A whole new ballgame

Led by the likes of Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, younger generations of South Asians born and raised in North America are falling in love with baseball and fighting to find a place for themselves within the sport

The stadium lights are shining bright, illuminating the manicured grass and diverse set of fans representing several nations. The rollicking crowd of about 20,000 cheers so loud the crack of the bat is drowned out. The fans’ attention is focused on the long dirt strip in the middle of the field where bowlers are manipulating gravity with high-speed pitches. Some of their tosses resemble laser beams, others bounce six feet in front of the wickets before rising fiercely into the hitting zone. A cricket match with some seriously elite international talent is taking place.

The lineup of one team features Pakistani hero Wasim Akram and one of the best bowlers ever, Shane Warne of Australia. On the other is fabled Trinidadian star Brian Lara along with batsman Sachin Tendulkar, who’s considered the Michael Jordan of India. These are just a few of the illustrious figures competing on a Saturday night in November 2015 in the Cricket All-Stars Series, a North American showcase for players representing more than a half-dozen countries.

Farhan Zaidi isn’t taking in the match, but it’s definitely on his radar. Born in Sudbury, Ont., to Pakistani parents, cricket has loomed large in his life, the way it does for many in South Asia. Taking up a bat for the first time is a rite of passage in that region, the same way a first goal or touchdown is in Italy or the U.S. “When I would visit family in Pakistan growing up, that was what we did all summer,” says Zaidi, who sports a friendly smile and spectacles. “A lot of people in my family are still very passionate about watching it, particularly international competitions.”

The 39-year-old Zaidi’s life has spanned the globe. He was raised in the Philippines before relocating to the U.S. to advance his education, earning a degree from MIT and a doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley. And on that November night last year, one aspect of that well-travelled existence came full circle: The ancestral game of his youth arrived in California for an evening and took over a transformed Dodger Stadium, the hallowed baseball grounds where Zaidi plies his trade as general manager of MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers.

Cricket and baseball are intrinsically linked, with both said to have origins in centuries-old English folk games, and a case can be made that the former is the more popular sport worldwide. But while baseball has made inroads in Europe and East Asia, it hasn’t caught on in perhaps the planet’s most populous region. “Obviously, baseball hasn’t really taken off in South Asia,” says Zaidi, in Toronto for a series between his Dodgers and the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in May. “Cricket is still the predominant sport. Baseball is still a little bit of a curiosity.”

But for younger generations of South Asians in North America the game is growing both more familiar and more welcoming, and Zaidi is at the forefront of that subtle evolution.

Same passion, different pastime

Featuring standout bowlers and batsmen from around the globe, the 2015 Cricket All-Star Series gave roughly 20,000 LA-area cricket fans an excuse to familiarize themselves with Dodger Stadium

For a long time baseball was a curiosity to my father. As a Guyanese man of Indian descent, his life used to revolve around cricket. An opening batsman—the equivalent of a leadoff hitter—he played semi-professionally in the Surrey Championship league in south London. After moving to Canada in the mid-1980s, he continued to play on clubs across the Greater Toronto Area.

For some reason, though, I never took to the sport. I remember trying on his pads and helmet as a child, and even attending his matches, but baseball was what really gripped me. Maybe it was due to geography, or maybe the fact the Blue Jays were so good in the early 1990s. At age eight I began to idolize Toronto second baseman Roberto Alomar. Partly because of his style and flair on the field, but also because he kind of looked like me—a brown-skinned male with curly, dark hair. As a youth that mattered; I wanted to see parts of myself represented in the players I admired. Though his Latin background and my South Asian heritage were obviously separate and distinct, I gravitated to Alomar because of that resemblance.

There were no MLB players back then who shared my ancestry—and today there still aren’t.

A bit of myself

As a baseball-loving kid growing up in the Toronto area, the author was drawn to Alomar because of their shared physical characteristics—brown skin and curly, dark hair

Baseball has never had a player of Indian or Pakistani descent reach the majors, despite the fact that widespread immigration from those countries to Canada began in the 1970s, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau adopted policies that embraced multiculturalism and opened doors to newcomers. Around that same time South Asians began to emigrate to the U.S. in larger numbers. Jeff Bronkey, who was born in Kabul to an American mother and Afghan father and grew up in the U.S., appeared in 45 games as a reliever for the Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers in the early 1990s. But he is the only South Asian-born player in MLB history, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

Others have come close, most notably Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, winners of an Indian reality TV contest who were eventually signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their story provided the basis for the Disney film Million Dollar Arm, but that was the peak of the duo’s popularity as neither pitcher reached an MLB mound.

