I will never forget the chills that jolted my spine when I first chanced upon the great sportswriter George Plimpton’s explosive Sports Illustrated story headlined The Curious Case of Sidd Finch. It was in 1985, during yet another interminable study hall in the old wood-panelled library of my high school in Tarrytown, New York, and – per usual – I was happily reading magazines instead of tackling homework.
Plimpton made my eyes pop by describing another spectacular pitching talent coming up for the New York Mets baseball team, which had unearthed two incredible gems in Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling the previous year. Bursting with envy – because I bleed for the crosstown Yankees – I learned how Hayden Siddhartha Finch threw the ball faster than anyone else ever recorded. It was too much to bear. Enraged by the unfairness of the universe I closed the magazine, then saw the cover date: April Fool’s Day.
Fast forward nearly four decades, and, like Yogi Berra infamously said, it was déjà vu all over again when Sweeny Murti, the veteran radio announcer for the Yankees, tweeted on July 1 about “a prospect from Yale [who is] moving up the draft boards thanks to his fastball/slider combo. And like me, he is a first generation Indian American.”
Quickly searching for more, I found wonderful pictures and stories about a luxuriantly moustachioed 21-year-old whose legend is only slightly more believable than Plimpton’s fictional Finch.
The good news is that Rohan Handa really does exist. He’s a 21-year-old North Carolina born-and-bred pitcher who has turned the global Covid-19 lockdown into an astonishing launching pad. Even after the Ivy League suspended play, he kept on working and has managed to transform his golden left arm from throwing eighty-something miles per hour to gunning flame in the high nineties. Now, he has been selected 146th in the Major League Baseball draft by the San Francisco Giants, and the baseball world’s consensus is that he will make it to the top ranks.
But that’s not everything we have to cheer about, because in the same draft, way up in the stratospheric 10th position, those same New York Mets drafted Kumar Rocker, yet another high-octane Indian American pitcher who has just finished up one of the greatest college baseball careers of our times. This is an unprecedented step forward. We are on the verge of heralding the very first desi stars of “America’s Pastime”, an historic breakthrough right on par with Kamala Harris’s victory as Vice President alongside Joe Biden.
How and why? It’s because baseball is so intimately wound into the USA’s idea of itself. When something really belongs, they say, “It’s as American as apple pie and baseball.” Their national lore is replete with adages and metaphors derived from this sport: the “curve ball”, “three strikes and you’re out”, “stepping up to the plate”.
When Simon and Garfunkel asked “where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” in their classic song Mrs. Robinson, everyone knew exactly what they yearned for: untarnished heroes; the guy who gets the girl (in DiMaggio’s case it was the equally iconic Marilyn Monroe; the frontiersman’s field of dreams where “if you build it, they will come”.
Baseball is entirely replete with Americana – the peanuts and crackerjack included. But even then, there’s definitely extra in the position played by Rohan Handa and Kumar Rocker. Pitchers are straight out of the Wild West. Lone gunslingers, they are the most solitary athletes in any team sport, standing by themselves on a mound that’s 60 feet and 6 inches away from an unending rotation of opponents with bludgeons in their hands and murder in their eyes. Their team’s fate is written in the result of every throw.
Unlike cricket, where other bowlers take turns, here it is pure mano-a-mano. Either the batters do down or you’re off the field altogether. It’s elementally Darwinian, very American indeed.
Seeing it to be it
Why did it take so long for Indian Americans to catapult themselves into the big leagues? There’s no single answer, and many complicating factors. For one thing, there’s nothing quite like the physical motions of this game, which make it very difficult to become good unless you were raised playing it from infancy.
While there’s the interesting historical exception of Australia, where several 1960s-’70s athletes – like the Chappell brothers – switched fairly easily between cricket and baseball, the more recent Million Dollar Arm gimmick demonstrated why that’s a dauntingly improbable leap to make today.
