Baseball, patriotism on deck in ‘Tale of Team Israel’

‘Heading Home:The Tale of Team Israel’


During last year’s World Baseball Classic, after Israel defeats a team from a country with a more storied baseball history, a reporter from that country sends a line drive at the Team Israel manager at a press conference: “What is your opinion on a team that should represent Israel but actually represents the United States?”

“It’s a face-saver … ‘Well, we didn’t really lose to Israel, we lost to just another USA team,’ ” Israel manager Jerry Weinstein says later. “Well that’s B.S. You lost to Israel, brother.”

In fact, there is some validity to the reporter’s charge. The Israel team is composed of Americans, some of whom were not raised Jewish but had a Jewish parent or grandparent. (The World Baseball Classic requires only that players be eligible for citizenship in the country they represent, and Israel is not unique in recruiting players from other countries.)

That means another description for the squad could be “Team Birthright,” as in the free trip to Israel for Jews under age 26. And in the documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” we get to follow the players with Jewish ties and a healthy sense of humor on an unexpectedly successful trip through Israel, Seoul and Tokyo. 


The film, directed by Seth Kramer, Jeremy Newberger and Daniel A. Miller, reminds us that no matter how many times you hear an account of a first trip to Israel or an underdog team done good, there is always an opportunity for a new, compelling version.

After qualifying for the main tournament of the 2017 World Baseball Classic (a first for Team Israel, which narrowly missed qualifying for the 2013 tournament), the players fly to Israel on casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s private jet and hit some of the country’s most popular sites. We see Israeli boys swarm the players for autographs and selfies. 

“I signed a yarmulke on the inside,” Ty Kelly, who has played for the Mets and Phillies, tells his teammates on the bus. 

St. Louis folks will especially enjoy the film. David Makovsky, a Middle East expert who grew up in St. Louis, educates the players on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tells them he’s a diehard Cardinals fan. 

And a Palestinian T-shirt vendor in the Jerusalem shuk is surprisingly schooled on baseball. He tells pitcher Josh Zeid that if he wants to win, he should “go to one of the big franchises.”  

Then the vendor tells Zeid how many World Series rings the Cardinals have. (Does KMOX reach Jerusalem?)

The film does not read as pure public relations for Israel; the vendor explains to Zeid why it would be hard for him to root for the team.

But the players appear to take genuine pride in representing Israel, and they represent it well, defeating teams from larger countries. A TV commentator labels them “the stars of the tournament.”

“Throughout Jewish history, there has been persecution. … There are some places where we’re still not accepted,” said Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher now in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. “I just want to spread more positivity and more love, and I’m happy to wear Israel on my chest.”

But the players also do not pretend to be Israelis, and part of the purpose of their trip to Israel was to promote the game.

“We love playing for Israel and representing the people,” Lavarnway tells an Israeli interviewer. “But the goal is to have homegrown kids playing for Israel in the years to come.”