In North America’s other major sports leagues, it’s a different story. People of South Asian descent have been building their standing in hockey for years—Manny Malhotra established himself as a staple in the NHL, while last season Jujhar Khaira made his debut for the Edmonton Oilers. Khaira’s younger brother Sahvan has spent the last two campaigns in the WHL. Even the Hockey Night in Canada: Punjabi Edition broadcasters gained mainstream North American appeal when their entertaining goal calls went viral during the recent playoffs.

In the NBA, Sim Bhullar became the first person of Indian descent to play in the league in 2015 when he debuted for the Sacramento Kings. He spent last season with the D-League affiliate of the Toronto Raptors.

Yet, for all the seemingly common threads that run from cricket through to baseball—throwing, catching, batting—South Asians remain conspicuously absent in the majors.

“There were no MLB players back then who shared my ancestry—and today there still aren’t.”

Jasvir Rakkar brought himself within throwing distance of changing that—and earning a place in baseball history in the process. The Brampton, Ont., pitcher was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 26th round of the 2012 draft and spent four years in the club’s system before he was released at the end of spring training in March. Prior to that he pitched in the College World Series in 2012 and won gold with Team Canada at the 2015 Pan American Games. Much of his life has been spent as the lone South Asian between the foul lines. “That’s safe to say for any baseball team that I’ve played for outside of Brampton,” Rakkar says.

The six-foot-two right-hander, who currently plays for Les Capitales de Quebec of the independent Can-Am League, routinely receives messages on Facebook and Twitter from South Asian youth across Canada asking for tips and advice on pursuing a career in baseball. If he has the opportunity and the kid is nearby, Rakkar will make an effort to meet with them or attend their practices. “If anything, I would hope my career opened up some young South Asians’ eyes and kind of gave them hope they can have success pursuing this sport even though it’s not really one that most people think that we’d play,” he says.

Rakkar believes one reason there aren’t more South Asians in baseball is because of a cultural emphasis on education over athletics. “A lot of parents focus more on the education and school,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if a kid is good at sports, maybe they could balance both and hopefully pursue it.”

Rakkar’s family was an exception, embracing baseball wholeheartedly. He followed the game to college in the States, as did his younger brother, Barinder, and two of his older cousins. His 12-year-old sister, Amita, plays rep softball for Brampton.

Rakkar’s parents—his father is a furniture plant supervisor, his mother an elementary school teacher—are originally from Punjab, India. Typically, South Asian parents shepherd their children into business-, science- or math-related fields, but Rakkar says his parents bucked that trend. “They never really forced me and said ‘You can’t play baseball because we want you to do this,’” says Rakkar, who studied business management with a minor in mathematics at Stony Brook University in New York. “When I run into guys who I played with who are South Asian, they would say, ‘Oh man, your parents really supported you through it all.’”

The Rakkars took an active role in their boys’ athletic pursuits as well. When Jasvir and Barinder were in high school, their parents would divide the driving, delivering each son to his respective practice or game. Amita was also in tow, soaking up the sights and sounds of the diamond as a two-year-old. Family events even took a backseat to baseball, and that included missing some important weddings—almost a cardinal sin in Indian culture. “They knew we had to travel if we wanted to make it,” says Rakkar. “It’s just the way my parents were; I got lucky.”

Striking out on his own

A College World Series and Pan Am Games champion, Rakkar pitched four years in the Cubs system but didn’t crack the MLB roster. He currently plays in the Can-Am League and still hopes to one day make the majors.

When John Ceprini scouted Rakkar for the Cubs, he never had the chance to speak with the player’s parents because of distance between the family home in Brampton and Stony Brook. But from interactions with the pitcher, Ceprini became aware of the role his parents had played in his development. “They were just very supportive of what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go to do it,” says Ceprini, who’s currently the scouting supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds and has also worked for the Tampa Bay Rays and Blue Jays during his 15-year career as a major league scout.

The financial demands often get overlooked in discussions of minorities’ participation in baseball, and in the case of South Asian families, it’s not a stretch to say they’re less inclined to pour money into sports over education. Ceprini notes that over the years costs involved with competitive baseball for teenagers have escalated and parents often bear the load. “The showcase circuits that these kids play on now are very expensive,” he says. “Unfortunately, a lot of times the financial end of it causes a problem for some people because they can’t afford to have their kids play.”

