Jewish Baseball Pro Connects with the Ball—and with Judaism
Ask Ryan Lavarnway how his career in baseball started, and he goes back to the day his parents met with his kindergarten teacher. The teacher told them, “Ryan is not good at sharing. You might want to try getting him on a team.” His parents signed him up for baseball that weekend.
That decision, made so early in his life, led to a stand-out, record-breaking career as a college player at Yale University and 14 years of professional baseball as a catcher for eight teams and 10 organizations in Major League Baseball. He played for the “Boston Strong” Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2013. He was on the notoriously underrated (and even more famously successful) Team Israel that made history at the World Baseball Classic in 2017. And he had the experience of a lifetime—going to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
Make no mistake, Lavarnway is a man who loves to play the game of baseball.
“I like that it is challenging and different every day,” he says. “The minute you have it figured out, it comes and humbles you again. It teaches you how to win, how to lose, how to be a member of a team.”
Lavarnway’s career has given him an identity—he is a baseball player. But it has also led him to discover his heritage—he is a baseball player who is Jewish. When he joined Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic, he made his first journey to Israel, taking a birthright trip at the age of 27, along with nine other Jewish Americans on the team.
“With Team Israel, I connected to my Jewish identity for the first time,” he says. “I found a place where I belonged, and that reinvigorated my love for the game.”
Building a career in baseball
Even if Lavarnway’s kindergarten teacher had said he was excellent at sharing, it’s likely he would have found his way to a baseball field eventually. He grew up in Woodland Hills, California, shadowing his father, who would play pick-up baseball games on weekends. He liked the game right away and, he says, he “had a knack for it.”
In high school, he was recruited to play baseball for Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, University of California Davis, and Yale. He headed to Yale in 2005, where he played catcher.
In 2007, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) batting title by hitting .467 and led the NCAA with an .873 slugging percentage. During his time at Yale, he set the Ivy League record with 33 home runs, and he was ranked in the top 10 for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the best amateur baseball player in the U.S. He started to think that the “impossible dream” of playing baseball professionally could come true.
He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2008, spent several years playing minor league ball, and was called up to the major leagues by the Red Sox in August 2011. In his first start as catcher, Lavarnway made headlines, hitting two home runs.
The big leagues
Baseball is a business and perhaps no one knows that better than baseball players. Lavarnway achieved his dream of playing in the major league, but he describes the uncertainty that has been part of his career as just another set of statistics: he has been sent back to the minor leagues, traded, or released 23 times. He has lived in 15 states in 10 years. When he is not on the road, he and his wife Jamie call Colorado home.
“When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll play for one team your whole career, live in that city, meet a girl, raise a family,” he says. “There were times when getting my dream felt like a nightmare.”
He majored in philosophy at Yale and believes that an education that encouraged him to think abstractly has helped him overcome adversity.
“If you get sent down, you can be down in the dumps or you can see it as an opportunity to get better outside of the spotlight,” he says. “I’ve had hard times, but I’ve had to mature and get better.”
But there is no denying that the vagabond life of a professional baseball player brings with it a level of stress, even when you are as passionate about the game as Lavarnway is. Just about the time he was falling out of love with baseball, the phone rang. Team Israel was calling with a life-changing opportunity.
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) is the pinnacle of international baseball tournaments with the best teams in the world—the equivalent of the FIFA World Cup.
Lavarnway was recruited by Team Israel, which was competing for the first time in the WBC, because his mother is Jewish. He was eligible to be an Israeli citizen, so he could play on the team representing Israel. Some of his teammates were Israeli, but many were like him—professional American players with Jewish parents or grandparents.
The team was ranked 41st in the world going into the qualifying rounds in 2016. Since only 16 teams would move ahead to the final tournament, no one expected Team Israel (with a mascot named “The Mensch on the Bench”) would advance. When the team qualified during Fall 2016, the baseball world went into shock, and sports media took notice, calling the players “the Jamaican bobsled team of baseball.”
“The media said, ‘How in the world did they qualify?’” Lavaranway recalls. “They called us ‘wannabes and has-beens.’ But that just motivated us.”
While other world teams went to training camp to prepare for the WBC, 10 American members of Team Israel traveled to Israel. They visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Masada, and Yad Vashem, and they met young Israeli children who loved baseball and greeted them like they were rock stars.
Lavarnway, who had been raised as a mostly non-practicing Jew, suddenly had new insight into what it meant to have a homeland and be part of a community of people.
“I had not really thought much about religion before because it was not a part of my upbringing,” he says. “But when you come face to face with the place where it all started, it’s magical.”
At the Western Wall, he had a moment where he felt his life changed.
“I had never felt God before, and then I touched the wall,” he says. “And I felt God, I felt something bigger than myself, something you don’t fully understand.”
When people learned about Team Israel and expressed surprise at finding out he was Jewish, his answer was straightforward: “Why does that change anything?”
In March 2017, Team Israel headed to the WBC to play a series of games often characterized as “David versus Goliath.” To the astonishment of the world, the team came in sixth in the tournament, beating South Korea, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Cuba, all teams ranked in the top 10 in the world. Lavarnway was chosen Most Valuable Player for the first round of play.
The story has been immortalized in a documentary, Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.
“Being a member of that team changed my relationship with baseball,” Lavarnway says. “Those wins were that much more meaningful because I shared them with those teammates.”
Today, as he faces the beginning of another season, filled with even more than the usual uncertainties, Lavarnway is characteristically positive. He is a free agent who hopes to sign a contract. “I would rather be playing baseball than doing anything else,” he says. “I still love it.”
While he waits for resolution between players and owners, he has time to reflect on some great memories. He recalls what it was like to play for Boston in 2013, the season the team won the World Series after the Boston Marathon bombing in April.
“In the midst of heartbreak, everyone could come to a game and feel normal again for a few hours,” he says. “Everyone on the team understood our responsibility to help the city heal.”
In summer 2021, he traveled to Tokyo to play for Team Israel at the Olympics, an experience that he describes as something he never had dared to dream about. Team Israel was one of just six national teams competing in the games and celebrated a win that sent the team from Mexico home. For Lavarnway, the greatest thrill was being able to watch athletes who are the best in the world train for their competitions.
Lavarnway also is starting to look to the future. He has done some motivational speaking at Jewish day schools, and he sees the potential for more in the future. He hopes to partner with JEWISHcolorado on some projects. He likes teaching and feels lucky to have been coached by good leaders through his career. In his speeches, he often revisits three conversations that changed his life, all with the same theme: challenge yourself with high expectations, even if you feel you may not be able to accomplish them.
“If you set the bar low, and you accomplish everything,” he says, “then you haven’t accomplished everything you could.” This is a person—a Jewish baseball player—who wants to accomplish everything he can.