With a chance to become the first player of Indian descent to make the majors, Arjun Nimmala has to shoulder big-picture expectations without losing focus on the sport he loves

T here’s a clear moment some people around Arjun Nimmala point to as the game-changer. In the fall of 2022, as he was about to enter his senior year at Strawberry Crest High School, the shortstop was invited to practise with some clients of the SportsMeter agency. Francisco Lindor and Nathaniel and Josh Lowe were among the big-leaguers at the get-together in Montverde, Fla., and even though such a collection of proven pro talent far exceeded any group Nimmala had shared the field with, he didn’t seem intimidated. Instead, he forced everyone in attendance to pay attention to him.

“When he got out there on the field with those guys and started hitting balls harder and further, at times, they started to notice his ability,” says Scott Bikowski, a player representative at SportsMeter. “I don’t want to make those guys sound like they weren’t hitting the ball far, but balls were leaving the park left and right [off Nimmala’s bat]. Far.”

Bikowski, a former outfielder who spent time in the minor-league systems of the Angels and White Sox, met Nimmala through the travel ball circuit and has known him since the shortstop was a high-school freshman. He’s gotten to know the ins and outs of Nimmala’s personality and in that moment on the field last year, he noticed a distinct change in the promising young player.

“I think within Arjun, he was like, ‘Wow, wait, I can do this. I can do this at a high level, not just flicking the ball into the field. I’m driving the ball 50, 60, 70 feet over the fence while everyone isn’t doing that right this second,’” says Bikowski. “And so, I think when he got around those guys and felt like he belonged — not necessarily at their level, believe me, I’m not saying that — it became tangible.

“I saw in his eyes belief that he could do it.”

In the months that followed, Nimmala took a huge step forward on the path that will transform that belief into a reality, when he was selected in the first round of the 2023 MLB Draft (20th overall) by the Toronto Blue Jays. The pick made him the highest-drafted first-generation Indian-American in any of the four major North American pro sports, and cast an even brighter spotlight on him as a prospect with the very real potential to become the first player of Indian descent in MLB history.

It’s a distinction that’s brought a new level of support for Nimmala, but it’s also put a new spin, and a new intensity, on a familiar pressure. His heritage was a talking point throughout his high school career, and in the lead up to the draft. As Nimmala progresses in the minors and draws closer to the majors, expect his name to occupy global headlines.

It’s a lot of weight to place on one person, especially an 18-year-old, but I count myself among the many rooting for that barrier to finally be shattered. When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to see, to cheer for, an MLB player who shared my Indian ancestry. As season after season passed, I never got that opportunity, and it became painfully clear to me that a player like Nimmala doesn’t come around often.

He has a chance to become a trailblazer who impacts generations that follow, and those of us who’ve been waiting for someone like him our whole lives have a chance to witness the flag being planted. We’re along for the ride and, yes, we’re also contributing to the pressure. But while that exists in the background, Arjun Nimmala doesn’t seem perturbed. For now at least, he’s intent on simply continuing to do the thing that’s gotten him this far: Pursuing his passion for baseball.

N immala’s parents were pioneers in their own right. Balu and Neeru made the decision in 2002 to leave Vijayawada — a large city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh — to seek opportunities in the United States. They didn’t have any family in America at the time and so the couple, both IT professionals, bravely forged a future on their own. They landed in Texas, then moved to Puerto Rico, before establishing roots in Florida. Arjun and his brother, Akhil, who is one year younger, were born in Tampa before the family eventually settled in the nearby suburb of Valrico.

Nimmala took a liking to baseball and basketball as a child, but his first passion was, unsurprisingly, cricket. His father played back in India, where the sport is treated with an almost religious reverence. “My dad used to play cricket and when I was growing up, he didn’t know baseball,” Nimmala says. “So, cricket was the only thing he had that was bat-and-ball.”

Blending the two sports was natural for Nimmala and that brought charming memories. The family traveled back to India to visit family every few years during Nimmala’s childhood and when there, Balu would take his sons to an older cricket ground in Vijayawada he once frequented. The stadium was no longer in use, save for the games of “gully” or “street” cricket set up by local kids. The Nimmala brothers, along with some cousins, would take part in those, but they also brought a piece of the U.S. with them — Balu packed his sons’ baseball gloves and bats in their luggage so the boys could take batting practice during their vacation.

“He got out there on the field with [established big-leaguers] and started hitting balls harder and further.”