Another factor is diaspora predilections: desi competitiveness tends to Spelling Bees, or occasionally tennis. Thus, when considering the trajectories of kids with names like Kumar and Rohan in the US, it has never been baseball that leaps to mind.
“You have to see it to be it,” said Sweeny Murti, who is rather an amazing trailblazer himself. At 51, the veteran announcer is slightly younger than I am, and when we were growing up it was inconceivable that someone like us could become the voice of the Yankees. That is why, ever since he started with the team in the 1990s, I have followed his career with tremendous delight. Earlier this month, after he tweeted about Rohan Handa, I excitedly reached out to him, and managed to co-ordinate a long late-evening telephone call from my home in Goa while he was driving into work in New York.
Murti was remarkably reflective about his experiences growing up in Pennsylvania as the children of immigrants from Andhra Pradesh, where he took an unlikely turn away from family and community expectations into that most American of professions: talking baseball on the radio.
“I feel like I’ve been living two different lives, you know what it was like growing up in this country in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “It really wasn’t easy being different. I found it hard to accept. It resulted in distancing myself from my Indian identity, and I kind of hid behind the microphone.”
When a childhood friend couldn’t pronounce “Srinivas” [his given name] the nickname “Sweeny” took over, and till today many listeners just assume “I’m a good Irish kid.”
When Murti and I were in high school, the very idea of an Indian American baseball player was outlandish, and decades later he has still never actually seen one play. “That’s why Kumar and Rohan are game-changers,” he told me. “Their legacy is going be huge. Just imagine how many kids are going to be inspired by seeing them make it. I’m really excited because it’s going to be just like what Kim Ng [the first woman general manager in major league baseball] managed to achieve by persevering to get where she has. Lots of people will follow in their footsteps.”
Murti and I agreed that Rohan Handa has an unambiguously solid shot and his record of diligent application makes it likely he will show up in the big leagues. We also concurred that there’s a marked difference between the two pathbreakers. Handa’s parents are relatively typical recent migrants from India, who rode the tech boom to assimilation, with no professional sports in their lineage.
By contrast, Kumar Rocker’s African American father and uncle both played in the National Football League (it’s his Indian American mother Lalitha Samuel Rocker who’s the biggest baseball fan in his family). The 21-year-old from Vanderbilt University has steadily compiled one of the most impressive youth sporting résumés in recent memory.
It is a highlight reel already spilling over with the stuff of legends. Two years ago, highly memorably, Rocker struck out 19 batters while throwing the first no-hitter in the Super Regional round of the national college championship (his team went on to win, and he was named its most valuable player.
This year, he became just the second pitcher in 23 years to lead the nation in both wins and strikeouts. His teammates love him. The fans go crazy when he takes the mound. When his ultra-grizzled college coach – who has nurtured literally dozens of professional players over the years – was asked about this particular phenom, he went silent blinking back tears, and has gone on to compare his pitcher to some of the greatest players in the Hall of Fame.
This is stunning stuff, leading to an inescapable set of conclusions. Alexi Grewal may still be the only American to win an Olympic gold in road cycling, and Brandon Chillar won the Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, but it’s clear there has never been any Indian American athlete as special as the 6’ 5” Rocker, with his penchant for winning big precisely when it matters the most.
It would be unfair to put any more pressure on the young man’s broad shoulders – the New York Mets have done their part by handing him a whopping six-million-dollar signing bonus – but it cannot be denied Kumar Rocker is fast shaping as the most significant professional athlete of South Asian origin in the world, in any era.
Like so many others, I have been following Rocker’s emergence with elation – and not a little awe - ever since he pitched that dominant game in 2019, and more recently also began following his mother on Twitter. Before the draft weekend on July 11-13, I tried to reach out to both of them, but – perfectly understandably – they didn’t respond to my entreaties from the distant Konkan.
On the other hand, Rohan Handa promptly got in touch, and also connected me with his father. Just hours before teams started picking their fancy, I had the chance to speak with both of them from their home in North Carolina.
