There’s a pervasive optimism baked into “Heading Home,” a film about Israel’s run deep into the 2017 World Baseball Classic, that subverts an entire genre. This is the anti-Woody Allen movie, about Jews who are not self-loathing but celebratory, not full of angst but teeming with mirth, not lamenting what is but seeking what can be. These aren’t guys making the leaflet of Famous Jewish Sports Legends anytime soon. They’re just looking for something beyond what baseball gave to them.
The search for what being Jewish means in an increasingly agnostic society resonates for the stars of the documentary, all in their 20s and 30s, none particularly religious. A career in baseball can be like a black hole, swallowing everything within its path, so all-consuming that profession becomes identity. The movie is a celebration of baseball, yes, but one told through the stories of Ike Davis, Sam Fuld, Josh Zeid, Cody Decker, players who love the game even if it didn’t always return the love in kind.
Their goal – their duty, really – is to proselytize the game in a country where basketball and soccer rule and baseball exists almost only in the far reaches of the diaspora. The team’s trip to Israel follows plenty of tropes: swimming in the Dead Sea, placing messages in the Western Wall, hiking Masada. What differentiates their journey and imbues it with meaning is their connection to Israel isn’t simply ancestral; two months later, the players will wear Israel across their chests, doff their caps during the national anthem and replace them with yarmulkes.
With the exception of one player, the team was made up entirely of American Jews – a point that a Cuban journalist pointed out with a lick’s worth of salt after Israel beat Cuba for its fourth consecutive win to start the tournament. Israel took advantage of the tournament’s lax qualification standards to put together its squad. The depth to which the team’s brain trust went to figure out who was Jewish enough to play saturates the early parts of the film with levity and humor.
“I mean, our shortstop, we got him off of Facebook because his mom looked Jewish,” said Jerry Weinstein, a longtime minor league manager who did the same for Israel.
Reconciling baseball and Judaism’s respectful places within the players’ lives lends the film an unspoken but obvious tension. There’s a desire to marry the two that grows upon their arrival in Israel. When Jonathan Mayo, the MLB.com prospect guru and an architect of the trip, speaks of baseball not being terribly popular in Israel, Zeid says: “Yet.”
Even if being Jewish is a secondary, maybe tertiary characteristic for most of the team, the desire to bring baseball to Israel, in ways big and small, drives them. In Tel Aviv, they come upon a graffiti park, in which they help contribute to a street mural of Sandy Koufax, as if to say the patron saint of Jewish baseball is there with them. For that they also have the Mensch on the Bench, the titular stuffed mascot who accompanies the team everywhere.
He became the star of the team when it started the WBC by beating Korea at home, followed with two more victories to sweep its pod and move onto the quarterfinal round, and then downed Cuba. It was the closest thing baseball could muster to a March Madness Cinderella, and the architect was a bunch of Jewish (or at least related-to-a-Jew-ish) boys. Even if the whole of their Judaism was filtered through the prism of baseball games, it was something tangible, something that served to only strengthen feelings they may not have known they had.
For so many their age, religion is more about culture than it is piety. In the minor leagues, Decker said, fans in the stands slurred him and Nate Freiman, his teammate then and on the WBC team. This was their experience being Jewish in baseball. The WBC offered instead not just the tourist trappings but a rap song (“Jews With Bats!!” by Kosha Dillz) and a dream that maybe baseball has a future in Israel.
At Beit Shemesh, a city about 20 miles west of Jerusalem, a few of the players wield shovels at the future site of a complex. Already there’s a robust little league there. When an official drops a ball into a hole dug by the shovels, he said: “We are planting a small ball from which a big and beautiful field will grow.”
It’s not that easy to spread baseball, of course, or the sport long ago would’ve been a mainstay outside of North America, Japan, Korea and Latin America. And it’s where perhaps the film’s only pessimistic moment – and even that’s a stretch because it’s more realistic – reveals itself.
“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,” Decker said. “Will it change things? Probably not, but one can hope.”
Earlier this week in Israel was Yom Hazikaron, its version of Memorial Day. There was no baseball played. Twice during the day, a siren went off and the country froze. It was solemn, a solemnity exacerbated by the constant threat of war and its role in the continued conflict with Palestine. In the film, Zeid’s conversation with a Palestinian T-shirt salesman who may know more about baseball history than Zeid himself will leave a lump in your throat.
Rather than get entangled in the politics, “Heading Home” spends the last half of the movie chronicling the magical run of Israel through Korea and Japan, where it lost to the home team in an elimination game. The film, which hits theaters this summer and will be shown in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston and a half-dozen other cities before then, ends with three young Israeli boys playing catch.
It’s the perfect coda for a story that itself didn’t struggle, even if those in it fought the cognitive dissonance of an upbringing without religion meeting the greatest professional challenge of their lives that exists only because of it.
“We didn’t really know what we were getting into,” one member of Team Israel said, though he and the others would learn soon enough: something more special and meaningful than they ever would’ve conceived.
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