Israeli Team Swings for the Fences in ‘Heading Home’

August 28, 2019
Team Israel: Photos courtesy of Ironbound Films

When the Israeli baseball team walloped its European competitors to qualify for the World Baseball Classic of 2017, newspapers reported the feat with headlines that included “The Oys of Summer” and “Jews With Bats.” Never mind that the team roster consisted almost entirely of American Jews, when the players lined up with blue yarmulkes under their baseball caps belting out “Hatikvah,” few Jewish hearts remained unmoved. 

When the Israeli team took the field in 2017, it ranked 41st in the world and 16th in Europe. By the end of the season, it had skyrocketed to 19th in the world and fourth in Europe.

For those who missed the excitement of that period or wish to relive it, a film of those stirring days will open in Los Angeles area theaters on Sept. 5. The documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” is being released by Menamshe and Ironbound films, and is co-directed by Jeremy Newberger, Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller.

So how did these Israeli baseball players, often derided as “has beens” or “never will bes,” earn international respect?

Firstly, Newberger told the Journal, the growing number of Americans who made aliyah took with them a love of the game and determination to pass on that love to their children. As a result, Newberger said, there are as many Mets fans in Israel as there are in Queens.
In the film, the nine American players are greeted as latter-day Maccabees, as they climb Masada and float in the Dead Sea. 

“It was a deep spiritual experience for the American players, a great pride in connecting with Israel, although it would be an exaggeration to report any religious epiphanies,” Newberger said.

He also recalled that during a screening in Santa Cruz in Northern California, an elderly woman came up to him and said, “I’m not Jewish and I don’t care about baseball, but throughout this film I cried tears of joy.”

One of the players who drew a great deal of attention was Cody Decker, a Santa Monica native, who got his start at Santa Monica High School and attended UCLA. He went on to play for the San Diego Padres, alternately as first and third baseman and left fielder, who could also catch. He spent his final two seasons in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system.

Cody Decker with “Mensch on the Bench”

Described by the San Diego Tribune as “one of the most colorful characters in professional baseball,” Decker endeared himself to his teammates and photographers by introducing the life-sized Chassidic-like mascot Mensch on the Bench, complete with tallit and holding a candle.

The Mensch had a personal locker and offered teammates and visitors kosher wine and gefilte fish.

To qualify for the Israeli 2017 Baseball Classic team, each player had to prove that he had at least one Jewish grandparent. One player brought his grandfather’s World War II dog tags, imprinted with an H for Hebrew, to which Newberger’s grandson noted in awe: “Even the dogs had to be Jewish.”

The “Heading Home” creative team now is preparing for a sequel, which will cover qualifying games for the 2020 Olympics and the 2021 World Baseball Classic
alongside the hoped-for successes of the Israeli team.

Baseball was recognized as an Olympic sport from 1992 until the 2008 Games. However, it will again be included in the Tokyo, Japan 2020 Games. Israel exceeded expectations in the 2020 preliminaries, beating Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Iceland and Russia. However, it must win two more tournaments to qualify for the Olympic playoffs in Tokyo.

 “Heading Home” will screen on Sept. 5 at  Laemmle Ahrya Fine Art for one show only, with regular engagements at Laemmle Royal and Town Center Encino starting Sept. 6. Cody Decker, one of the film’s stars, will participate in a Q&A at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. Charley Steiner, broadcaster for the LA Dodgers, will participate. For ticket information, call (800) 838-3006.

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