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Filmmakers Recount Run-up to Israeli Baseball

‘Holy Land Hardball’ returns to MLB Network starting April 11.


by Julia Pine, Contributing Writer

April 9, 2010 | 3:18 pm

Photo courtesy 24/6 Studio Productions LLC

Photo courtesy 24/6 Studio Productions LLC

The scariest part of making dreams a reality is how quickly it can all disappear. When Boston bagel baron Larry Baras finally succeeded in bringing professional baseball to the Jewish state in 2007 with the Israel Baseball League (IBL), it was hard for him to see that dream vanish after a single season.

Six teams featuring names like the Tel Aviv Lighting, the Petach Tikvah Pioneers and the Modiin Miracle drew American ex-pats to the stands to watch players from America, Israel and the Dominican Republic during a 45-game season. But behind the scenes, the IBL imploded – owners didn’t pay their bills, players threatened a strike over late paychecks, a manager left mid-season after trash-talking the league to the media and a player was almost killed during batting practice.

Documentary filmmakers Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten followed IBL, from its creation to the first pitch on June 24, 2007. Their film, “Holy Land Hardball,” has screened at more than 100 film festivals and debuted on the MLB Network in January. With the start of the 2010 baseball season, the MLB Network is airing the doc again starting April 11.

“[Baras] had set up an initial Web site, so I found him online, tracked him down and started to talk to him,” said Rapkin, who had worked in production with MTV. “We met a couple different times and talked about the idea of doing a documentary and then he let us film the first tryout.”

What started out as a baseball documentary evolved into something more, as the people involved in bringing baseball to Israel in 2007 weren’t typical professional athletes.

“One reason I was drawn to this project is that the recollection of my childhood is going to school, playing baseball and going to Hebrew school,” Rapkin said. “When I heard about the story that combines these two important pieces of my identity, I realized it was an amazing juxtaposition of those elements.”

After a difficult 2004, Baras heard his rabbi say, “if you can’t change the problems in your life, then change yourself.” As Baras recalls in the documentary, this inspired him to look for a project and do something in Israel to positively impact the country.

Baras turned to Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette to help with the project, and the two started weeding through hundreds of ballplayers who turned out for tryouts in Massachusetts.

Nate Fish, who played alongside current Red Sox infielder Kevin Youkilis at University of Cincinnati, didn’t have the opportunity to play professional baseball after graduating college. But when, at age 27, he heard about an Israeli league looking for talent, he jumped at the opportunity. The doc—which includes Youkilis reflecting on feeling a special connection with Fish, having been the only two Jewish players on their team—follows Fish from the tryout to the league’s first pitch. 

Along with Fish’s journey, “Holy Land Hardball” follows the experiences of Eric Holtz, a 41-year-old father of three whose love for baseball his been with him his whole life. The film examines Holtz’s experience living out his dream of playing professional ball, but also what that meant for him and his family.

“When I approach any story, it’s about finding the drama and conflict and compelling characters so that things keep moving for the audience,” said Rapkin, who worked with production house 24/6 Studios on the project. “The movie gives some insight into how much this opportunity meant to everyone involved.”

Although the league lasted only one brief season and has yet to return due to a host of problems, which are briefly examined in the documentary, Rapkin says this makes his project that much more meaningful.

“I think that as time goes by the documentary will become more and more of a legendary in-depth story of this thing that happened in Israel once,” Rapkin said. “At the end of the day, this documentary might be all that will live on.”

For more information, visit holylandhardball.com or http://mlb.mlb.com/network.

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