For all the best intentions, hopes, and excitement, the Israel Baseball League lasted just one season. Tepid responses by the media and native-born population, poor playing conditions, and questionable business practices all led to the league’s downfall after its 2007 debut.
Little of that gloom, however, is evidenced in Holy Land Hardball, a documentary about the IBL’s origins and the baby steps leading up to opening day, by veteran filmmakers Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten.
Hardball — which was among several baseball-themed movies at last week’s film festival hosted by the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — begins with Larry Baras, a Boston bagel magnate, discussing his dream to bring America’s national pastime to Israel as a professional enterprise. He enlists a brain trust of top-notch baseball minds and businesspeople, including Dan Duquette, a former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, to serve as director of player development; Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel, the league’s commissioner; Marty Appel, former public relations director for the New York Yankees; and Marvin Goldklang of Florham Park, who owns or operates several minor and independent league teams in the United States. Former Major Leaguers Art Shamsky, Ron Blomberg, and Ken Holtzman (who quit before the season was over) were hired as managers to give the league added cache.
The film — which won the Audience Award for best documentary at the 2008 Boston Jewish Film Festival — concentrates on a handful of athletes, including Nate Fish, the first player selected in the IBL draft held in Manhattan (actually, the second: Sandy Koufax was a symbolic selection); Eric Holtz, a middle-aged family man whose wife isn’t all that crazy about his taking off to play ball; and Willis Bumphus, a 22-year-old African-American who is fulfilling the prophecy of his pastor who foretold that he would reach his goal of playing professional baseball in front of “God’s people.”
The drama follows the process of assembling the league from the ground up — starting with the tryout camps, which, to Duquette’s dismay, featured all levels of athletic skill — and builds as opening day approaches. Many problems remain unresolved until the last minute, including the less than five-star accommodations and panic over the inability to get bats, balls, and uniforms through customs.
Hardball was produced as a “little engine that could” story and works well as such; the myriad woes and hard feelings that grew during the season and beyond are not included here. For those who know the whole sad story, the film feels incomplete in retrospect, and Rapkin admits the shortcomings. In the press release that accompanies the DVD, he says, “This is a story of putting the league together, for better or worse. Well-intentioned people put their hearts into this. Players gave up their real lives for a summer in Israel, for the love of the game. And then came reality.”
The bonus material on the DVD includes audio commentary from Rapkin, Kesten, Fish, Holtz, and other players; deleted scenes; and extended interviews with Shamsky, Holtzman, and current Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis.
To order the documentary, visit holylandhardball.com.