Playing a role in 'Million Dollar Arm'

HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME -- Is there some sort of Oscar for best non-supporting non-actor in a non-speaking role?

If there is, I'd better start rehearsing my speech.

I can't imagine that anyone in Hollywood could possibly have out-flinched me, out-gestured me, out-contorted me or out-dejected me in my electrifying "role" as an extra -- wait, make that a pivotal extra -- in the irresistible new Disney film "Million Dollar Arm."

It was the most challenging role of my cinematic career. OK, make that the only role of my cinematic career.

But on Tuesday evening, it will lead me to the red carpet (or whatever color carpet we pivotal extras are allowed to walk on) of the amazing El Capitan Theater, where "Million Dollar Arm" will have its world premiere.

In other news, Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi of "Daily Show," Suraj Sharma of "Life of Pi" and Madhur Mittal of "Slumdog Millionaire" will also be in attendance -- possibly because they're the actual stars of this production.

So I know pretty much exactly what you're thinking: "Won't they be calling security immediately when they spot me out there?" And that answer is no, actually. Well, hopefully.

And you want to know why? Sure. Let me tell you all about this film, how the likes of someone such as yours truly managed to get mixed up in it and about my brush with cinematic stardom.

How'd you wind up in this movie?

Um, natural Hollywood charisma?

All right, so that wasn't it. In reality, I was contacted a year ago this week by my old friend Chip Namias, who was handling publicity for "Million Dollar Arm" last spring, via an email that was entitled, "An Interesting Proposition."

Chip then invited me to become a member of a group he calls the "Hack Pack," a bunch of sportswriters who serve as extras -- oops, I mean pivotal extras -- in the film. He has employed this technique while doing public relations for a bunch of sports movies. And it works like this:

Step 1: Ask sportswriters to appear in your film. Step 2: Sit back and watch those sportswriters write award-winning columns and blogs about that very film.

Works every time. And, if you've read this far, you know it worked brilliantly once again with "Million Dollar Arm." Imagine that.

When did you do all this?

Last June 30, I flew to Atlanta, where I met up with Chip and my fellow Hack Packers -- Ken Rosenthal (Fox), Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated), Bob Nightengale (USA Today Sports), Scott Miller (then of CBSsports.com, now of Bleacher Report) and Jeff Passan (Yahoo ! Sports).

We then went to dinner with Chip, producer Mark Ciardi ("Miracle," "The Rookie," "Invincible," "Secretariat") and J.B. Bernstein, the real-life agent who is played by Jon Hamm in the film. Turned out we were also joined by a surprise guest -- Hamm himself -- for a tremendous night of show-biz talk and baseball talk, not always in that order.

The next day, we spent a leisurely 16½-hour day on the set, shooting our scene, which turned out to be one of the most dramatic and compelling scenes in the entire movie -- exactly the kind, in other words, that require the brilliant "acting" of pivotal extras like me.

What's Jon Hamm like?

I'm skipping ahead here. But I felt I needed to get to this because, for some reason, this question comes up a lot. Particularly in conversations with a portion of the population I like to describe as "females."

So I would characterize the star of this flick this way: cool; sharp; funny; laugh-out-loud story teller; huge baseball fan; an even more huge Cardinals fan; and a guy who -- as those who have seen my new book (caution: shameless book plug ahead), "Wild Pitches," can attest -- a writer of brilliant and hilarious back-cover book blurbs.

Hamm told us he was specifically looking to do a baseball film when he heard about this project. And once he'd read the script, he couldn't resist this beautiful and, frankly, "crazy" real-life story of his character's life-changing connection with two kids from India whose journey from the countryside to the center of the baseball diamond that he said "blew my mind."

"If it would have been about swimming, I wouldn't have done it," he said. "No offense, but 'Million Dollar Fins' wouldn't have done it for me."

What was your day like on the set?

