Bullard graduate had close view of real events behind 'Million Dollar Arm'

The Fresno BeeMay 14, 2014 

"Million Dollar Arm" is based on the true story of the efforts to find the first Major League Baseball pitcher from India. Bullard High School graduate M. Gary Wong, who was in the middle of the actual events as they unfolded in 2008, can tell you what's real and what's been changed.

The Fresno native says the biggest difference is the genesis of the idea for holding the contest. In the film, sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is desperate to find a way to help his faltering management business. While watching a televised cricket match, Bernstein comes up with the idea of turning a cricket player into a baseball pitcher through a reality show contest. He turns to an investment company run by Will Chang (Tzi Ma) for the funding to hold the competition.

Wong was working for the Chang Family Office in San Mateo when the idea for the contest was born.

"Will Chang was jogging to train for a marathon and said no matter how hard he tried, he would never be a world-class athlete. They are freaks of nature," says Wong, who is the chief financial officer with the company.

Chang decided to see if he could find top athletes in India. That's when the company — whose core business is real estate but has diversified into other projects — came up with the competition idea.

Because the company has money invested in the San Francisco Giants, Chang knew Bernstein, who at that time was Barry Bonds' agent.

It was Wong's job to write the checks for the competition.

"We were all a little skeptical," Wong says. "What is a million dollar arm? This idea was kind of out there."

There were other concerns when the search started: No one wanted to sponsor the event — not even Major League Baseball. After the first competition resulted in two major league prospects, a second contest was held. Despite not turning up another "Million Dollar Arm," a third competition is planned for next year and MLB is a co-sponsor of "Million Dollar Arm 3."

The company never planned for a movie to be made, but when the Walt Disney Company approached it for the rights, it agreed.

Most of the movie is true, Wong says. Though some artistic license was taken to add tension, such as Chang giving Bernstein an ultimatum that the contest had better be successful and Chang being depicted as a tough guy who travels with a large entourage.

"This is not a documentary," Wong says. "We are patient investors, long-term investors. We would never give an ultimatum. But most of the movie is true to fact."

 

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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