Team Israel 2017 – Davids versus Goliaths (Part 1)

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Stop me if you’re heard this one before. A ragtag team of underdogs defy the odds and beat some of the best players in the game, bonding as a team and learning something special about themselves in the process. That’s a pretty standard story for a feelgood sports movie, right? What if we upped the drama a little and said the team was a 200-1 longshot when they played their first game? Are we stretching your suspension of disbelief now? What if we said the game captured the attention of an entire nation and made them fans of a sport almost nobody played in the country before the team inspired them. Are we getting a little much now, maybe a bit schmaltzy? 

You may think it sounds unbelievable, but this is no Hollywood script. Team Israel lived the miracle in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, shattering all expectations and forever altering the perception of Israeli baseball.

Filmmaker Jeremy Newberger was lucky enough to be there and film it all. Originally, he wanted to make a small, contained mini-doc about Jewish baseball players. Team Israel was going to be playing a few qualifying games for the WBC and were fully expected to end their journey there. Traveling with the team, he’d focus on the players involved, the camaraderie and dynamics of a Jewish team, the cultural value of representing Israel in a sport that the nation, by and large, doesn’t care that much about. It was supposed to be a quick trip, a few days maybe. But those plans were scrapped, and his little trip became more than a month-long journey due to one simple surprise – the team started winning. The result was a very different film, Heading Home, a celebration of Team Israel’s surprising performance and how the experience changed the players on the team.

To understand how unlikely Team Israel’s performance was, you have to know a little more about the WBC. Born after the Olympic committee’s unfortunate decision to no longer support baseball in 2005, the WBC is a tournament of titans collecting the best from around the world. It’s similar to soccer’s World Cup in terms of structure, competition, and national pride. 

Naturally, countries with a cultural passion for baseball field the strongest teams. Much like they had at the Olympics, teams from the United States, Cuba, South Korea, and Japan tend to dominate in the WBC as professional ball players from the most competitive leagues make up the backbones of these teams. 

Israel, by comparison, has a much shallower pool of talent to draw from. The Israeli Baseball League is a respectable program of 6 teams from various parts of the nation, but there is just no comparison to something like the MLB or Japan’s NPB. For example, the 2006 WBC team for the United States included Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodríguez, and Roger Clemens, a murderer’s row of some of the best players to ever step up to the plate. Japan had the legendary Ichiro Suzuki while the Dominican Republic brought Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero to the field, some of the best players to ever play the game, and that’s just for starters. These were the Goliaths of baseball brought together to compete on the world stage for personal and national pride. How could Israel hope to compete in an environment like this?
With whichever players they could find. 

Eligibility to play for a team in the WBC requires a player to either be a citizen of the country they want to play for, or to be eligible to be a citizen. With Israel’s rules allowing for people of Jewish descent to become citizens, this afforded the team the opportunity to supplement their bench with a number of Jewish American pro players. Great news to be sure, but of course all the primary talent would already be absorbed by Team USA. That left a number of skilled, but off-beat players for Team Israel to recruit. 

Players like Cody Decker, who was more known for his outlandish pranks on his teammates than anything else. Jason Marquis, a talented pitcher, but one who was nearing the end of his baseball career. And Craig Breslow, a former Yale graduate known as the smartest man in sports who operates his own charity for pediatric cancer. These were the oddballs of baseball. Clowns and has-beens, brainiacs and never-quite-made-its. They certainly didn’t look like what you picture when you think of an international winning team. 

But each of these players had something to bring to the game and something to prove. Decker brought levity and humor to the locker room, as well as the team’s mascot the ‘Mensch on the Bench’, a 5 foot tall plush Rabbi. Marquis, who lost his grandparents in the Holocaust and attended Hebrew School as a child was chomping at the bit to represent team Israel even before he was signed. Breslow, a sense of history and purpose. The entire roster had a special kind of chemistry, a strange brew that resulted in unexpected performance.

It was the kind of alchemy that is normally reserved for film fantasy. This unlikely crew, the "Oys of summer” would go on a journey that would stun the world of baseball and change how each member of the team saw themselves. 

Watch for part 2 for the rest of the story.

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