In 2017, Israel witnessed a miracle: its national baseball team qualified for the World Baseball Classic (WBC).
The tournament, which is held every four years, is basically the World Cup of baseball. Since the WBC’s inception in 2005, Israel was either unable to get a team together, or wasn’t good enough to compete. But in 2017, they managed to sneak in, beating Great Britain for one of 16 slots in the international tournament, cementing their place among global baseball titans like the United States, Cuba and South Korea.
In that moment, documentary filmmaker Daniel Miller thought to himself, “Now we can make this movie we always dreamed of.”
That movie, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel, which opens in Toronto this month, is the culmination of Jewish baseball dreams.
Since his days at Jewish summer camp, Miller has been dreaming of making a Jewish baseball movie. One of his camp friends, Jonathan Mayo, became a sports writer for MLB.com, and would, decades after their summer camp days ended, approach Miller with the idea of taking a group of Jewish-American baseball players to Israel for the first time. But they never found the funding.
“Documentary is a mix of what the market dictates, how much access you have and where the funding is available,” Miller says over the phone from his New York office. When Team Israel qualified for the World Baseball Classic, he had a light-bulb moment: “This was the first time all those forces meshed together,” he says.
Suddenly, Miller and his co-directors, Seth Kramer and Jeremy Newberger, along with Mayo, could follow the team to Israel and make the movie they’d talked about.
The trick to Israel’s success, and the spiritual core of Heading Home, is that Team Israel’s players don’t have to be Israeli citizens – they simply have to qualify for citizenship. That allowed Israel to see every Jew on the planet as a potential recruit and cobble together a mixed bag of MLB stars, young prospects and soon-to-be retirees, such as Ty Kelly, Ike Davis, Cory Decker, Nate Freiman and Sam Fuld.
The team’s ragtag identity gave Team Israel the worst odds of winning the tournament: 200-1. “If you aren’t familiar with Team Israel,” Eddie Metz wrote for ESPN during the series opener, “it’s essentially the Mighty Ducks, Hickory High and the Jamaican bobsled team all rolled into one. In other words, it’s straight out of Central Casting for the role of ‘underdog team that stands absolutely no chance of winning but somehow goes on to win it all.’ ”
Naturally, their bottom-of-the-ninth tie-game standoff against South Korea – whose odds to win the WBC were literally 20 times higher – shocked every pundit in the audience.
Then they won.
“It’s something we often joke about now, but if they just were able to play that first game – even if they lost, we’d still have a good short film,” Miller says. “But the fact is, they kept going and going. Like any documentary filmmaker, you find the subject that is fertile ground for themes you’re trying to explore, and you hope something happens.”
Heading Home chronicles the team’s fairytale journey, as well as their stopover in Israel. The trip marked something of a late-life Birthright, which many had never gotten the chance to take during their frenzied professional baseball years.
“I think these guys experienced a genuine transformation,” Miller says. “The relationship between the Diaspora and Israel is brought to light. What does it mean to represent Israel?”
For a ragtag bunch of American Jews who’ve all experienced anti-Semitism and have long downplayed their heritage publicly, their outsized prominence in the country is a startling wake-up call – and a fascinating cross-cultural moment to watch onscreen.
Heading Home will play for one week at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema starting on Mar. 22, and open for another week at the Mt. Pleasant Theatre on Mar. 29.