While Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg are household names as Jewish baseball players, in March 2017, a new group of Jewish baseball players did more than put themselves on the map – they made Israeli baseball a phenomenon.
Team Israel making the 2017 World Baseball Classic was part of the story of the documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel. MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo and Team Israel players Ryan Lavarnway and Josh Zeid will be in St. Paul at the Jewish Community Center on Jan. 13 to present the film. Tickets are $10 for members of the JCC, Mount Zion or Temple of Aaron, $5 for kids, and $12 for the general public.
The film combines the on the field exploits with a behind-the-scenes view of the team’s trip to Israel.
“We had early iterations of the project that had nothing to do with the WBC,” Mayo said. “But it got no traction. When they qualified in Brooklyn in 2016, there was suddenly a lot more interest.”
Team Israel not only qualified, but they became the feel-good story of the tournament when they won their qualifying group in Seoul, South Korea, by beating the hosts, Chinese Taipei, and the Netherlands. In the second round in Tokyo, they beat Cuba, but lost to the Netherlands and Japan to finish third and miss out on the championship round.
The baseball, and the team’s success became part of the documentary – but it was never the driving force.
“After the qualifiers, I got the call about going to Israel,” said Lavarnway. “It was a no-brainer.”
Mayo said that the players who went on the trip “ran the gamut” in their Judaism.
“We had guys like [Minnesota Twins’ staffer] Corey Baker who had been to Israel on Birthright, and Jeremy Bleich who grew up Conservative, had a bar mitzvah and went on Birthright,” Mayo said. “Some, depending on where they were in life, they didn’t have that strong of a tie to Israel or their Judaism.”
Mayo said that of the players that represented Israel in the WBC, there were some whose Judaism was “tenuous at best,” but within the rules set out by the tournament organizers. Lavarnway grew up with a Jewish mother and “disenchanted Catholic” father.
“Representing Israel does mean something different,” he said. “There are countries where the heritage rule exists; Team Spain (which defeated Israel in the qualifiers before the 2012 WBC), is almost entirely made up of Latin Americans. There isn’t a peoplehood religion aspect like with Judaism, so it adds another layer of identity.
Pitcher Josh Zeid, who retired in early 2018, said that in traveling the country to screenings, what has struck him is how audience members become fans.
“It’s a movie about baseball and Jewish athletes, but the audience cheers once the games start,” he said. “It’s done so well in laying out our backgrounds. People watching really buy in.”
Mayo said that the message he takes away from after the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh in October. Mayo lives around the corner from the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
“I always thought, and hoped, it would impact younger Jewish baseball fans. For me, anyway you can plug people into Judaism – no matter how you do it – it’s a good thing,” he said. “In November, we did a screening and I was watching the movie through a different lens. Watching the team, and all of them are celebrating and rejoicing to be Jewish and what that means to them. I don’t want to overstate it, but if this is a way for people, Jews of any denomination, to come together and celebrate Judaism collectively, it has that ability.”
Zeid and Lavarnway both said they didn’t realize how popular the team was to the U.S. Jewish community as it was happening.
“We spent the week in Israel and everyone was saying how excited they were,” Zeid said. “I didn’t know that USY groups were having watch parties. We were just playing games.”
Generally speaking, Mayo said, everyone who went on the trip evolved in their understanding of the importance of being known as a Jewish baseball player.
“When I announced I was playing for Israel, it was the first time I was announcing I was Jewish,” said Lavarnway, who talked about the media training he underwent when he was with the Boston Red Sox and being instructed not to say anything that could be construed as controversial. “The welcome and support I received from the (Jewish) community over the years has been so overwhelming since playing for Israel. It’s a feeling of community I feel more connected and more proud than I ever had.
“I never would’ve expected a baseball tournament to change how I feel in my personal life, but it has.”
For more information and to register for tickets, check out Mount Zion’s website.