Jonathan Mayo, an MLB.com draft and prospect expert, joined Solzy at the Movies for a phone interview last week to discuss Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel. The film will host its Chicago premiere during the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival on March 10, 2018 before additional screenings on March 18th.
Jonathan, thanks for joining us today. How are things treating you?
Jonathan Mayo: Things are good.
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel is starting to make its way around the festival circuit. It’s my understanding that you played a role in organizing a trip to Israel after they qualified for the World Baseball Classic.
Jonathan Mayo: Yeah, that would be an accurate description of my participation. I originally had an idea of bringing a group of Jewish baseball players to Israel. We almost did it a year prior but there was no connection to the World Baseball Classic. It was more just about letting players who have embraced being known as Jewish baseball players explore that part of their identity in Israel. It didn’t happen and then the following year because after they qualified, there was sort of a renewed energy and were able to pull off the trip. Eight of the ten who went on the trip ended up going to Korea and Japan and playing for the team.
Many, if not all, were making their first trip to Israel, correct?
Jonathan Mayo: Right. Two had been on Birthright—Jeremy Bleich and Corey Baker—but the rest on the trip had never been.
What’s the connection with Jeremy Newberger, Seth Kramer, and Daniel A. Miller, and how did they get involved with making a documentary on the trip?
Jonathan Mayo: We all went to sleepaway camp and grew up in the same youth group together so I’ve known Jeremy and Daniel for over 30 years. About 9-10 years ago, Jeremy and I started shooting ideas back and forth—like hey, it could be cool to work on something together. I knew he was a documentary filmmaker and I love the idea of telling stories that way. We hadn’t really found anything that clicked until we came up with this idea starting with the trip to Israel and it grew into something more. When Team Israel made its run in the World Baseball Classic, it it kind of become a bigger deal baseball-related than we thought it would when we started this journey together.
I don’t think I thought Team Israel would have escaped Pool A but going undefeated the way that they did, it was like a David vs. Goliath story.
Jonathan Mayo: It added a whole different element and it was really interesting because depending on your perspective, people saw this team differently. Here in the States, people were talking about them as kind of wannabes and never-have-beens and whatever derogatory descriptions of players who weren’t quite good enough to play at the big league level anymore that they wanted to come up with. When you talked to the foreign press, they were the US team, the second team, the JV team—they were too good. That generally came after they beat one of the teams. They were getting it from both ends that way. They always knew they were pretty good even if they were veterans who hadn’t been in the big leagues in a while, there were a lot of guys with big league time on that team and they were better than anyone anticipated.
Who among Team Israel had the best 2017 and what do you expect to see out of these guys during the next year?
Jonathan Mayo: Just in terms of performance—without looking at numbers—Jeremy Bleich had a really good year in the minors. I think Ty Kelly may have been the only one who was up in the big league last year for any length of time. That might be it in terms of good performances.
In terms of looking ahead, it’s been a weird off-season. Free agency has moved very slowly at the big league level and that’s kind of filtered down so there are a couple guys who are hoping to play but haven’t signed anywhere (Josh Zeid, Corey Baker). Those who have signed have signed minor league deals. Sam Fuld is working in the front office. I’m going to predict that Sam Fuld has the best 2018 because he is at least guaranteed a job. It’s been a little bit difficult for them to find their way and I wouldn’t necessarily predict that any of them are necessarily going to play a substantial amount of time in the big leagues. It will be interesting to see what happens. Last year after the Classic, Josh Zeid got signed based on how he threw and he pitched for the Cardinals all year but it was kind of up and down so he hasn’t signed since.
Ryan Lavarnway signed a minor league deal with the Pirates. He’ll probably be in AAA. I could see him, just because of his defensive ability behind the plate, if there’s a need—there would have to be an injury based on personnel in what they have in Pittsburgh.
Given Jeff Aeder’s involvement with the team and film, have you had the chance to visit Chicago and check out the Jewish Baseball Museum?
Jonathan Mayo: I haven’t. I’m going to be there for the screenings on March 18th so I’m hoping to check it out. I’ve seen the stuff online and know Jeff pretty well—he was with us in Israel and then made it to Japan for the second round of the classic. I haven’t been able to check out the museum in person. I’m really looking forward to it.
Thanks again for your time and I look forward to hopefully meeting you in person.
Jonathan Mayo: Sounds good! I’m looking forward to it.
For more information on the the Heading Home screenings during the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival, please click here. For screening information in general, please visit the film’s pages on Facebook and Twitter.