As we were finishing dinner that night, we were casually informed that they'd be sending a driver to pick us up at the hotel the next morning -- at every sportswriter's favorite time of day, 5:15 a.m. Never had covering a night game in Seattle looked so good.

So we dutifully dragged ourselves into the lobby in the morning. And we were then transported not to the main set, but to a strip center outside Atlanta that would be posing that day as a strip center in Tempe, Arizona, the scene of these kids' long-awaited 2008 tryout for a large throng of big league scouts.

When we arrived, we discovered our very own Hack Pack trailer (complete with running water and a visiting hair stylist), director's chairs with our names on them and all the other accoutrements of stardom except possibly for stardom itself. But hey, close enough.

Pretty much the moment the sun came up, around 6, we were pointed toward the parking lot for what we thought would be a quick shoot, taking a couple of hours. Turned out we were slightly off in that estimate.

By oh, about 12 hours.

According to my count -- and I was appointed by my fellow Hack Packers as the official stat geek of this adventure (which I took as a prestigious honor, of course) -- we then shot 62 takes of essentially the same scene. Yep, 62.

That included some footage of us milling around before and after the actual tryout. But mostly, we worked variations of the same acting magic over and over and over again, from every angle except the Google Earth satellite camera.

I've been urged (let's rephrase that as strongly urged) by my wife to stop spewing spoilers everywhere I turn, so I'll phrase this delicately. But it's fair to say that once these kids got to what passed for a pitchers' mound -- or at least the strip-center version of a pitcher's mound -- they didn't exactly remind anyone of Justin Verlander.

So our assignment -- for the next 14 hours -- was to watch intently, shake our heads a lot, check the nearest fake radar gun, mutter a lot, then rinse and repeat.

Sir Laurence Olivier would have been proud.

We watched and muttered, literally, from the time the sun arose to the time it disappeared. We expressed our dismay in blazing sunshine and driving rain and every form of meteorology in between.

At one point, we got in some minor hot water for over-tweeting. At another point, one member of our brigade got in more significant trouble, with director Craig Gillespie, for staring at the camera instead of at the kids heaving those baseballs all over Georgia.

But other than that, we were shockingly well-behaved (for sportswriters). We got to engage in amusing banter with Hamm, Paxton, Sharma and Mittal, all of whom went out of their way to welcome us into their show-biz world. And as the day rolled along, we came to an important realization:

There was no way our transcendent work was going to be cut out of this film.

This scene was too big. Hamm was right in the middle of it. And Ciardi had even cast himself as a pivotal extra.

"That's why I put myself in it," he joked to us at one point. "So you guys were protected."

So how'd it all turn out?

It was never my goal in life to have my face projected onto a large screen, like 90 feet high, while innocent civilians (not to mention me) were forced to watch it.

But now that I've had that experience and after seeing two screenings of "Million Dollar Arm," I have to admit that, thanks to what clearly must be trick photography, it's pretty cool to see yourself up there.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my ESPN friend Steve Levy, who -- as we were about to shoot our big scene for the first time -- nudged me to a prime spot, right behind the plate, no more than 10 feet from where Ciardi stood, where I was about to get a ridiculous amount of screen time. I hope the Oscars voters are paying rapt attention.

But what made this experience extra cool was that this movie itself is going to live on for decades, because it's destined for a place among the baseball-film classics.

It's a movie that has it all: an amazing cast; a script by Tom McCarthy that makes you laugh and makes you cry; and an incredible, true story about two kids who did the impossible.

Until J.B. Bernstein showed up in India, handing out leaflets, Rinku and Dinesh had no idea what baseball was. Less than a year later, they were trying out for actual professional baseball scouts. And their lives, which otherwise would have been essentially scripted from birth, would never be the same.

"These kids never dream," Ciardi said. "They don't dream. They never get out of those villages. ... So to get this opportunity, it's like going to the moon."

In the end, miraculously, they made it to the moon. And just as miraculously, I made it to the red carpet. I'd love to ask you which was more improbable -- but, on second thought, don't answer that!