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Cougars pitcher Rakkar defies baseball demographics

Canadian pitcher of Indian heritage settling in with Cougars

Published: Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 10:57 p.m. CST • Updated: Monday, Aug. 4, 2014 11:03 p.m. CST
Caption
(Sean King for Shaw Media)
Kane County Cougars pitcher Jasvir Rakkar (13) throws a pitch Saturday against the Quad Cities River Bandits at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva.

GENEVA – Jasvir Rakkar throws a fastball, slider and changeup.

So far, though, Rakkar might be best known for the cultural curveball he proudly represents.

Rakkar, a Canadian whose parents are from India, is seeking to make his mark in a sport with hardly any precedent of professional success for ballplayers of Indian decent. Just a week into his time with the Kane County Cougars, Rakkar is happy to play the dual role of reliever and role model.

"Honestly I never really thought about that until some people started to ask me, and then I started to think 'Wow, it's true,' because I've always just focused on the game and not focused on myself too much," Rakkar said. "But as for being one of the only [baseball players of Indian descent], hopefully it opens more Indians' eyes to the game and maybe pushes some kids to try and make it as well, that baseball is a sport that they can play."

Rakkar, 23, grew up in suburban Toronto and said a cousin's involvement with youth baseball "kind of opened the door for me." His father Avtar and mother Darjeet were unfamiliar with baseball – essentially a non-entity in India – but together they took an interest, along with Rakkar's younger brother, Barinder, now a pitcher at Concord University in West Virginia.

"Baseball's a game where you learn every day, so we're still learning," Rakkar said. "It was fun, we were all doing it together, which made it a lot easier instead of just doing it on my own."

Rakkar performed well enough to gain local acclaim in the Toronto area, and playing college baseball in the United States emerged as an option. He was recruited to Division-I Stony Brook (N.Y.), and was a key part of the Seawolves' surprise run to the 2012 College World Series.

Once again, Rakkar showed a penchant for beating the odds. He said the College World Series run was a valuable piece of his development.

"Coming from Stony Brook, where we didn't get to play in front of a lot of fans, and making that run and getting to play in front of fans kind of helped me now with being able to play in front of crowds like this," Rakkar said. "So I got past the nerves [quickly] and now it's just focusing on finding the [strike zone] and helping the team win."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound right-hander arrived at Stony Brook with no real ambition of advancing to the professional ranks.

"Honestly throughout high school, I was not really even focused on trying to get a scholarship or anything, was just going to go to a university and get a degree," Rakkar said. "And then once my junior year, senior year came around and some of the travel ball coaches told me I could have a chance to play college ball somewhere down here, I kind of just started to buy in and take advantage of it. 

"And then in college, the plan was just to get through the four years and have a good college career, and then this opportunity came up, so it was just 'Take advantage of it.' "

So far, so good with the Cougars. Rakkar entered the week unscored upon in his two outings and he struck out four in 1 2/3 innings of relief Saturday against Quad Cities.

A 26th round draft pick of the Cubs in 2012, Rakkar came to Kane County after spending last season and part of this year in Short-A Boise. He was 4-1 with a 3.58 ERA in Boise last year before struggling in seven appearances this summer. Cougars manager Mark Johnson said Rakkar has "decent stuff," adding that "Guys with decent stuff can pitch at higher levels if they have the guts and they have the competitiveness, and I see that out of him."

Johnson said Rakkar's Canadian-Indian heritage adds to the clubhouse's enriching cultural mix.

"These kids come from Arkansas and California and the Dominican and Puerto Rico and India and Canada – it's amazing how they can just blend together," Johnson said. "We're together every single day for five, six months, so yeah, it's cool to have that kind of diversity. These guys will never forget this."

Rakkar's father was in town during the weekend to watch the Cougars' series against Quad Cities. Rakkar is grateful to his family for supporting his unlikely baseball path, and his parents' pride in his ascent is evident.

"My dad's always on the phone with someone in India or the [United Kingdom] explaining baseball because they don't really play it out there," Rakkar said.

Rakkar visited India for about six weeks when he was 10 years old. He enjoyed connecting with extended family members and came away newly appreciative of such basics as electricity and the ability to place phone calls without a hassle. 

"It was honestly one of the greatest experiences of my life," Rakkar said. "I got to see how my parents grew up, how different our world in Toronto is ... It changed my view on life."

A Disney movie titled "Million Dollar Arm" – starring Jon Hamm and based on the true story of Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel winning a reality show and eventually playing their way into the Pittsburgh Pirates' minor league system – was released earlier this year.

"I haven't seen the movie yet but I do want to see it, I just haven't really had the time with all the traveling I've been doing," Rakkar said. "I wouldn't mind even meeting the guys at some point."

Rakkar isn't yet Hollywood – or Bollywood – material. But the closer he comes to the majors, the more his family's heritage figures to draw attention.

Rakkar doesn't object, but he and his family are more focused on the game. They're a baseball family now.

"My dad's always talking to me about the big leagues, watching the Blue Jays back [in Toronto] and the Cubs," Rakkar said. "And I have a little sister and we have her playing softball, and my mom's all into that. So yeah, I'd say they follow the sport [now]."

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