondollararm.com/blog.