Baseball documentary follows Team Israel as they go from underdogs to all-stars
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel tells the story of how a group of Jewish-American baseball players became the breakout team in the World Baseball Classic. The sequel revives that underdog narrative as the players come together in hopes of securing a spot in the 2020 Olympics
In 2017, Team Israel — made up of "has-beens and wannabes" — unexpectedly defeated giants Cuba, South Korea and the Netherlands to reach the quarterfinals in the World Baseball Classic.
The documentary, Heading Home, follows the team’s incredible journey from misfits to all-stars. The film won five audience awards at festivals across the United States.
Heading Home’s success spawned a sequel following ten Jewish-American athletes who became dual Israeli citizens to help Team Israel qualify for the 2020 Olympics.
Matt Wasserlauf, the executive producer of Heading Home 2: Return of the Mensch, said the team’s success stems from their collective identity.
"The fact that they had the commonality of their religion was a key in why they really came together as strongly as they did and competed at such a high level as they did," Wasserlauf said.
For the WBC, players only need to be eligible for citizenship for the country they are representing. But for the Olympics, athletes must be a citizen of that country for at least a year. So players Corey Baker, Gabe Cramer, Blake Gailen, Joey Wagman, Alex Katz, Eric Brodkowitz, Jonathan de Marte, Jeremy Wolf, Jon Moscot and Zack Weiss all became citizens. Baker, Cramer, Gailen, Wagman and Katz all played for Team Israel during the WBC.
Production is currently underway for Heading Home 2. While the sequel is expected to release in Fall 2020, the first film is debuting in theatres across the US.
"One thing about playing for Israel," player Ike Davis said in Heading Home’s trailer. "A lot of people don’t like Jewish people."
Anti-Semitic incidents increased by 57 per cent in the US in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Anti-Semitism is on the rise as well in Europe, with France seen as having a significant problem.
President Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem heightened tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides view Jerusalem as their capital so the US legitimising Israel’s claim only exacerbated the country’s image globally.
"Everything Israeli is polarising," Wasserlauf said. "But what I love about this is this is all positive. This puts Israel in a very positive light given their success in the World Baseball Classic."
The movie featured the athletes’ pre-tournament tour of Israel much resembling Birthright, where young Jews living in the diaspora visit Israel to gain a greater connection to the region.
Birthright is embroiled in controversy at the moment as young Jews increasingly reject the free trip. Over the summer, several participants were filmed walking off Birthright over what they viewed as the organisation’s failure to accurately address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Wasserlauf said the films are not meant be seen politically, but rather he believes "by excelling in baseball, it will have halo effect on how people feel about Israel."
Israel has only one Olympic gold medal to its name, when Gal Fridman won in windsurfing in 2004. Israel’s small number of Olympic medals are mostly in water sports and martial arts. And baseball, the quintessential American pastime, is rather obscure in Israel. The country only has one baseball field, dedicated to Ezra Schwartz, an American high school pitcher who was fatally shot by a Palestinian while delivering food to Israeli soldiers in 2015.
But Team Israel’s achievement and Olympic motivation are slowly driving the game’s popularity with Israelis. And the team’s surprising success in 2017 put Israeli baseball on the map. Now the pressure is on as the former underdogs come together again for the Olympics.
"The bar’s been raised because they did win some games they weren’t supposed to win so people have higher expectations but it’s also a much bigger stage," Wasserlauf said. "The World Baseball Classic is really baseball for the real fan where as the Olympics you’re getting all types of fans. It is the world stage. It’s going to shine a light on these guys."