Review: ‘Holy Land Hardball’

You don't have to be Jewish or understand a box score to embrace the crowd-pleasing national-pastime docu "Holy Land Hardball."

You don’t have to be Jewish or understand a box score to embrace the crowd-pleasing national-pastime docu “Holy Land Hardball.” Saga of an entrepreneur who muscled the improbable Israel Baseball League into existence is at once a celebration of Americana and a cautionary fable on the challenges of cultural hegemony that, as a bonus, plays socko in the cheap seats. Distribs will bill it, auds will come.

Enterprise is the brainchild of Massachusetts bakery owner Larry Baras, whose “Unholey Bagel” (which comes pre-stuffed with cream cheese) led to a financial windfall undone by a 2004 crisis of faith. Pic’s overarching tone is summed up by a briefly glimpsed T-shirt slogan: “Baseball in Israel? Vy not!”

Shooting for a league of six teams to commence a 45-game season in June 2007, Baras early on hired former Boston Red Sox g.m. Dan Duquette, who explains, “The challenge in Boston was to bring a World Series championship ’cause they hadn’t had one in 85 years. They haven’t had baseball in Israel in over 5,000.” Hold the rimshots.

Open tryouts yield a field of dreamers. Eric Holtz, player-coach of the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox, is a 41-year-old, Bronx-raised father of three whose long-suffering wife tolerates his Peter Panning. He’s also the resident provocateur, telling one teammate, “The league just called, you’ve been traded to Egypt.”

Long-haired, 27-year-old heartthrob Nathan Israel Bloomberg “Nate” Fish is plucked from DJing to realize his dream for the Tel Aviv Lightning, while 22-year-old African-American Willis Bumphus, puzzled when his preacher told him he’d one day play in front of “God’s people,” now realizes he’ll do just that for the Petach Tikvah Pioneers.

Faced with a formidable marketing challenge, Baras seems to be making steady headway until a last-minute blizzard of snafus: The league’s baseballs are held up in customs, a player recruited from the Dominican Republic may be Muslim and thus ineligible, and so on. The eventual onfield product has, to quote Duquette’s memorable malapropism, “hoot-spa.”

Co-helmers Brett Rapkin and Erik Kesten (currently working on the Fox Sports Net series “Baseball’s Golden Age”) are clearly a pair of sports nuts; the former made “Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey,” about eccentric Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, while the latter won an Emmy for HBO’s “Curse of the Bambino.” Their breezy approach to this subject can’t quite hide an ingrained streak of benevolent imperialism. As someone explains, with no apparent irony, “a country with all of these traditions could use one more.”

Tech package is pro.

Holy Land Hardball


A 24/6 Studio production. Produced by Brett Rapkin, Erik Kesten. Executive producer, Matthew Hiltzik. Directed, edited by Brett Rapkin, Erik Kesten.


Camera (color), Rapkin, Kesten, Shay Cohen; music, Daniel Hulsizer; sound designer, John Wiggins. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, June 10, 2008. (In SilverDocs Film Festival, Silver Spring, Md. -- Silver Spectrum.) Running time: 84 MIN.


Larry Baras, Dan Duquette, Martin Berger, Nate Fish, Eric Holtz, Dan Rootenberg, Willis Bumphus.
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