The history of Israel is rich with entrepreneurial spirit and outside-the-box innovation that helped transform the tiny desert country.
And then there was the 2007 effort to transplant baseball to the Jewish state.
The trouble-plagued Israel Baseball League, spearheaded by Boston bagelmaker and entrepreneur Larry Baras, had its share of skeptics from the start, all of them vindicated as six teams wound their way through an almost comical season of mishaps. Soccer fields didn’t easily convert to baseball diamonds and Israeli fans were few and far between, perplexed by the rules and uninterested in learning them. But along the way there were lessons about culture shock and inter-group connection as unaffiliated Jews, Christians and even a group of Dominican draftees experienced their first glimpses of Israel.
The ILB’s oys of summer were captured by two American filmmakers and, almost three years later, they have released “Holy Land Hardball,” which premiered this month on cable’s Major League Baseball channel and will be screening throughout the area. The film’s tagline: “Other than players, fields and fans, they had everything.”
Baras participated in the production and explains to audiences how he came up with the idea as a mood-lifter during a difficult year that included his daughter’s illness (she has since recovered) and then ran with the ball.
Erik Kesten and Brett Rapkin flew to Israel for two weeklong visits during the season to shoot, the first visit for each. They got the idea after reading about the league in The New York Times. “I’ve been a big fan of underdog sports movies,” said Kesten, 33. “Whether [the heroes] succeed or fail, the journey is just as interesting as the intended result.”
On the streets of Tel Aviv, they captured Israelis’ willful ignorance about baseball, and in makeshift dugouts they captured diverse players bonding and getting security briefings along with pep talks from coaches. They also filmed board meetings in the U.S. where investors worried about the logistics. Production of the film was sponsored in part by the Jewish National Fund and JDub Records.
Said Kesten: “We didn’t set out to make a Jewish film, per se. Although it takes place in Israel, there is a much wider appeal about 120 guys who went there to play in this league, including a dozen Dominican athletes without much knowledge of where and what Israel was.”
The film was produced and is being promoted by Matthew Hiltzik, a former spokesman for Miramax films who now has his own public relations firm. Hiltzik previously produced “Paper Clips,” a 2004 documentary about a Tennessee public school that built a memorial to Holocaust victims.
Besides the film's "more obvious themes about Israel and baseball,” Hiltzik said, “there are some other very powerful themes about fathers and sons and some of the interfaith connections and cultural challenges.”
Rapkin, 31, said he had no preconceived notions before filming. “We felt we were onto something special and significant,” he said. “There was so much passion in it from Larry and Dan Duquette, we knew that would make for a compelling story.”
Duquette, a former general manager of the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, was recruited by Baras to run the IBL.
Baras has no qualms about his depiction in the film. “We gave them complete access to everything, with no prohibitions and I think they captured the sense of what happened,” he said.
The filmmakers note that despite the debacle, there is the possibility of a sequel: A group involved in forming the league is considering a new season in 2011.
The Great Neck Arts Center will screen the film on May 24. DVDs are available at www.holylandhardball.com.
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