Representing Israel

Amos Lassen

After years of defeat, Israel’s national baseball team became eligible to compete in the World Baseball Classic, a prestigious international tournament held in Seoul, Korea in 2017. The team included several Jewish American Major League players. While the game was important, the team learned about representing Israel on the world stage but even more important was discovering the sense of pride they had for the country.

The documentary is the story of the underdog team that grabbed Jewish emotions and the all over the world.  t Team Israel was never expected to go as far as they did. When the team won the qualifier over Great Britain in 2016 and advanced to the 2017 World Baseball Classic, reporter Jonathan Mayo was instrumental in organizing a trip to Israel for the squad.  The large majority of the film focuses on the trip to Israel as seen through the eyes of Ike Davis, Josh Zeid, Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, and Cody Decker. The hope of the producers is that the 2017 Team Israel squad will inspire Israelis to take up baseball so that in the future rosters won’t be filled by American Jews (who qualify under the heritage rule).

Co-directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger follow Team Israel as they made their trip to Israel but also as they sweep through Pool A in Korea and through their battle onto the next round.  When Team Israel swept Pool A play, they didn’t just shock the world, they shocked each other. Many of these players had never set foot in Israel.

Baseball is America’s pastime and with Israel as one of America’s closest allies—and an island of liberal democracy in a sea of intolerance, it would seem natural for Israelis to play baseball—but it wasn’t. When the two came together in 2017, the result was a rousing underdog story. 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. This is what 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 manager and scouts managed to recruit established MLB players. 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.

Team Israel arrived in Seoul for the first round of WBC competition and they shocked the world. Team Israel was as an all-hustle team. They also had a much more unified team spirit, thanks to the time they spent together in Israel. They 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.

The film captures every step of Team Israel’s journey, from recruitment, through training camp, the initial qualifier in Brooklyn, up to second round play in Tokyo. Along the way, the team scored several upset victories, over some countries well known for their baseball traditions. “Heading Home”  tells a terrific sports story. Many team-members obviously gained a deeper appreciation of the State of Israel after their time there.

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