“I just loved baseball from the moment I encountered the game,” said the younger Handa. He told me that his father encouraged him and his brother – who’s headed to Middlebury College and its baseball team later this year – to try out lots of different sports, but this one hooked him hardest. It helped that he was always tall (both he and his father are 6’ 3”, and his brother is 6’ 6”) and enjoyed both hitting and pitching.
One epiphanic moment came when he was called to the Team USA Under-14 training camp, and did well enough to make the national development programme. The next year, another huge step when he played very well in the national colours when they won the 2015 under-15 Pan American championship. That experience sparked big league ambitions.
“My personality is to attack, attack, attack,” Handa said. “All these years, there have always been guys who throw harder, but I still get the outs and the wins. The speed thing never worried me, because it was always clear the velocity would come as my body changed.” That process got kick-started when Yale stopped playing baseball, and he moved home to Charlotte to start working with cutting-edge trainers at Tread Athletics and the Houston-based Dynamic Sports Training.
“After I was assessed, they told me I had 12-15 things that could be improved,” said Handa. “I loved hearing that, and immediately started working on all of them. I’ve gone from throwing in the 80s to the high 90s, but there’s much further to go. There’s more to come for sure.”
I was interested to know how this young baseball star navigated the two sides of his identity, just over three decades after Murti and I had grown up in a rather different America. The biggest change, of course, is simple demographics. In the 1980s, there were barely 400,000 Indian Americans scattered across the country. There are well over ten times as many today. What felt like an unbridgeable canyon between the two cultures in those days doesn’t exist anymore to any meaningful extent.
Then, it seemed like you had to choose one or the other, but Handa told me “I really identify with Hrithik Roshan” and “I am more Indian” than his community peers in Charlotte.
“I’m very proud of my culture, and it’s not something I’m going to let go of,” he said.
What about on the diamond? Murti has never seen any serious Indian American baseball player, but what about Handa a full generation later? “It was Kumar,” said the young pitcher, telling me about how excited and happy he was back in 2017, when the two faced each other in an elite tournament in Lakepoint, Georgia. Rocker’s team won 2-0 in a rain-shortened game, but it was a consequential encounter, where Handa’s father exchanged numbers with Rocker’s mother, and the players struck up an instant friendship.
“Kumar is just a phenomenal guy,” said Handa. “You can see it immediately. It’s an honour just to be in the conversation with him, and I’m really looking forward to meeting again, and hopefully play in the same game again too.”
A few hours after speaking with his son, I got on another video call with Vikas Handa, who is lean and animated, with a trace of North Carolina twang in his Indian American accent. Born in 1969 in Lucknow, into a family of refugees who suffered great losses during Partition (including the death of his grandfather and many relatives), he made it up the professional ladder via the Institute of Technology at Banaras Hindu University. In the pre-internet early 1990s, at just 21, he was assigned to work in the US by Tata Consultancy Services.
This part of Vikas Handa’s story is a familiar Indian American trope: “I was treated very well by my clients, and lived like a king. It became obvious to me that if you bust your ass in this country, there’s every opportunity to make it. My communications skills grew, my confidence went up. Living by myself in New Jersey changed my life, from nerd to man.”
But there’s another twist to the tale, because this particular twentysomething techie had no intention of staying, and went straight back home to India when his assignment was done.
“I wanted to make my life and career nearer there,” Handa told me, “but then I got stuck in Bombay during December 1992 after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, during the violence, rioting, and those maha aartis. To tell you the truth, I was sh*t scared, and kept thinking about what my family had already gone through in the previous generation. It shook my belief in my choices. I asked myself, what am I doing here? By the middle of the next year, I was back in the USA, working in Silicon Valley.”
Like the majority of other Indian Americans in the USA – though by no means across the board – the Handa family has flourished since Vikas Handa took that leap of faith. He made an entrepreneurial move into providing software services to textile factories, which are heavily centred in the Carolinas, and then – in the great tipping point for Indian Americans – made further considerable gains during the Y2K scare.