Ceprini agrees that there are no physical limitations restricting South Asians in the game and points out that a career in baseball doesn’t necessarily have to be fostered by parents when a child is young. He uses a powerful example to illustrate his reasoning. “Joe DiMaggio,” he says, referring to the legendary ‘Yankee Clipper,’ whose parents were Italian immigrants. “His father never played baseball—he wasn’t really sure what baseball was—but the DiMaggio family put three guys in the big leagues and one guy in the Hall of Fame.”

The 67-year-old scout remembers being impressed with the tenacity Rakkar displayed on an exemplary 2012 Stony Brook team that featured seven players who would eventually be drafted by MLB organizations. “He was always a competitor,” says Ceprini. “There was no give-up in him. He worked very hard at what he did and made himself a pretty good pitcher.”

Rakkar sported a 3.34 ERA and 8.8 K/9 ratio in 93 relief appearances during his four-year stint in Chicago’s farm system. When the club eventually released him, he says, it wasn’t based on performance, they just didn’t have roster space and decided to let him go to free him up to seek opportunities elsewhere.

Ceprini applauds Rakkar’s determination to become the first MLB player of Indian descent and says it’s a tribute to his no-quit demeanour that he’s grinding in the Cam-Am League, where he rides a bus across the northeast on a roster with other former big-league prospects looking to jump back to affiliated ball. And he’s got no doubt baseball will see more players like Rakkar.

“It’s an evolutionary process,” Ceprini says. “It’s [just] a matter of time before someone breaks that barrier and gets to the big leagues.”

The apple falls far

“Joe Dimaggio’s father wasn’t really sure what baseball was,” says Ceprini, “but the DiMaggio family put three guys in the big leagues and one guy in the Hall of Fame.”

Zaidi had to break through a barrier of his own to make it in baseball. He is the first Muslim GM in MLB history and is arguably the most prominent South Asian ever involved with the sport. His path to that landmark status, however, wasn’t always clear.

Zaidi played baseball in high school, but maintains it wasn’t anything he and his family viewed as a serious long-term pursuit. “Some of it is cultural,” he says, echoing Rakkar’s sentiment. “For a lot of South Asian families, sport isn’t really an area of emphasis. It’s not an area where kids necessarily start playing early where it’s a primary activity instead of a hobby.”

Zaidi remains hopeful that will change in future generations. He stresses patience on that front, but also says he’s noticed an uptick in South and East Asian players on high school and college baseball teams in the U.S., and he thinks those numbers will continue to grow.

For that to happen, though, Zaidi insists that continued outreach is key—and not only in the form of global projects. Large-scale ventures like the Cricket All-Star Series acquaint ethnic fans with ballparks, but MLB initiatives such as heritage nights help build awareness among cultures where baseball’s not second nature. The Dodgers, for example, have six ‘Theme Games’ during the 2016 season that celebrate different ethnicities or cultures. By contrast, despite Toronto’s diverse population, the Blue Jays have none according to their website.

Bats, gloves and understanding

Rakkar argues that younger ballplayers of South Asian descent would enjoy much greater support if their parents understood baseball to the degree many of them understand cricket

Zaidi says the sport needs to be strategic with marketing targets as well. “It’s really two things,” he says. “You want to get kids interested in it—there are kids who are already interested in the sport—but you also need their parents’ support and financial encouragement and all that kind of stuff. It’s important to reach out to not just younger fans but older fans, too.”

Rakkar also believes greater understanding of the sport will cultivate that needed support system. He recalls having to explain to extended family and members of his community on many occasions what exactly he does for a living. “The biggest setback for our culture and our kids not pursuing baseball is the fact that our parents don’t really understand too much about the sport because it’s not a big thing that we do,” he says. “If they don’t understand it then they don’t really provide the support that we need to pursue it and that’s the toughest thing.

“I’m sure there are kids out there who love baseball but it just so happens that they don’t have the support and the time from their family.”

Cricket is a game that was embedded into the South Asian mindset over a century ago, so baseball has some catching up to do. But at least the journey is underway. When the Dodger Stadium field hosted Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan players last year, it signified a small step. Hopefully the next time an athlete with roots in one of those countries traverses the grass in LA, it’ll be during a Major League Baseball game.

When that day finally arrives, it will be validating to know the sport I embraced at such a young age has finally accepted me. And maybe that will be the point when young boys start being given their fathers’ baseball gloves to try on—and not just their cricket gear.

Photo Credits

Michael Zagaris/Getty; Peter Read Miller/AP; Ryan Remiorz/AP; Lynne Sladky/AP; AP