It’s not often a Jewish sports fan has a successful Jewish athlete to root for, let alone a team of them. There’s a scene in the 1980 movie “Airplane” when a passenger asks a flight attendant for something light to read. The attendant responds, “How about this leaflet? ‘Famous Jewish Sports Legends.’ ”
That leaflet probably would have listed mostly baseball players, the most famous being pitcher Sandy Koufax and slugger Hank Greenberg. Ryan Braun is the most famous today. In fact, Braun is five home runs away from passing Greenberg (331) as the all-time leader among Jews, for what that’s worth.
But for 10 days in March 2017, a team of mostly American Jews with major-league experience caught the attention of Jewish baseball fans, including me, and non-Jewish fans with a memorable run in the World Baseball Classic. Team Israel swept first-round pool play in South Korea and beat Cuba to start the second round in Japan before losing its last two games and falling short of the semifinals.
The team’s journey was captured on film, from its qualifying-round win in Brooklyn to its travels through Israel to its final out of the WBC. “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” has been playing at film festivals since its premiere in February 2018, but now it’s being released in theaters. Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park will show the film regularly starting next Friday.
The team had lots of Chicago connections. Former White Sox pitchers Dylan Axelrod and Brad Goldberg appeared in the WBC. Among the players featured in the movie were two former Cubs: outfielder Sam Fuld and pitcher Jason Marquis. But one of the newest Cubs played a leading role on the team and in the movie, though you probably won’t see him at Wrigley Field.
Josh Zeid was hired in February to be the Cubs’ pitching analyst and rehab coordinator at the team’s complex in Mesa, Arizona. He was a 10th-round pick of the Phillies in 2009, and he pitched in relief in 48 games for the Astros in 2013-14. For Team Israel, he threw a team-high 10 innings without allowing a run. In four games, including one start, he went 1-0 with two saves and 10 strikeouts.
Zeid also pitched for Israel in 2012, when the team lost in a WBC qualifier final to Spain. Zeid took the loss, giving up two runs in the 10th inning of a 9-7 defeat.
“I think for the players who were lucky enough to be asked back in 2016-2017, we were able to take the loss of 2012 and make the second try more meaningful, and the players who were [new] in 16-17 felt that from us,” Zeid said. “We were not just trying to get to the major leagues. We were trying to do something more special, and I think we were able to convey that early on in the process.”
As the film showed, that went beyond the field. After qualifying for the WBC, 10 of the players and guests were invited to tour Israel, with stops in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The players formed bonds beyond their heritage, but they realized they had a second home because of it.
The film also touched on issues facing Israel and Jews, such as anti-Semitism, the endless battle with Palestinians and terrorism. In fact, the movie covered an attack that occurred in Jerusalem while the traveling party was away on a day trip.
But the seriousness was balanced by the humor of team jester Cody Decker, who played in eight games for the Padres in 2015, and the team mascot, a life-size Mensch on a Bench of “Shark Tank” fame, who developed his own fan following.
The film showed plenty of baseball, too. Despite the outcome, there was a sense of accomplishment among the players. Zeid said that when he was removed from the team’s final game, he felt a fulfillment he hadn’t felt before.
“I was like, if this is the last game that I ever pitch, it’s going to be the best week of my life baseball-wise,” he said. “I was hoping to continue playing, but I still hadn’t had a job. And then I was like, if this is my last game, I couldn’t be any more grateful.
“We were all American Jews by birth or by family or by extended family, upbringing, any number of things. The team was one unit, we had a purpose and everybody was in. There were no agendas, no one wanted to make it all about them. We wanted to push each other and help each other to fulfill a united goal, not an individualistic goal.”
The team was saddled with 200-1 odds of winning the WBC, making for an underdog story that transcends nationality and religion. Yes, Jews will have a greater appreciation, and this isn’t the “Miracle on Ice.” But it has enough elements of it to satisfy anyone.