Q&A with former Brave Tom House about ‘Million Dollar Arm’

Though Tom House had a better-than-solid career as a relief pitcher for the Braves, he may be best known in Atlanta as the answer to a trivia question: who caught Hank Aaron’s historic 715th home run?

After going 18-11 with a 3.06 ERA in Atlanta, House went on to play for Boston and Seattle and coach pitchers at his alma mater, USC. He’s now a volunteer assistant coach with the Trojans.

House also tutors pitchers and some of his work can be seen in the just-released movie, Million Dollar Arm.

House was responsible for helping Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two winners of a contest in India, learn how to take skills from playing cricket and throwing javelins and utilize them as baseball pitchers.

House took a few minutes on Wednesday to answer questions about Singh and Patel and Bill Paxton’s job portraying him in the movie. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

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Q: What did you think of the movie?

A: I thought it was a really, really good show. It represented very well the agent and the two kids, to get here to the United States and how hard they worked to sign a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and how hard the agent, J.B. Bernstein, worked to try to get a movie. I thought it was well done across the board. I probably had the easiest job of anybody involved with the project.

Q: What was your job?

A: What we did first was condition them that they had the strength to handle the workload of throwing a baseball not just on flat ground, but on a mound also. It went conditioning and then mechanics and during that time frame try to teach them as much as they could possibly learn about the game of baseball.

Q: How much time did you have to do that?

A: Initially, I was told we had a year. We really only had about 6-7 months. We got it done within the time frame. It really was a perfect storm. We got lucky. They were two great kids who didn’t mind working from dawn to dark every day and on top of that working when they got back to their lodging. I don’t know if it will ever happen again, those circumstances, but for me it was like getting two 17- or 18-year-olds, a blank slate, and starting from scratch.

Q: As they first started trying to throw a baseball, after throwing a cricket ball or javelin, what was the result?

A: Well, it was ugly. They couldn’t play catch. They didn’t realize that the glove was for catching the ball. Through the interpreter they told us that they thought the glove was to keep their non-throwing hand warm. When they play catch in cricket they catch the ball with their throwing hand.

Q: How long did it take to explain the terms like fastball and curveball to them?

A: This is where J.B. came in so strong. Every day the kids had to learn three new words in English and use them in conversation. They were watching baseball, watching tapes, reading books, on the internet; it was basically graduate school baseball night and day both on and off the field.

Q: By the time you were done what kind of pitches could they throw?

A: They could throw all three pitches: some kind of fastball, some kind of breaking ball and some kind of changeup. That was actually fairly easy.

Q: What skill level would you say they had by the time they were done?

A: When they were done, it kind of reminded me…you could see the talent. It was like a high school kid that hadn’t played a whole lot of baseball but had a really good arm. They were somewhat remedial with their movements but you could project the upside.

Q: How fast were they throwing?

A: When they first got there it was 86, 87 mph. The day they signed, the left-hander was showing 93 and the right-hander was showing 92, 94. That’s why the Pirates signed them. The showed the velocity it takes to play Major League Baseball.

Q: How did they find you? How did you get hooked up with this?

A: The scout that was helping with the project in India, he and I are buddies from way back when. J.B.’s partner approached me with the idea to see if I was interested and, with the priorities I laid out, I took a shot at it. I didn’t hold out a high chance of success. My No. 1 priority was their health.

Q: It must have been fun for you.

A: It was. We got to mix and match the two Indian kids with athletes from around the country that I work with separately. It was kind of a mentoring process, not just for me as a coach but for their pitching teammates. I think that also facilitated the learning curve.

Q: What about the philosophy and strategy of pitching, did that come easy to them?

A: We had lectures every day. It was probably easier for them to understand ‘If it’s this in the pitching count, and the previous pitch was this, you are going to throw this. If the hitter has a weakness, you will exploit it until he makes an adjustment.’ In other words, that was pitching strategies 101. They were smart kids. They learned the strategy and tactics of the equation pretty quick.

Q: During live competition, at what point did you say, “These kids go it”?

A: The process went from flat-ground work to bullpen work to batting practice to simulated games to pick-up games to collegiate athletes around Southern California to signing a contract. They didn’t learn overnight. The process was mentally and physically across the board.

Q: How much contact do you have with them now?

A: I just saw them last week because they had the premiere of the movie on Hollywood Boulevard. I will see both of them, if not later this summer, then in the fall in what’s kind of like a tune-up.

Q: Were you involved in the filming?

A: I was kind of a consultant. Bill Paxton played me in the movie. My feedback on that is Bill Paxton did a better job of playing Tom House than Tom House does.

I have a real small cameo at the end of the movie.

I got to tell the kids that the Pittsburgh Pirates had offered them a contract.

My biggest issue was not crying on camera.

Q: How many takes?

A: One.

I probably had the easiest job of anybody involved in the project. Again, it was a perfect storm from agent to scout to athlete to filming to editing, and having Disney behind the production was even better.

Q: How much research did Bill Paxton do interviewing you for his role?

A: He came by and spent time with us here. I work at USC. He came by a couple of three days to watch what we do, talk to the guys I work with, try to get my mannerisms down. I think he did a really good job.

Q: Lastly, which of your former Braves teammates could either of the Indian pitchers get out?

A: If I was doing matchups, I would put Rinku on Ralph Garr and Dinesh against Dusty Baker.

Q: What would happen?

A: Ralph and Dusty would get them because they were both legitimate big leaguers. Rinku and Dinesh are still untested on the big-league level.

Q: What would you like about those matchups?

A: Playing the numbers: left-hander vs. left-hander, right-hander vs. right-hander. Both the kids are effectively just a little wild in the strike zone. That might be their only chance. At this point it would be like batting practice.

Q: How has this movie affected you personally and professionally?

A: Visibility. It’s a fun thing. I’m not much of a Hollywood type. It’s humbling to be on the red carpet, in this case the green carpet, and walking around behind movie stars and see what they go through in their jobs.

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