A funny thing happened when Jonathan Mayo set out to make a short documentary about Jewish athletes going to Israel: It turned into an epic sports movie.
“I figured we’d take them to Israel and get a really good short film out of it,” Mayo, a sports journalist, said.
As it turns out, the result was “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” a feature-length documentary about the Cinderella story that captured the attention of the baseball world and packed the West Newton Cinema during its national theatrical premiere this past weekend.
The film chronicles Israel’s 2017 entry into the World Baseball Classic—described as the World Cup of the sport—and its surprising run to the quarterfinals after defeating powerhouses Korea, Cuba and the Netherlands (a team with many MLB household names), before falling to Japan.
On Saturday night, audience members, some clad in Team Israel hats and T-shirts, were treated to a pre- and post-film discussion with the trio of filmmakers, Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger, along with Jeremy Bleich, a pitcher for team. And, of course, there were selfies with the life-sized “The Mensch on a Bench,” the team’s mascot whose fame seemed to at times eclipse the players throwing balls and swinging bats at the World Baseball Classic.
For Mayo, Kramer, Miller and Newberger—who all attended Jewish overnight camp together—the premiere marked the fulfillment of a dream to make a movie about Israel.
“Jeremy, Seth, Jonathan and I have all spent at least a year in Israel,” Miller said. “As Americans, our experiences there were formative for both our spirituality and worldview. It was our dream to make a movie together that captured this experience for other Americans, in a way to which even the least religious or apolitical could relate. That way was baseball.”
Team Israel, a group of players in various stages of their careers in the major and minor leagues, was a 200-to-1 underdog in the WBC, which featured teams with wear-their-jersey-to-the-game stars, including Xander Bogaerts (Netherlands), Carlos Beltran (Puerto Rico) and Eric Hosmer (United States). Israel fielded a Red Sox backup catcher, pitchers who ping-ponged between major and minor league stints, players who came out of retirement for one last time on the field and a player who suffered an MLB career-ending injury but came back, bad shoulder and all, to play center field for the blue and white.
The bonding team trip to Israel featured some of the usual “Birthright moments”—a trip to the Western Wall, a dip in the Dead Sea, a bike ride along Tel Aviv’s famed beach—along with some poignant moments: dedicating a baseball field in the memory of Ezra Schwartz, a Sharon teen who was murdered by a terrorist in the West Bank in 2015, and baseball clinics with Israeli children who clamored for face time and autographs with the players as they traveled around the country.
Then there was the baseball. (Spoilers abound!)
Despite watching highlights of games that happened some 6,800 miles away more than 18 months ago, “Heading Home” recaptured the drama of Team Israel’s games that many of us stateside streamed at 5 a.m. Members of the Newton audience applauded when Israel got the last out against Korea, groaned at an errant throw to second in the game against the Netherlands and sighed in resignation as Japan recorded the final out in the ninth, ending Israel’s dream season.
Those who attended the opening weekend got to hear stories that didn’t make the film, such as one about a bowl of spicy Japanese ramen (there were images of flames on the package) given to Jeremy Bleich by a bat boy “fan” that spilled and burned through a hotel towel.
The weekend celebration in Newton, which CJP and JewishBoston helped sponsor, continues throughout the week. Don’t miss your chance to see it on the big screen through Thursday, Dec. 20—find showtimes and tickets here. You can also listen to JewishBoston’s The Vibe of the Tribe podcast with Jeremy Bleich and co-director/producer Jeremy Newberger, and read JewishBoston’s review of the film.