If they build it, will they come? Filmmaker Jeremy Newberger and sports writer Jonathan Mayo think so. The two are working on organizing a special trip to Israel for Jewish Major League Baseball players, past and present.
Newberger, a director with Ironbound Films, and Mayo, who works for MLB.com, are pitching the idea of a “Baseball Birthright.” Based on positive responses from players such as Houston Astros pitcher Josh Zeid, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Ike Davis, and Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler, the two think they could hit it out of the park with the trip — and an associated documentary film chronicling each player’s personal Jewish journey.
“The project is still in an early development stage,” notes Newberger in a conversation with The Times of Israel. He and Mayo, who have known each other since their days at Zionist summer camp, have long thought about bringing the players to Israel. It would be their first visit to the country for most of them.
“The trip could be great, and my partners at Ironbound and I believe a film about the specific meaning of the trip for each of the players would find an audience. We think a lot of baseball fans and a lot of Jewish Americans would be interested,” he says.
“I have always wanted to go to Israel,” Zeid, 27, tells the Times of Israel. When he was 14, he almost made it to Israel as a member of the 2001 junior US Maccabiah team. But at the last moment, the decision was made to keep the young athletes at home due to the security situation during the Second Intifada. Zeid lost his chance to visit that time, and he has not been able to take the time off to participate in a Birthright Israel or other organized trip since then.
“My sister went on Birthright, and it was life changing for her,” he shares. “So if there was a ‘Baseball Birthright,’ I would definitely want to go.”
Zeid doubts the organizers will have trouble finding enough players to participate. “When I played for Team Israel at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, everybody on the team said they wanted to go to Israel,” he recalls.
According to Mayo, who started talking the “Baseball Birthright” idea up as he traveled around during spring training, the trip would not only be for current MLB players. “We’d want to include past MLB players, like Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis, as well as players in the minor leagues,” he explains.
The sportswriter has always like covering Jewish players. “Most of them had no religious background while growing up. For instance Shawn Green called his grandparents bubbe and zaide, but he never knew why. And Kevin Youkilis had a bar mitzvah, and I think he is probably the only one,” he says.
“But rather than running from their Jewish identity when they started getting attention, the Jewish players embraced and explored it,” he reflects. “A trip to Israel just seems like the next step.”
‘But rather than running from their Jewish identity when they started getting attention, the Jewish players embraced and explored it’
Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, the former coach of Team Israel, gave Mayo and Newberger some baseball contacts in Israel to help with organizing clinics led by the players. However, the organizers insist their aim is not to bring the American players to promote the sport of baseball in the basketball- and soccer-crazed country.
“If a byproduct of the trip was the growth of baseball in Israel, then that would be great, but the focus is on the Jewish identity development of the players,” Mayo says.
And what about the Major League Baseball player who has had the greatest impact on how American Jews think about their identity? Sandy Koufax is widely admired for refusing to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
Mayo says he’d love to have the 78-year-old somehow involved in the possible “Baseball Birthright.”
“He probably is not up to making the trip, but perhaps he could be there at the send off,” he suggests.