When Team Israel qualified for the World Baseball Classic — called the World Cup of baseball — in fall 2016, they were 200-to-1 favorites to win. The motley crew of Major and Minor League players, all Jewish-American, included free agents and players on the last leg of their careers. No one expected them to perform as well as they did, qualifying for the late rounds of the competition, and the journey surprised even the team itself.
Chronicling that journey was Ironbound Films, a New York-based film company, which debuted “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February.
Since its release, the film has been called “moving” by Yahoo Sports and “triumphant” by the Los Angeles Times. It’s performed well in the Jewish film circuit, snagging the Audience Award for Documentary at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.
Hartsdale resident Daniel Miller co-directed the film with partners Seth Kramer and Jeremy Newberger. Miller is also credited as screenwriter and co-producer.
The 46-year-old filmmaker, known for “The Anthropologist” (2015) and “Woody’s Order” (2016) — which tackle climate change and life with cerebral palsy — wasn’t a big baseball fan before filming.
Truthfully, he preferred football. His 14-year-old son plays on the Edgemont High School modified team, and his 11-year-old plays for Eastchester.
Miller’s involvement came through his connection to MLB reporter Jonathan Mayo, whom Miller and Newberger met at a Jewish sleep-away camp back in grade school.
“He was the best athlete at camp, which is not really saying a ton, because it was a Jewish sleep-away camp,” Miller said. “We’re not known for our athletics.”
Throughout his career, Mayo met a handful of Jewish players, most of whom had never visited the Holy Land. Many hadn’t focused on much besides baseball, even as kids. They hadn’t gone to Jewish school, or become a bar mitzvah.
“They had no connection to Israel, let alone their faith,” Miller said.
The idea of watching ballplayers explore this arrested spiritual development was enticing to Miller, but still a hard sell.
“It didn’t really have much legs,” he said. “People were like, ‘Who are these players? They’re not popular enough to sustain a film.’”
Still, the company took a chance, and the Ironbound team soon joined Team Israel on the road from Brooklyn, where they first qualified for the World Baseball Classic at Cyclone Stadium, to Israel, South Korea and Tokyo.
Along the way, players wrestled with questions of faith and politics. “They’ve always played for like the San Diego Padres or the Oakland A’s,” Miller said. “Suddenly, they’re on the world stage representing Israel. They’re confronting anti-Semitism … issues of terrorism, issues over their own safety.”
While Miller, a member of Scarsdale’s Shaarei Tikvah synagogue, has worked in film for more than 20 years, this is his first project exploring Jewish identity. The results are part Cinderella story, part spiritual odyssey, he said. It’s at times poignant, others funny — see the team’s faithful mascot “Mensch on a Bench” — with lessons carrying beyond the field.
“All you hear in the news is terrorism, and Israel’s done this and that, but this is a fundamental story about how Israel is a place that transforms people and makes people better,” Miller said. “People need that kind of positivity.”
The JCC of Mid-Westchester, 999 Wilmot Road, will host a screening of “Heading Home” and a Q&A with Miller on Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 at jccmw.ticketleap.com.