As his sons grew up, Handa said, “I wanted them to play any sport. To be totally honest, even track or swimming would have been fine.” But from the age of three, Rohan loved baseball, and was consistently selected for Little League All Star teams.
“He was always the tallest, and could hit as well,” Vikas Handa said. “We supported him, of course, but when he made it to the national team the whole family went to Mexico for the Pan Am games. My parents who were visiting from India also came along. Rohan pitched very well against Cuba. They won the gold. That opened my eyes to what might be possible. Now, I really have no doubts. You take it from me, he’s going to make India proud.”
Handa and I spent some time in frank conversation about what might come his son’s way in an arena that has never seen an Indian American player. These are serious concerns: the great Jackie Robinson endured massive abuse when he integrated the game in 1947, and the first distinguishable Asian players in the late 1990s also faced similar challenges.
Only a few months ago there were waves of violence against Asian Americans to the point that Joe Biden was compelled to admit, “That’s been true throughout our history, but that has to change – because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.”
Thinking hard about what Rohan Handa and Kumar Rocker might encounter, my mind kept returning to those fantastic New York Mets teams of my high school years (they won the World Series in 1986), and especially to the enigmatic figure of Ron Darling, who happens to be the last Yale graduate to make it big in baseball.
At that time the spin on his ethnicity had been that he was – as the famous sportswriter George Vecsey somewhat nauseatingly put it in the New York Times – “a walking display for the polyglot beauty of Hawaii”. It’s only decades later that I realised his mother was first-generation Chinese, and her son was a great Asian American trailblazer in baseball.
Darling is amongst the best baseball television commentators, and I managed to contact him thanks to Sweeny Murti. Right off the bat, he surprised me with his open-hearted candour: “I am so happy for Rohan and Kumar. They have both worked so hard to get to this particular place in time, and the really exciting journey will soon begin. But professional sports are a job, and the romanticism will dissipate as they visit small towns that will occasionally come with their own views regarding Asians. They should seek out refuge on days off. I always started with the Asian restaurants, whose families are my friends to this day. They were proud to hang with a professional athlete and I was overjoyed at their ‘beautiful ignorance’ of the baseball experience.”
When he came up into the professional ranks, said Darling, “There were many obstacles when I was drafted. There was name calling – “gook” was the go-to in those post-Vietnam War days – because of Yale, my ethnicity and my looks. But I had weathered through much of this for most of my life, and used it as fuel as I am sure Rohan and Kumar will do.”
The 60-year-old athlete told me, “My athleticism was never questioned but my one piece of advice for both is that the locker room can become a lonely place if you stand out as unique. It was much more so in my day. For example, I am a voracious reader, but chose to never read on a plane or in the clubhouse because I did not want to be singled out as trying to be too ‘uppity’. Simply put, I tried to fit in with the ‘jock mentality’ and said little but laughed at the inane and childish nature of a locker room. I do believe all of this has changed for the better, and more and more people in the game look like me, Kumar and Rohan than ever before.”
‘Stuck between worlds’
Darling pointed out that Rocker and Handa often speak about their Indian American roots, but he never seemed to have that option. I found it very moving when he divulged that “I believe that if I had been allowed to embrace all that I represented, my path could have been much easier and healthier”. Instead, his Asian American identity was never properly acknowledged, which left him “stuck between two worlds without complete connection to either” and the belittling insinuation that “he’s a little tanned but he’s alright”.
“We live in an interesting but polarising time,” said Darling. “Violence against Asian-Americans has never been higher, but I do believe that baseball will embrace Kumar and Rohan because the locker room has not only become more enlightened, but MLB [Major League Baseball] wants to grow the game internationally and Kumar and Rohan could serve their expansion purposes. They should be careful regarding this one, or monetarily benefit. In any case, I hope they can share their story. I was never ever to share mine. Probably a good thing since I am, by nature, painfully shy. Wish them well and let them both know that no one is prouder than this ex-ballplayer in Connecticut.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.
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