Brampton’s Rakkar targets history with Cubs

Jasvir Rakkar delivers a pitch (Lynne Sladky/AP)

BRAMPTON – When the Stony Brook Seawolves faced elimination on their historic run to the 2012 College World Series, they reached into their bullpen for a Canadian pitcher who knows a thing or two about trying to beat the odds.

It was a warm June night in Miami, and Jasvir Rakkar’s team was in a jam. The Seawolves were playing the University of Central Florida on one hour’s rest, their starters were spent, and the end of their remarkable season loomed just nine innings away.

Rakkar, the son of Indian immigrants who moved to Brampton having never seen a baseball game, had only made two starts all year. But the 22-year-old reliever delivered as a spot starter, putting on an “electric” six-inning performance that pitching coach Mike Marron said saved the season.

Stony Brook, a relatively unknown Long Island school, went on to topple national powerhouses and became the Cinderella story of the College World Series, leaning regularly on Rakkar as they went. Suddenly, the college baseball world took notice of the upstart Seawolves – and the Chicago Cubs noticed Rakkar, too. Within a week of that win over Central Florida, Rakkar was drafted.

Today, at the Cubs’ spring training facility in Arizona, Rakkar is once again trying to beat the odds. But these major league dreams are different.

The six-foot-two right hander wants to break through to the next level – and become one of the first players of Indian descent to play Major League Baseball.

“My father is always telling me, go show people that Indians know how to play baseball… I think I’m helping open people’s eyes toward baseball in the Indian community,” he said.

It should be no surprise Rakkar idolizes Jackie Robinson, and hopes he too can open doors for other young minority ball players. Already, Indian-Canadian kids reach out to him on Twitter, telling him he’s an inspiration. Organizers of a baseball camp in India call him for advice on how to grow the sport in the Asian country.

Rakkar says he’s chasing his goal one pitch at a time, but he knows that the hopes of many other people depend on his success. There are times he feels he’s pitching for a whole community.

“I love it. If what I’m doing is encouraging Indian kids to play baseball, then I’ve already accomplished some of my goals,” he said. “It would be a great honour to be one of the first Indians to make it to the majors.”

Rakkar isn’t the first player of Indian heritage to play professional ball. Two other pitchers, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, beat him to it in 2008, when they signed minor league contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates after winning a reality TV show in India called The Million Dollar Arm. While neither has cracked an MLB roster, their story has increased interest in baseball in the nation of a 1.2 billion. But the sport remains obscure for most Indians, Rakkar said.

“In India, baseball doesn’t even exist,” he said. “It’s so small right now, I guarantee you most of the population don’t know it’s there.”

Unlike Singh and Patel, whose story is being turned into a Hollywood movie staring Jon Hamm, Rakkar’s baseball journey is no publicity stunt. Inspired by an older cousin, he tried t-ball at age six, and grew up playing in house leagues in his Ontario hometown. It was a learning experience for both of his parents, who hail from India’s Punjab region. Early on, Rakkar would explain the rules to them after games, and the family grew closer by embracing the adopted new sport, he said.

“It was almost like a family thing. We learned the game together,” he said.

His father Avtar, a supervisor at a furniture factory, immigrated to Canada when he was a teenager. His mother Darjeet, a Grade 4 teacher, moved to Canada when she was about five years old. They supported their son with an open mind as he progressed in the North American pastime.

“I didn’t know anything about the game,” his father admitted. “It was new to us. I just learned about it by going to the games and talking to people.”

Avtar and his son still throw long toss together in the off-season, sometimes inside a warehouse in Mississauga when the snow gets too deep at their local diamond. But as for the father-and-son games of catch, they’ve changed.

“I can’t catch him anymore. He throws too hard,” Avtar said, laughing.

Baseball became serious for Rakkar in Grade 10, when he played in the Ontario Summer Games. He joined a traveling rep team, where he was used as a shortstop and pitcher. His younger brother Barinder followed close behind, too, and is now pitching for ConcordUniversity in West Virginia.

After signing with the Cubs, Rakkar was sent to the club’s short-season Rookie team in Arizona, where he adjusted to professional hitting. By spring, he was promoted to Chicago’s single-A affiliate Boise Hawks. In Boise, Rakkar added an effective slider to his repertoire and grew more dominant as the season progressed. He was primarily used out of the bullpen, where he struck out 41 batters over 37 innings, allowed ten walks and held opponents to a pesky .217 average.

Marron, his former pitching coach, said the Cubs were drawn by a tall, durable athlete with a “loose arm,” a deceptive changeup and good, late life on his fastball. Rakkar, who was named to the America East All-Academic team while at Stony Brook, has the work ethic and character to complement his physical gifts, he said.

“When he controls the bottom half of the zone, he’s hard to hit. He’s a tough guy to handle,” Marron said. “His stuff is there. It’s good enough to make it to that (major league) level.”

His motivation to be an inspiration to an entire community only adds to his appeal, the coach said. Rakkar says he takes that role model’s job seriously, even if he does get gently teased by fellow minor leaguers about it.

“I have a teammate who said to me, ‘In 100 years, there’s still not going to be anybody who looks like you in the majors.’ Well, I guess we’ll have to see,” he said.