Sports figure J.B. Bernstein keynotes Chamber dinner

J.B. Bernstein gestures as he speaks during the 104th Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce annual meeting dinner Monday night at the Dyson-Baudo Recreation Center on the Marietta College campus. Bernstein, a sports marketing specialist, was the driving force behind bringing two cricket players from India to pitch major league baseball in America. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

The originator of one of the most unlikely success stories in professional sports was the keynote speaker at the 104th annual meeting dinner of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce on Monday night.

J.B. Bernstein is a sports agent and inspirational speaker who has represented some of the major figures in pro sports, including Barry Bonds, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith.

Speaking to the gathering of about 600 people Monday night in the Dyson-Baudo Recreation Center on the Marietta College campus, Bernstein recounted the tale, which was the basis of the Disney movie “Million Dollar Arm,” of his efforts to recruit cricket bowlers in India to pitch major league baseball in the U.S.

“Nobody thought this would succeed,” he said.

Bernstein said he began thinking of it after analyzing the enormous success of pro basketball player Yao Ming, who became a sensation in China. “450 million people watch him in China, that’s about 100 million more than everyone in the U.S.,” he said.

Perseverance was essential in getting backing for his idea, he said.

“I got turned down 15 times,” he said, but the 16th pitch got him the support he needed.

In India, he found several boys who could throw 80 mph fastballs, and two who could smoke the ball at over 90 mph.

“Their experience coming here was insane,” he said. Both came from impoverished rural farm areas without electricity, they spoke no English, and knew nothing about baseball.

Months later, they became members of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he said.

“The Pirates signed the first Indian pro athletes in U.S. history,” he said.

That was in 2009. Their story was chronicled in the 2014 feature film starring “Mad Men” lead Jon Hamm.

“Now, I’ve got a program in India,” Bernstein said. “And living with these 18-year-old kids, that brought a lot back for me, the power of work, of family, of love. I was told this was the worst idea ever. My book’s being sold in 120 countries.”

Bernstein said the experience gave him five major elements for success: creativity, passion, overcoming adversity, planning and ethics.

Creativity is the key, and passion comes from the knowledge that he knew his idea would work, he said. And as for ethics, he said,“There’s always a way to get where you want to go without compromising yourself as a person.”

Recruiting the boys changed the Pirates, who at the time were the worst team in the leagues, he said.

“These two kids who had never pitched an inning until a few months before, they changed that whole team,” he said. “The team saw the preciousness of opportunity, they saw these kids who gave up everything to do this.”