Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier final in Brooklyn (Photo/Courtesy Menemsha Films)
Team Israel at the 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier final in Brooklyn (Photo/Courtesy Menemsha Films)

Israel’s baseball underdogs who nearly won it all get documentary treatment

When filmmaker Jeremy Newberger started shooting footage for his story on Israel’s national baseball team, he envisioned telling a feel-good tale of a scrappy bunch of American athletes discovering their Jewish roots on a promotional trip to Israel.

Then everything went off script. The team, described by ESPN as “the biggest underdog in the history of the event,” improbably started winning and winning at the World Baseball Classic.

So instead of making a film about Israel’s efforts simply to qualify for the WBC for the first time, Newberger found himself in the middle of an international story, which is retold in “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The film will screen at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 5 in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

“We usually have an idea of what the [story] arc is going to be like, and we had no idea in this case. It was completely magical,” Newberger said. “We were like, ‘Oh God, this is not just a small little story, this is a huge sports story that we happen to be a fly on the wall for.’”

The team, made up mostly of Americans who were made eligible for the Israeli squad through the Law of Return, first had to do something that no Israeli team had ever done — qualify for the 16-nation WBC.

The Israelis had come close in the 2013 WBC. But after defeating South Africa and Spain in the qualifying tournament, they lost in a 9-7 rematch with Spain and went home.

Jerry Weinstein, manager of the 2017 Israeli team for the quadrennial WBC, said that when he gathered the squad for workouts before the qualifying round held in Brooklyn, he immediately sensed that his players felt they had unfinished business.

“There were a number of guys who had been on the team in 2012,” Weinstein, who works in scouting and player development for the Colorado Rockies, said in a phone interview with J. from his home in San Luis Obispo. “Especially the older guys — it just ate at them that they were unable to qualify [for the 2013 WBC]. And they wanted redemption.”

In the Brooklyn tournament, in September 2016, Israel defeated Britain and Brazil to reach the final. As yeshiva students waved Israeli flags in the stands, the Israelis then beat Britain again to qualify.

The Israeli squad was ranked lowest among the 16 teams in the WBC, with a world ranking of 41 — no other team was lower than 19th. Oddsmakers gave the Israelis a 200-to-1 chance of winning the tournament.

Newberger, the CEO of Ironbound Films, had long dreamed of doing a story on Jewish American ballplayers going to Israel, and had started work on the project during spring training in 2015. But there was no money or interest in such a film — until Israel qualified for the WBC.

Before going to South Korea to play the first WBC games in March 2017, many players from the U.S. went to Israel to publicize the team’s accomplishments and to promote their sport in a country that had exactly one baseball field.

The personal discoveries some made in Israel are the heart of the film. Many players did not grow up Jewish and had qualified for the team only because of a Jewish grandparent.

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Once in Israel, though, they quickly became immersed in the culture — dancing with rabbis on Shabbat, going on a graffiti tour in Tel Aviv, floating in the Dead Sea and praying at the Western Wall.

Some started sharing stories of anti-Semitism they had faced from fans. Others sought out information on family members at Yad Vashem or chatted with Palestinian shop owners in Jerusalem. While the players were in Masada, four Israeli solders were killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

Ike Davis, who was treated like a rock star in Israel, said he was playing for the country as a way of honoring his mother’s side of the family, which was wiped out in the Holocaust. Davis played for four major-league teams in a seven-year career, spending his 2015 season with the Oakland Athletics.

“Team Israel to me is not really like a religious thing; it’s more remembering the struggles of the Jewish people,” he says in the film. “A Jewish-run state is actually pretty cool, and it’s not as weird as you would think.”

Then it was on to South Korea to face the hosts (ranked third in the world), Chinese Taipei (fourth) and the Netherlands (ninth). Improbably, the Israelis won all three games.

That earned them a trip to Tokyo to face Cuba (fifth) on Purim. Players and team officials read the story of Esther in the dugout before the game, which the Israelis went on to win 4-1. Reality then struck, with losses to the Netherlands and Japan knocking Team Israel out of the tournament.

Newberger said he’s already contemplating a sequel at the 2021 WBC, for which Israel automatically has qualified based on its 2017 success. And Weinstein continues to be surrounded by memories of the team and its winning run.

He recently was giving a baseball clinic in Kansas when the subject of Team Israel came up.

“The global impact, everywhere I go either inside the United States or outside, that’s all they want to talk about,” he said. “At this clinic, I was talking about holding runners on base, and people started asking questions about the WBC. I mean, come on, this is Topeka, Kansas, and there’s not a Jew in sight!”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.