“My dad’s throwing me and my brother BP and we’re hitting it,” recalls Nimmala, who reckons he was about 10 at the time. “And these local kids are fielding it with their bare hands. We probably weren’t very strong then and weren’t hitting the ball very hard, but they’re just fielding it with their bare hands like it was nothing. It was funny to me because they don’t use gloves in cricket and these kids were just right in front of us and fielding it.”

At one point the brothers attempted to ditch their gloves while fielding, but that didn’t last long. “We tried for sure,” Nimmala says with a smile. “It’s definitely hard.”

It’s probably a good thing he kept the glove on. Nimmala improved steadily at baseball and by the time he was 13 and playing on competitive travel teams, those trips to India became less common. Life had other plans for him.

A s Nimmala progressed through high school, it was apparent to everyone around him that his talent was special. The ball simply came off his bat differently than other teens and that, in part, is what led him onto that field with Lindor and Co.

That specific day held even more resonance for Nimmala because Lindor is his favourite player. Nimmala saw key similarities between himself and the New York Mets star. For one, they’re both shortstops who committed to Florida State University. Lindor also embodies a level of swagger that Nimmala finds attractive and has tried to incorporate in his own game. “Having that kind of swag is just being able to play confident and calm,” Nimmala explains. “People can see that. They can see that you have a presence.”

(Nimmala places value in the way athletes carry themselves and mentioned that a commonality exists between Lindor and his favourite cricketer, Virat Kohli, a rockstar former captain of the Indian national team.)

Nimmala took BP with Lindor, played catch and also fielded ground balls alongside the two-time Gold Glove winner. That experience taught him valuable lessons he’s carried forward. “You could see how calm and collected he is in anything that he does,” reflects Nimmala. “He’s so good in his ability to adjust and adapt. If he does have a bad rep, you see that fix in the next one.

“I did learn a lot from that because I realized that I can’t just fail and fail and not change something. I have to be able to switch something up and change something to help me be better.”


Bikowski says a problem he spots in many young players is the tendency to let mistakes, like a foul ball in BP or a grounder off their glove, derail an entire day’s work. Such snowballs of frustration, he notes, can be an impediment to progress.

“Arjun learning from Francisco that you can brush it off your shoulder — ‘Here comes the next ball and you make it better’ — I think really helped him and his maturity,” says Bikowski.

Maturity is a trait that’s brought up often when people speak about Nimmala. As he’s moved into the beginning of his professional career, it’s become something of a calling card.

Nimmala left an impression on many within the Blue Jays organization when he arrived at Rogers Centre in Toronto five days after he was drafted. Then 17, he put on a laser show during batting practice, making clean, hard contact and spraying home runs across the field.

Blue Jays manager John Schneider watched that session from behind the cage and was also nearby during Nimmala’s on-field chat with general manager Ross Atkins. “I was impressed with his demeanour, his conversations,” Schneider says. “If I was 17, I’d be shaking in my pants talking to the GM of a team that just drafted you in the first round. He was poised. He’s hitting opposite-field home runs. I don’t think I could do that when I was 25, let alone 17.

“He’s a pretty impressive kid with, obviously, an impressive, really talented skill set.”

[brightcove videoID=6347638186112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Nimmala, who eventually agreed to a $3-million signing bonus, returned to Florida shortly after that and headed to the Dunedin facility to begin his development with the organization. The club holds one-on-one meetings with all new draftees in which expectations and goals for the year are set. Reed Kienle, assistant director of player development for the Blue Jays, was present during those conversations with Nimmala and claims the depth of the questions the prospect asked was unusual for an incoming player, especially one as young as 17.

“He was probably the most vocal I’ve ever seen in that first setting — in a very good way,” Kienle says. “Asking really, really good questions about what the next few months of his career looks like and sharing some of his thoughts with us on what he wanted to work on and what he wanted to focus on and asking us what we thought and why.

“We were able to have a very candid conversation that was super productive. Whereas, a lot of times, it’s not quite that open in that very first meeting,” continues Kienle. “We have guys who are in their second or third year here who we have those meetings with every year and they don’t speak up that much.”


Nimmala’s focus since the draft has been to get his feet wet in professional ball and blossom into a more well-rounded player. His game awareness and internal clock should benefit from time in the Florida Complex League and in nine games there this past summer, he hit .200 (5-for-25) and posted a strong 35-per cent walk rate compared to a 20-per cent strikeout rate.

He stayed in a team-issued hotel room while in Dunedin and, on weekends, made the one-hour drive to Valrico to spend time with his parents. Family is important to Nimmala and he believes Balu and Neeru are the source of his maturity.

