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Jersey native’s home-run documentary
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Jersey native’s home-run documentary

‘Best underdog movie’ tells baseball saga of Team Israel

With no false modesty, Seth Kramer says that for Jewish baseball fans, “Heading Home” “might be the best movie ever made.” Photos courtesy Ironbound Films
With no false modesty, Seth Kramer says that for Jewish baseball fans, “Heading Home” “might be the best movie ever made.” Photos courtesy Ironbound Films

The documentaries Seth Kramer has had a hand in making span the world, but the screening of his “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” at the Rutgers Jewish Film Festival is bringing him right back to his Jersey roots.

The documentary will be shown on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 4, and on Saturday evening, Nov. 10.

The movie tells the story of an unlikely bunch of baseball players, including some Americans, brought together to represent Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic (WBC). Against all the odds, they discover unexpected strengths and an attachment to Israel. They also surprise everyone by doing really well in competition.

Kramer will be present for a discussion after the Nov. 4 screening, along with New York Mets player Ty Kelly, who was the starting third baseman for Team Israel at the WBC.

Kramer lived in Israel for a year after graduating from West Orange High School. He now lives with his wife, Kristen, and daughter, Lillian, in Red Hook, N.Y., but it was a West Orange resident who got him into the film business in the first place. He worked at Ken Mandel’s production company in midtown Manhattan for 10 years before joining forces with a colleague, Daniel Miller, to start their own company, Ironbound Films, together with Miller’s friend Jeremy Newberger.

Team Israel members included American-Jewish players who made the Majors, but not the big time.

Clearly, the career choice proved wise. They have created award-winning documentaries that have been shown in theaters, on television, in museums, and on the web. Kramer’s work has taken him to Siberia,
Kenya, Pakistan, India, and “some places that are literally not on any map.” The 47-year-old producer/director has been nominated for three Emmys, one for best historical programming, one for best science programming, and one for best economic and business programming. “Some filmmakers stick within a narrow subject area,” he said. “Not me.”

One area Kramer never expected to focus on was baseball. Unlike lots of the people he grew up with, he had never been much of a fan. “I think I know why,” he said. “When I was young my dad forced me to play on a little league team called The Birds. I was the worst player by far — not on the team, but in the league. When I finally hit the ball, sometime toward the end of the season, the crowd went crazy.”

But for years, Jonathan Mayo, a reporter for Major League Baseball, nagged Kramer and his partners to make a movie about Jewish professional baseball players, guys like Sam Fuld and Ryan Lavarnway, good enough to have made it to the Majors, but not exactly household names. Both had signed up to play for Team Israel last year.

Their “Mensch on a Bench” mascot accompanied Team Israel to all their games.

“After a while we ran out of ways to say ‘no,’” Kramer said. “When Team Israel qualified to play in the World Baseball Classic — which is like the Olympics of baseball — we knew we had a great story on our hands.

“What we didn’t know was just how thrilling it would be.”

Israel, on the other hand, was already close to his heart. As he put it, “There’s a lot to criticize, and there’s a lot to fall in love with. I’m in love with it.”

In addition to Israel, filming the movie also took them to South Korea and Tokyo, where the WBC was played. The work was grueling but fascinating. “What surprised me most was how good Team Israel played. They’d been given 200-to-1 odds of winning anything, and they ended up beating some of the best-ranked teams in the world. I thought we were going to be doing a ‘Bad News Bears’ remake, but it turned out altogether different.”

The players, Kramer said, “were all good sports (no pun intended) about being filmed. They had a difficult job to do: to train and play to beat incredibly difficult teams. That’s not easy to do with a film crew following your every move.”

But “it was fun to film with them,” he said, adding that they seem to like the final product. “One player said to me, ‘You know, I wasn’t nervous when I was playing the games, but now when I watch them in the movie I’m on the edge of my seat, as if I can’t remember who won.’”

Producer/director Seth Kramer, left, made “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” with his partners, Daniel Miller, middle, and Jeremy Newberger.

Since its premiere at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in February, audiences have responded the same way. “The reaction to the film has been nuts,” Kramer said. “There are a lot of Jewish baseball fans out there, and for them, this might be the best movie ever made. Audiences cheer the victories, groan at the losses, and laugh along with the players, who are actually very funny.” Clearly not someone to fake modesty, Kramer added, “You don’t have to like baseball or be Jewish to like the movie. It’s the best underdog story I’ve seen in a long time.”

If there is one characteristic linking Ironbound’s productions, it might be this: “We love telling unexpected stories. My partners and I follow our interests, which leads us in some pretty crazy directions,” Kramer said. “‘Heading Home’ happens to be a sports movie about Team Israel. Our documentary before this one (‘The Anthropologist’) was about a mother who drags her daughter around the world to witness the impact of climate change on indigenous cultures. Before that, we made a documentary about Morton Downey Jr. (‘Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie’), which aired on CNN.” Another, “The Linguists,” traces two scientists racing around the world trying to document dying languages.

Asked what he takes most pride in, he said, “That’s hard to nail down,” but he cited the documentary he and his team made, at the request of then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, of the cleanup and recovery effort at Ground Zero after 9/11. “We were the only filmmakers down there. The film ended up being PBS’ signature broadcast to mark the one-year anniversary of the attack.” The footage they captured is housed at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, where the Ironbound partners served as moving image consultants.

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