For the folks at the Israel Association of Baseball, last year’s sixth-place finish for Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic was more than they could have dreamed of.
The excitement of that incredible run was captured in a documentary called “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” which premiered in the United States and is now heading to Israel for two shows in Ra’anana and Tel Aviv in May, the IAB has announced.
The movie was born of an idea of MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo. He wanted to combine his love for baseball and his Jewish background into a movie about a group of Jewish major leaguers traveling to Israel to discover their roots. But with the Team Israel win at the WBC qualifiers in Brooklyn in September 2016, it snowballed into something that neither he, nor the producers, nor anyone at Israel Baseball could have dreamed up.
“When we first began this project, we really thought it was going to be all about these Jewish baseball players exploring what it means to be Jewish by exploring Israel,” recalls Mayo. “While that’s obviously still a large theme in the movie, their run in the WBC made it much more about baseball and their ‘Cinderella Story’ than any of us could have ever imagined.”
Told largely through the eyes of a handful of the players, including former major leaguers Ike Davis, Ryan Lavarnway, Sam Fuld, Josh Zeid and Cody Decker, the movie is at the same time emotional and highly entertaining. It chronicles the team’s incredible journey, from winning the qualifier to practicing in front of hundreds of local players in Israel, seeing the sites like the Western Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center and Masada, and being part of the groundbreaking ceremony for the new baseball complex in Bet Shemesh. Finally, it follows their astounding performance at the WBC in South Korea and Japan.
The producer-directors Jeremy Newberger, Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller of Ironbound Films, all friends of Mayo from Jewish summer camp, were the creative minds behind the movie.
“We got to know the players as they toured Israel,” says Newberger. “It was amazing to see them experience, for the first time, a country they would soon represent on the world stage. They formed a deep connection with Israel during our visit, which both upped their game and raised the stakes for the WBC tournament. They were now playing for their homeland and for the hundreds of young baseball-playing fans they met along the way in Israel.”
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Newberger and Kramer came to Israel and accompanied the players every step of the way. Kramer, camera on his shoulder, heroically scaled Masada backward in the heat of the day to capture every moment of the players’ climb. “We knew that Israel would work its magic on the team,” he notes. “Our role was to stand back and capture the players’ transformation, and having already experienced Israel on tours and with friends and family in high school and college, we could even suggest a good shawarma or Turkish coffee along the way.”
While the directors were in Israel with the players, it became clear to them that they would miss the most exciting part of the Team Israel story if they didn’t travel to Korea for the tournament. Once they returned to the United States, they raised funding, ordered themselves their own life-sized version of the Mensch on a Bench – which would go on to become the team’s mascot – for filming purposes, and in March 2017 headed east to follow Team Israel.
“Our access to the team both in Korea and Japan makes ‘Heading Home’ not only an entertaining film, but also an essential piece of Jewish history. Josephus, take note,” quips Newberger. The movie’s dramatic tournament moments are punctuated with a behind-the-scenes look at the players’ antics off the field and offers great insight into the motivations of Team Israel WBC.
According to the IAB, “Heading Home” has been playing to sold-out theaters at Jewish film festivals around the United States since February. It was the winner of the Best Documentary Film award at the Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival.
“This movie is the icing on the cake,” says Peter Kurz, president of the IAB. “We had the great fortune of being able to host some of our players, ex and current major league players, in Israel last year. Then we had an incredible run at the WBC, beating giants like Korea, Netherlands and Cuba. This movie brings it all together and is a great opportunity for people around the world to share in some of these unforgettable moments.”