For one improbable season in 2007, baseball — America’s national pastime — was played in Israel.
Whether there’s ever a second season is anyone’s guess, but thanks to two American independent filmmakers, the Israel Baseball League, and all the hurdles it faced to reach the day of its first pitch, won’t be forgotten.
“Holy Land Hardball,” a film by Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten, makes its national television premiere this weekend, airing on the MLB Network Sunday, Jan. 10, 10 p.m.
The film follows Massachusetts-based entrepreneur and IBL founder Larry Baras, former Boston Red Sox general manager and director of IBL baseball operations Dan Duquette and the IBL staff from the league’s first tryouts in Massachusetts to the first pitch on June 24, 2007, in Petach Tikva, Israel.
With some celebrated Jewish retired Major Leaguers to manage, such as Ron Bloomberg and Ken Holtzman, the IBL went on to play one 45-game season among six teams that summer.
Although it’s ostensibly a baseball film, Rapkin and Kesten say it’s more about the characters than the game itself.
“We didn’t want to make a sports film per se,” Kesten said. “We wanted to make a film about people.”
The players who showed up for the first tryout in the Berkshires ranged in age from 17 to 50, Kesten said. Many had their own stories to tell.
• The oldest player to try out — a 50-year-old Pilates instructor from Nyack, N.Y. “And he actually made the league,” Kesten said. “He played for the Petach Tikva Pioneers;
• Nate Fish, a “shaggy haired, artist, D.J.” who played his college ball with Kevin Youkilis of the Boston Red Sox; and
• Eric Holtz, a 41-year-old-father of three whose family became as much a part of the film as he did.
Not all the players were Jewish. One of them, a 22-year-old black man whose father was killed when he was 9 and was raised by his grandmother, had a deep love for the game.
“People really root for him,” Rapkin said.
“People who have watched the film are blown away by it,” Rapkin continued. “I think their expectations for it were a bunch of kids with yarmulkes running around, but it goes much deeper. I think people are really drawn into these stories. They become invested in these young men and their families.”
The unsung stars of the film might just be the fans that turned out for the games. Far from the average Israelis, they were transplanted Americans who wanted to share the game they knew growing up with their own kids.
Rapkin and Kesten, both of whom are Jewish and grew up playing baseball, got interested in the project when they read that the league was starting up and tryouts were being held. They secured permission from its founder, Baras, to film. Working on a shoestring budget, the two shot 90 percent of the documentary themselves.
What the audience sees are all the hurdles, missteps and unplanned moments people go through as they try to make their dream a reality.
One of the more moving scenes in the film comes when several of the ballplayers finally arrive in Israel and tour Jerusalem. Among their stops is the Western Wall.
There is recurring question in the film: Will they make it? Will baseball be played in Israel?
“We see the whole thing hanging by a thread,” Kesten said.
So is baseball in Israel dead? Kesten doesn’t like that word. Though a second IBL season never happened, there remains talk of trying to bring it back — maybe for 2011.
“We like to say it’s on life support,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1005.)