Beyond 'Million Dollar Arm': Baseball banks on cricket to capture India's imagination

Underprivileged kids playing baseball at the Cambridge Foundation School in New Delhi Arijit Sen/The India Today Group via Getty Images

"Every time we leave a school after a session, the kids run after us asking if we'll be coming back the next day." For Ryo Takahashi, head of Major League Baseball's India office, that's just reaffirmation of the MLB's decision to open a sixth office outside the U.S., in New Delhi.

Of the other five, three were in markets where the game, and the MLB, are already giants -- the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Japan. The fourth was in China, where baseball is big, says Takahashi, but needed to be tapped into, and the fifth is in the UK, where franchises like the New York Yankees are big commercial names. India is another beast altogether.

In a land where the only bat-and-ball sport that matters is cricket, Takahashi isn't daunted. "We're not here claiming we'll replace cricket. We are just providing an alternative," he says. "A new sport, new content, a new source of entertainment is what the MLB is." If anything, he sees the dominance of cricket as a positive, "Almost everyone here already knows how to catch, throw a ball, swing a bat. It's not like we have to teach the fundamentals from scratch."

David Palese, head of baseball development in India, agrees. "From a coaching standpoint, it's the similarities with cricket that made India an obvious choice for us."

Takahashi is approaching the market with a clear plan. "I don't see it as us selling baseball. We are here to introduce it," he says. "The sport of baseball speaks for itself. I strongly believe that people will fall in love with it, but in order for that to happen, they need to learn more about it, they need to see it, experience it."

That is the foundation of the MLB's three-pillar approach to any new market -- participation, content and live events.

The 2020 season started just last Friday, but Takashi suggests there's no point in diving straight into live events -- he is working with their content partners, Star Sports and Fancode, to provide content that will reel viewers in, "whether it's highlights and condensed games or memes and gifs," he says. "We have to introduce the game, the rules, the teams, the star players, the similarities with cricket, and the differences."

Most of the initial focus, though, has been on the first pillar -- participation. Typically, he approaches this in a structured manner. He sees it as a pyramid.

At the base is introduction to playing baseball. Which is where conducting sessions in schools across the country comes in. Above that is retention -- where kids play regularly, whether that be once a week during PE//PT classes, or inter-school competitions, or a more organized weekend youth league. At the top is elite development. "Once there is a pool of competitive baseball being played, it builds a platform for elite talent to be found," he says.

To be clear, this is not the search for a Million Dollar Arm. Not yet, anyway.

The Million Dollar Arm was India's first proper introduction to the MLB -- when agent JB Bernstein conducted a television reality show to identify talent, and from about 37,000 competitors selected Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, and took them to the U.S. Neither of them had ever played the sport before they came on the show. Though they were both signed on by the Pittsburgh Pirates to pitch in the Gulf Coast League, neither were able to take the step up to the big leagues.

It appears the MLB's approach to India is not quite as get-me-results-now as Bernstein's was. So do not expect an Indian pitching for the Yankees just yet.

There is, though, evidence that the MLB's patient, long-term approach tends to pay off. For instance, an accelerated version of this same process has seen the MLB open three training centres in China. Their first opened in 2009, and by 2015 a graduate from one of them, Xu Guiyuan, had been signed on by an MLB franchise, the Baltimore Orioles.

This is not to say that they want to impose their ideas -- they have been in discussions with the Amateur Baseball Federation of India and various state federations to understand their ground realities in terms of infrastructure, government support and the technical level of players. Takahashi has also been deep in conversation with the franchise-based leagues in India -- the IPL, ISL, PKL, UTT and PBL -- to understand what makes them click. He is a big fan, in particular, of how the PKL managed to capture the nation's attention with smart packaging and clever content management.

For now, Takahashi and Palese are focusing on building relationships, both on the business and sporting sides. The pandemic has, of course, slowed and altered plans but they have been making the most of it. Palese has spent the lockdown interacting with coaches through online course and webinars. "We're able to spend a lot more time than we would have, five-six hours continuously, almost daily. That would have been difficult to do otherwise, with all the other plans we would have on the ground," he says.

During this first year, when students asked Takahashi if he would be coming back the next day, he would answer, "Well, ask your principal!" Going into year two, he will be hoping more and more principals say yes to baseball.