By Victoria Brown
Baseball might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Israel, yet a new documentary sets out to change that, profiling a number of skilled ballplayers.
Team Israel’s surprising run to the semifinals in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where the team beat top-ranked squads from the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan, was the subject of the August 2018 documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.
Now, as Team Israel gears up to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, a forthcoming documentary, Heading Home 2: The Return of the Mensch, follows both new and old faces as 10 American-Jewish baseball players become dual American-Israeli citizens in order to compete.
While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship in the country for which they play, Olympic rules require that athletes be citizens of the country they are representing.
Pitcher Alex Katz grew up in Long Island, N.Y., but is now a dual citizen. Katz previously played for the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league teams. He’s ecstatic about his new dual citizenship and doesn’t feel there are any downsides.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Katz said. “It means the world to me to be an Israeli and even more to play with the Israeli flag and the Israeli name on my chest.”
Katz, a natural righty who pitches with his left hand, began playing baseball when he was 4 or 5 on a Little League team. A few years later, he began pitching, playing on travel teams and for his high school, and then college and professional teams. At the end of day, for Katz the goal is to win. “Winning is definitely everything, you don’t play the game to lose,” he said.
Matt Wasserlauf, executive producer of Heading Home 2, stayed up “into the wee hours of the night” glued to the television watching Team Israel’s success in the World Baseball Classic. “They had this improbable run,” Wasserlauf said, recounting their wins against Cuba and the Netherlands, and a number of games that no one had thought they would win.
For Wasserlauf, the story of Team Israel has the potential to bring a positive light to both Jews and Israel in the media. While anti-Semitism is something Wasserlauf has had to contend with “as a living, breathing Jew,” he said, he believes that the story of the underdog emerging triumphant will overpower the potential negative responses from anti-Semitic or anti- Zionist angles.
“The message that comes out is that wonderful things can happen if you apply yourself and you work hard,” Wasserlauf said. “At the minimum, I hope we raise some interest and eyebrows and that people are looking at Israel and Jews in a new light, in a different light than they had before.”
Victoria Brown is a staff writer at Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.