Monday, September 02, 2019

Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel

Baseball is America’s pastime—especially here in New York. Israel is one of America’s closest allies—and an island of liberal democracy in a sea of despotic intolerance. When the two came together in 2017, the result was a rousing underdog story. Cinderella proudly wore the Star of David on her jersey when Team Israel made their surprising run in the last World Baseball Classic, which Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller & Jeremy Newberger document in Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel, which opens this Friday in New York.

The World Baseball Classic is very much like a FIFA World Cup for baseball, including its greater popularity in Latin American countries than here in the United States. Big contract Major Leaguers are discouraged from playing, so most of the Americans who agree to play are veterans looking to make a comeback. However, that presented an opportunity for Team Israel. According to the International Baseball Federation’s “Heritage” rules, any player who could qualify for citizenship in a country is allowed to play for their national team. In the case of Israel, that meant any player with a Jewish mother or grandparents was eligible for Team Israel.

Prior to 2017, Team Israel was ranked 41st in the World, but their diligent general manager and scouts managed to recruit established MLB players, including Josh Zeid, Jason Maquis, Ryan Lavarnway, Cody Decker, Ty Kelly, and Ike Davis. Indeed, there is a strong connection between Team Israel and the New York Mets, with Kelly and Davis being former Metropolitans and team owner Fred Wilpon serving as a producer of the documentary.

With little fanfare or expectations, Team Israel arrived in Seoul for the first round of WBC competition. Not to be spoilery, but they pretty much shocked the world. If not exactly an all-star Team, Team Israel could definitely be described as an all-hustle team. They also had a much more unified team spirit, thanks to the time they spent together in Israel. They also had a greater perspective on the game, having helped dedicate an Israeli baseball field to a young athlete who was the victim of anti-Israeli terrorism. Plus, everyone dug their mascot: “The Mensch on the Bench.”

Kramer, Miller, Newberger, and their even dozen cinematographers captured every step of Team Israel’s journey, from recruitment, through training camp, the initial qualifier in Brooklyn, up to second round play in Tokyo. Frankly, they do not miss anything of importance from the 2017 season. Along the way, the team notched several upset victories, over some countries well known for their baseball traditions. Seriously, if you did not follow the WBC, you will be impressed. They did not always win, but when they did, it was pretty sweet.

As a work of cinema, Heading Home is straight forward and completely unpretentious, but it tells a terrific sports story. Clearly, Kramer & Company had the benefit of carte-blanche access to the team, but they were really fortunate to have so many insightful players willing to talk on camera. Many team-members obviously gained a deeper appreciation of the State of Israel after their time there (which sadly did include a terrorist act while they were in-country), so hopefully some viewers will too. Highly recommended for baseball fans and viewers of sports programming like HBO’s Real Sports and ESPN’s 30 for 30, Heading Home opens this Friday (9/6) in New York, at the Quad—with the Mensch on the Bench attending select screenings.