When a team from Israel — where soccer and basketball dominate sports culture — entered the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC) for the first time, ESPN called them the “Jamaican bobsled team” of the tournament and perhaps the biggest underdogs ever.
Contrary to expectations, the team shocked the world by reaching the event’s second round and defeating ranked powerhouses South Korea, Taiwan, and Cuba.
Most players on Team Israel consisted of Jewish-American professionals who met the criteria for Israeli citizenship, including former major leaguers Ty Kelly, Ike Davis, and Jason Marquis — and Clarkstown South High School standout Corey Baker (Class of 2007), a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who pitches for the Israeli team.
The David vs. Goliath story is chronicled in the award-winning documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel, produced by Garrison-based Ironbound Films and released in December 2018.
Team Israel is hoping to reach the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. This time, however, U.S. players must acquire dual citizenship in order to participate. That involves interviews, document preparation, and proof of Jewish heritage, among other requirements.
The goal is to field the best team, but because the Olympic qualifying tournament will be held in Bulgaria in July — during the MLB season — it won’t be possible to include current major league players. Instead, Olympic team manager and White Plains resident Eric Holtz has recruited “many minor leaguers as well as a tremendous amount of independent baseball players,” including former Lakeland High School (Class of 2011) star Jonathan DeMarte, who pitches for The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB).
Rockland County native Corey Baker pitches for Team Israel.
“We have a sense of purpose after what happened in the WBC,” says de Marte. “We want to prove that was no fluke, and establish a presence on the international stage.”
Players were recruited for Team Israel for myriad reasons: Some, like Baker, had retired from major league teams; others played in the minor leagues; and some played in college.
Ironbound is revisiting Team Israel in a forthcoming sequel, Heading Home 2: Return of the Mensch, which refers to the team’s stuffed mascot and is also a Yiddish term for a good person.
To maintain momentum, the self-described “Jew Crew” must qualify for Tokyo by winning the July games. “Hopefully, kismet will repeat itself,” says Yorktown Heights resident Jeremy Newberger, producer-director at Ironbound.
If the team fails to achieve Olympic glory, they’re still automatically eligible for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.
“These guys are competing against all odds and playing for something greater than winning a tournament,” says Seth Kramer, producer-director at Ironbound, who lives in Red Hook. “They’re fantastic characters who love the game. Their presence conveys a strong story and speaks to something universal.”
Like several participants, Holtz had a limited connection with Israel and its culture, but Team Israel reignited family memories.
“I haven’t been to temple since my last kid’s bar mitzvah seven years ago,” said Holtz, who owns Game On 13, a skills development center in Elmsford. “But when you hear [the Israeli national anthem] Hatikva played over the sound system, it’s very emotional. I had chills. It transcends baseball when you represent your people and your heritage. It’s heavy stuff.”
The first installment of Heading Home showed team members praying in the dugout before their game against Cuba, which coincided with the Purim holiday.
Though Team Israel has earned respect around the world, baseball can be a hard sell in the Holy Land. In 2007, for example, the Israel Baseball League lasted for one year.
“The sport is growing mainly with United States ex-pats or the children of American parents,” says Holtz. “Baseball is a slow, thinking-person’s game, and Israeli-born people are in constant movement.”
Team Israel baseball’s Olympic bid involves more than skill. Raising the necessary funds is vital to pay for travel to and from the Olympic qualifiers, field rentals, equipment, etc. To help, visit www.jewcer.org/project/israelbaseballolympics