Remember the moment in the movie Airplane! when the older woman asks for some light reading, and she’s offered a leaflet on famous Jewish sports legends? That may (or may not) have been true in 1980, but much has changed in the 38 years since. One of those was the entry of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017.
The exploits of Team Israel was beautifully captured in the documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel, which will be showing at the St. Paul JCC on January 13. But don’t go expecting a bunch of baseball highlights from Israel’s unexpected showing against powerhouse teams in the baseball world. It goes far deeper than that.
The crux of the film is the intense five-day trip that 10 members of the team went on to not only see Israel but to understand what it means to be a Jewish baseball player. Peter Kurz, the team’s general manager, talks about what that means, with the film capturing him looking at e-mailed photos of tombstones with a Star of David on it to prove a grandparent is Jewish. Other players sent photos of a ketubah.
“We flew there to see what it was we were playing for,” said Ryan Lavarnway, who recently signed with the New York Yankees for the 2019 season.
Ike Davis, the Edina-born, power-hitting first baseman who rose to prominence with the New York Mets but announced his retirement in November 2018, was one of the highlights for the Israeli fans to see on the trip. Known for towering home runs in the major leagues, Davis had fans oohing and ahhing as he launched balls over the fence.
“Team Israel to me isn’t a religious thing,” he said. “It’s more about remembering the struggles of the Jewish people. “If we made it out of Korea that would be great. We’re playing tough teams. The U.S. hasn’t won this thing, let alone Israel.”
The tour that is chronicled took place in January 2017, after Team Israel went through a qualifying group in Brooklyn that included Great Britain, Pakistan, and Brazil, but before traveling to Seoul, South Korea, for the main draw of the tournament in March. After Davis made his point about the U.S. not having won it before, they went on to win.
Beyond the baseball clinics and meeting fans and the media, the players also got to be tourists. They floated in the Dead Sea and climbed
Masada. They prayed at the Kotel and went to Yad Vashem. They walked through the markets in Jerusalem and biked along the ocean in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, pitcher Josh Zeid had an exchange with a Palestinian shopkeeper while he and his wife were looking at t-shirts.
“It was the most transformative, memorable moment for me in the whole journey,” Zeid said. “Two people from completely different worlds on a level playing field,” Zeid said. “What the movie doesn’t show was at the end, he said he liked having a conversation with me, and that he might root for me, but rooting for Israel may be a bit much. It was a very real moment.”
Spoiler alert: Team Israel didn’t win the tournament, but advanced out of the first group with a perfect 3-0 record. But Heading Home is about far more than a baseball tournament; as outfielder Sam Fuld put it, “It’s a unique bond that goes beyond heritage.”