It’s a classic underdog story. The team of plucky misfits come up big and wins the whole thing. Well, not quite in this case but Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel is about more than baseball. It’s geopolitics on the scale of a baseball tournament.
Under the “Heritage” rules that govern the World Baseball Classic (WBC), a quadrennial baseball tournament held in March that features the top 16 teams consisting of players from around the world, any player may play for a team if he can attain citizenship of that country. So, in 2017, Markham, Ontario-based righthanded pitcher Jordan Romano was able to play for Team Italy. And Israel, a country with only around eight-and-a-half million inhabitants and one full size baseball field was able to field a baseball team competing against the world’s powers including South Korea, Japan and Cuba.
Because of Israel’s “Right of Return” law, any Jew is eligible to become a citizen of Israel and, for the purposes of the law, a person must have at least one Jewish grandparent. And so, General Manager Peter Kurz, heading into the qualifiers for the 2017 WBC, looked to put together a club that would be able to qualify for the main tournament for the first time. He cast his net widely, looking for players whose parents “looked Jewish,” going beyond the typical Jewish last names.
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel begins in Brooklyn in late-2016, when the “Israeli” team, which only had two actual Israeli citizens, beat Great Britain in the 2016 qualifiers, to go to their first ever World Baseball Classic. This was the perfect time for team management, Jonathan Mayo, a reporter for MLB.com, and some philanthropists to show the players what they were playing for.
Most of the American-born baseball players had never been to Israel. Some grew up as the product of mixed marriages and may not have even identified as being Jewish, but seven players got the chance to fly to Israel (on a private jet donated to the project by philanthropist Sheldon Adelson) along with their partners or, in a couple of cases, a father or a mother. Cody Decker, Ryan Lavarnway, Ike Davis, Josh Zeid, Sam Fuld, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker and Jeremy Bleich all were able to travel to Israel.
For me, this was the most interesting part of Heading Home. The American players had their adventures around Israel intercut with stories of how their Jewish backgrounds were or weren’t a part of their lives. Josh Zeid is a proud Jew who has worn his Star of David around his neck since he was a teenager and gave a sermon about Jackie Robinson and inclusion at his bar-mitzvah. Cody Decker related a couple of stories of dealing with overt antisemitism, once coming from girls he and teammates met at a bar and another time being called “Kikes” along with Nate Freiman when they were playing in Double-A in Texas. Ike Davis related the story of his mixed-marriage parents: his Dad was a “redneck” former big leaguer and his mom was a “hippie” New York Jew.
As the players traveled through Israel and met some of the people whose country they would be representing, we witness the players becoming more and more comfortable as representatives who wear “Israel” on their uniforms. They signed shoes, balls, shirts, even a yamulka, when young fans, either the children of American immigrants or immigrants themselves would recognize them. Ike Davis, who played with the New York Mets was particularly popular with the young fans, many of whom (or whose parents) had lived in the New York area before moving to Israel.
Heading Home doesn’t ignore some of the controversial aspects of Israel’s present day situation. The baseball field they practiced at is named after a young Jewish baseball player who was killed in a terrorist attack. Another terrorist attack, reminiscent of the van attack in Toronto just a week ago, occurred while the team was visiting Masada in the Negev Desert.
The most poignant episode came when Josh Zeid visits a shop in Jerusalem that sells t-shirts with American sports franchise logos written out in Hebrew. Sammy, the shop owner is very enthusiastic about finding the right t-shirt for Zeid, and, during their conversation, he reveals that he’s Palestinian. He tells them about some of their struggles in living in Israel and, when asked, he’s up front about the fact that he couldn’t to cheer for Zeid and his teammates.
The players also visit Yad Vashem, the Israeli national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, learning about the Holocaust. Ike Davis relates that he first learned about the Holocaust when, putting together a family tree, he could only name a few of the family members on his mother’s side; the rest had been killed in the Holocaust.
Would Heading Home be much of a story if Team Israel hadn’t done what it did at the WBC in 2017? Israel went to South Korea and went on a streak, defeating the host Korean team, then destroyed the team from Chinese Taipei and beat the Netherlands to go 3-0 in the first round of the tournament. With the Mench on the Bench as the club’s mascot, the Israeli team had gone from 200-1 underdogs to making it into the second round in Tokyo and were the talk of the tournament.
While the ending of the story isn’t quite made for a storybook, Team Israel did beat Cuba in their first game of the second round before falling to Japan and the Netherlands to finish 1-2 in the second round. They were eliminated from contention but not before igniting the interest of a nation and of Jews around the world.
To me, the theme of Heading Home is not about underdogs winning a round in a baseball tournament. It’s about the way that a group of players come together to support each other and understand a different aspect of what it means to be Jewish. Most of the time, Jewish baseball players are just baseball players.
Kevin Pillar is a great example. A Jewish player, Pillar actually wanted to play for Team Israel but was taking things easy on an injury that spring. But Kevin Pillar is seen more as a Toronto Blue Jay than a Jewish baseball player. Rowdy Tellez is more a Blue Jays prospect than a Jewish baseball player. Playing on Team Israel allowed the players to have their Jewishness come to the forefront for a change, allowing that part of their identity to be a part of the game in a more meaningful way.
Heading Home isn’t about trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It does acknowledge the tension in Israel but it’s really about something else. It’s about a group of players, drawn from a pool of about 15 million people of a particular religious/ethnic/cultural group, coming together to do more than just play baseball. It’s about their journey to figure out what being a Jewish baseball player means to them and the other Jewish people scattered throughout the world.
Catcher Ryan Lavarnway (who played in the Blue Jays’ system for a year) said, “I think it would be exceedingly nice if us playing baseball and doing well in this tournament impacted how people see Jews in the world,.”
Heading Home is playing at film festivals around the world and just had its premiere at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Unfortunately, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival decided not to screen Heading Home in this year’s festival. If you can find a way to see it, I heartily recommend it.
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