Whether it’s talking to the boss of the MLB franchise that just invested in him or pursuing history to become the first from his community to reach the majors, Nimmala employs a simple mindset. “I’ve learned from my parents growing up, ‘Just don’t be scared,’” he says. “‘Just be yourself and do the best you can.’ And for me, that’s being calm and talking to the best of my abilities and just being there and doing what I need to do. So, I don’t think that I take a lot of pressure. I just like to be in the moment.”

T here’s an anecdote that speaks volumes about the way Nimmala carries himself. He was asked during one of his first media interviews to name his favourite subject in school. His excited answer about science was longwinded, lasting a couple minutes, and while it was a refreshingly honest response, Nimmala quickly realized he needed to work on his public presentation — he figured more interview requests would come his way and he wanted to be prepared, so he sought help from Bikowski, among others.

“He yearned to get better,” says Bikowski. “He said, ‘I want to be better with those questions. I want to be better when people call me.’ And I’ve never seen a young player, a young kid, so determined to continue — and hunt — to get better.”

I noticed the polish during my interview with Nimmala. He thoughtfully articulated his main points in every answer and didn’t overextend. He was warm and seemed at ease, which is not always possible for a teenager speaking with a reporter. That’s bound to serve him well as he progresses. There’s no doubt Nimmala’s position in the sport will attract a different type of attention than what many of his peers receive.


Being first in the door is a unique space for anyone to occupy. On one hand, you can’t let it overtake your thoughts because you’ve got a job to do and you’re trying to do it well. Yet, at the same time, you can’t fully ignore it. Your uniqueness can never be truly masked and that’s been the case for Nimmala as he vies to become the first person of Indian descent in the big leagues.

“I’ve always been aware of that,” says Nimmala. “Who knows, if I am the first, I’m going to be super proud. But for me, it’s always just about playing baseball to the best of my ability.

“I also have to say that I haven’t actually done anything yet,” he adds. “I’ve done something being here, but I haven’t proven why I was picked. I have to be able to consistently play at a high level.”

Nimmala couldn’t help but notice the waves of online support that followed the Draft. There were messages from a mega-popular music producer in India as well as a famous Indo-Canadian actor. While at Rogers Centre in July, he watched the Blue Jays’ game against the Diamondbacks from a suite and noticed Indian youth in the neighbouring box yelling his name and offering words of encouragement.

That kind of hype is only going to swell if Nimmala succeeds. And there are so many ancillary factors to consider, as well. For instance, his ascent will result in more interest in baseball, not only among South Asians in Canada and the U.S., but globally.

“If I am the first, I’m going to be super proud. But for me, it’s always just about playing baseball to the best of my ability.”

During a 2016 interview, Farhan Zaidi, now president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, told me he believed there are cultural barriers preventing sports from taking hold of kids who share our background.

“For a lot of South Asian families, sport isn’t really an area of emphasis,” Zaidi said. “It’s not an area where kids necessarily start playing early where it’s a primary activity instead of a hobby.”

It’s a common familial theme in the culture. Most are raised to believe there are only a handful of careers worth pursuing — doctor, lawyer, engineer and executive, foremost among them. Parental support lies primarily in those lucrative fields and many youth are actively discouraged from chasing financially risky passions such as sports or the arts.

Nimmala’s parents, who both played sports throughout college, offered unwavering support in the baseball journeys of their children. His younger brother, Akhil, is a promising high-school player who’s committed to the University of Central Florida and will be draft-eligible in 2024. (It’s worth noting Nimmala hasn’t eschewed a post-secondary education and says he’ll soon be enrolling in online classes at Northeastern University to pursue a degree in computer science.)

“As long as parents are allowing and believing that this can also help their kids, I think that’s how baseball or other sports will come into play with education, as well,” says Nimmala. “The big thing is definitely that family support.”


Nimmala acknowledges he’s going to be expected to chime in on that subject in the future — he uses the word “responsibility” — and understands he’ll be pointed to as an inspiration and an example.

To prepare himself, he’s sharpening a mindset he believes will help him thrive.

“I would say my expectations for myself are very high, regardless of the expectations from the outside world,” Nimmala says.

“To be honest with you, I’m not trying to please anyone. I’m trying to do what I want to do and make my family proud. But, at the same time, that’s not the big focus. I’m playing baseball because that’s my love.

“That’s my sport.”

Photo Credits
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images (4)