True stories are usually messier than what happens in fiction. Such is the case with the new documentary directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger. Their film, about an Israeli team competing in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, could have been an inspirational sports tale. Or it could have been a farcical comedy about a national sports team in which not a single member actually hails from the country for whom they’re playing. Instead, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel emerges as a messy hybrid that has some interesting and amusing moments but ultimately feels as inauthentic as the team it chronicles.
Not that the Israeli team is illegitimate, since the international competition’s rules state that the members of a team don’t necessarily have to be citizens of the country, but rather merely eligible for citizenship. In the case of Israel, that means that any player with a Jewish mother or Jewish grandparents would qualify.
“Ironically, it was also the rule determining who was a Jew in Nazi Germany,” admits one of the team’s coaches, sheepishly adding, “Maybe don’t include that in your movie.”
Thus was assembled a team of ringers including Ike Davis, who hit 30 home runs in his rookie year with the New York Mets; Josh Zeid of the Houston Astros; Ryan Lavarnway, formerly of the Atlanta Braves; and other current and former major league players. To prepare for the competition, the team traveled to Israel in style, flying on a private plane lent for the occasion by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
The doc follows the players closely during their time in Israel. Perhaps too closely, as evidenced by the predictable travelogue-style footage of them swimming in the Dead Sea and visiting such sites as Masada, the Wailing Wall and the Holocaust Museum. More interestingly, the area’s tensions are reflected in a scene in which they banter with a Palestinian vendor who tells them he won’t be rooting for their team, and the dedication of a baseball field named after an Israeli athlete who became a terrorist victim.
It’s clear that the filmmakers were more interested in their story’s cultural angle than its sports aspects, since the subsequent games against South Korea, China, Taipei and the Netherlands, which the team won, and Japan, which it lost, are given little screen time. Comic relief is provided by the team’s mascot, the life-size “Mensch on a Bench” doll of an elderly Jewish man, that we eventually learn was a product featured on Shark Tank. The mascot apparently received twice as many media requests as the players.
There are some moments that will make you verklempt, such as the players taking off their caps to reveal that they’re wearing yarmulkes underneath, or when several gather together to say kaddish for a coach’s father. But the documentary too often strives for cutesiness, including the frequent use of clips from such comic sports films as Cool Runnings, The Bad News Bears and Major League, as if to accentuate one commentator’s observation that “the team is an island of misfit toys.”
Much like the real-life story it chronicles, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel ultimately seems a curiosity. It’s nice that some of the players took the opportunity to connect with their Jewish roots, and that Israel was able to take pride in a national team, albeit one playing a sport that has little popularity in the country. But we never get the feeling that this was a tale that truly needed to be told.
Production company: Ironbound Films
Distributor: Menemsha Films
Directors: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger
Screenwriter: Daniel A. Miller
Producers: Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger, Jonathan Mayo, Jeff Aeder, Fred Wilpon
Director of photography: Cameron Trejo
Editor: Seth Kramer
Composer: Peter Rundquist