Although frequently identified as America’s quintessential national pastime, baseball contains an undeniable global component that has become commonplace in movies about the sport. Look no further than this year’s sleeper hit “Sugar,” a bittersweet story of Dominican players drafted for American teams, to explore baseball’s international reach.
That said, American fan appreciation for baseball is decidedly unique. The culture of peanuts and crackerjacks does not smoothly export across borders. Directors Erik Kesten and Brett Rapkin engage this factor with “Holy Land Hardball,” a documentary about the 2007 attempt to launch an Israel Baseball League. Massachusetts baker Larry Baras’s previous achievement was a specially prepared bagel with pre-inserted cream cheese, an entrepreneurial endeavor that ran out of steam in 2004. Overcoming financial and personal duress, Baras assembled a team of like-minded Zionists to bring baseball to the Middle East. The resulting cinematic document of his saga makes for a light comedy of errors elevated by Baras and his colleagues’ undying commitment to an apparently futile task, as Israelis have virtually no concept of the game and hardly any interest in learning about it.
The filmmakers follow Baras from concept to gradual execution: Initial board meetings give way to tryouts, players’ individual stories expand the diverse cast of characters, and eventually the gang heads to the Middle East. Baras apparently has honest intentions, but everyone involved appears blinded by the gimmickry of it. Anticipating a gag in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, the players use hummus instead of champagne when horsing around off-field. A 70-year-old Holocaust survivor attends the tryouts with passionate intentions. The game comes across either as a joke or an amateur affair — two aspects that prevent the league from being taken seriously. Nevertheless, Baras does manage to snag former Red Sox manager Dan Duquette (an earnest non-Jew willing to try out Yiddish phraseology) and organize efforts to build an additional playing field for the league to accompany the two existing ones in the entire country.
His utopian vision quickly gives way a stream of practical issues. When the teams arrive in Israel, tsuris comes with them: It’s hot. There’s no ice. The dorms are messy, insect-infested holes and the jerseys show up marked to be resold. “It is what it is,” sighs one organizer, but such ambivalence ignores the specifics of what it’s not — and, more importantly, why it fails the generate much interest. There’s hardly any reference to the country’s divisive cultural climate, but it’s not surprising that nobody raises the possibility of a Palestinian team. Unlike American baseball, Baras’s league implies a certain ideological tendency that runs counter to the inclusive nature of the sport.
Nevertheless, that’s not a concern of this movie. All things considered, Kesten and Rapkin respect their subjects to the point where “Holy Land Hardball” functions as a warm portrait of people guided by spiritual unity and athletic ambition. The shtick engages on this basic level and develops its linear story with an amusing group of personalities. That no major drama ever emerges onscreen testifies to the blithe simplicity that they bring to the task. Such willful ignorance makes for an infectious feel-good experience, but it’s hard to ignore the underlying futility. A closing title card informs us that the league failed to meet in 2008 and 2009 due to a lack of funding, but concludes by playfully asking,”Next Year in Jerusalem?” It sounds like this is one field of dreams that still needs a wake up call.
[Editor’s Note: “Holy Land Hardball” is part of SnagFilms’ SummerFest series.]