Ryan Lavarnway, baseball catcher by trade, is 35 years old. He has played professionally for 15 seasons and has worn the uniforms of eight MLB teams. He has 447 big-league at-bats, nine home runs and one World Series ring (2013 Boston Red Sox).
Lavarnway has worn the home uniform of 18 other teams, mostly in the minors but some overseas. He has played baseball in the United States, Canada, Venezuela, South Korea, Japan and Australia. He estimates he has been traded or released more than two dozen times.
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This is not the typical career path of someone who majored in philosophy at Yale. As such, given the relative lack of measurable success, the suggestion has been made that perhaps he had other options.
“I talk to my Yale friends all the time,’’ Lavarnway said the other day in a Zoom conversation. “They’ve been climbing the ladder for 15 years while I’ve been playing baseball. They’re making outrageous sums of money. They have power. They have whatever in their companies. And you know what they all say? They say, ‘Play baseball as long as you can.’
“I love the game. And whenever I’m done playing, I’ll probably stay in the game in some capacity because I love it. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 5 years old.”
Lavarnway is not done playing. He is a free agent, but he just came back from Melbourne, where he played in the Australian Winter League and collected a couple of knocks in his last game. Next month in Miami, he will return for an encore appearance as catcher for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, just as he did in the last WBC in 2017.
The baseball in the WBC was an unexpected joyride. The experience was life-changing.
In the 2017 tournament, Team Israel, a first-time qualifier comprising almost exclusively American players with Jewish roots (including Lavarnway), reeled off four straight wins, shocking host South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands in the first round. The Israelis then scored a seismic victory in the second round in Tokyo over Cuba, a team that has flaunted its superiority on a global stage for years.
“We had a bunch of guys who had careers like me — some ups, some downs,” Lavarnway said. “We had pitcher Jason Marquis, who had, like, 100 years in The Show and had been retired for a couple of years. We had Ike Davis, who was a superstar for a minute then kind of petered out. And the rest of us were a bunch of guys that got a cup of coffee. Maybe didn’t catch a break, maybe were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But all felt better than our resumes looked.”
No one gave them a chance.
“ESPN called us the Jamaican bobsled team of baseball going into the tournament,” Lavarnway said. “We were has-beens, wannabes and never-weres. We really kind of rallied around that. That was maybe the best thing that ever happened to us because now we have like a rallying cry.”
Team Israel also had a media magnet.
In the movie “Major League,” the voodoo-practicing slugger Pedro Cerrano had Jobu, the clay figurine with the cigar stuck in his mouth and bottle of rum by his side. First baseman Cody Decker, whose major-league resume is composed of one line (eight games for the San Diego Padres, 11 at-bats, no hits), found Team Israel’s good luck charm while watching “Shark Tank” on TV — Mensch on the Bench, a life-sized stuffed character that resembled a Hasidic Jew.
Mensch went everywhere Decker did, including a seat beside him at WBC press conferences. Team Israel had its star.
“The Mensch on the Bench was probably the second-best thing that ever happened to us,” Lavarnway said. “Because again, we didn’t have superstars on the team, so once we started winning and shocking the world, then there was all this media attention, especially in Korea. They were fascinated with the Mensch on the Bench.
“Instead of having the (questions of) ‘Why are you winning? What is happening?’ and being overwhelmed by that, all the media wanted to talk about was the stuffed (mascot).”
Another teammate, Blake Gailen, an outfielder who played 15 seasons, mostly in independent ball, had a friend who made T-shirts. He created the “Jew Crew” shirts which pictured a swinging rabbi. The shirts flew out of the shop.
Team Israel lost its final two games, against the Netherlands in a rematch and against Japan, to fall short of advancing, but it had made a lasting impression. Lavarnway went 8-for-18 with a home run and six RBIs in six games and was named MVP of the Tokyo pool.
Despite its modest credentials, Team Israel proved it could play.
“I remember after the (Cuba) game, we were in the press conference and one of the Cuba media guys was pretty upset that we beat them and maybe embarrassed,” Lavarnway said. “He ended up calling us United States B. Which, realistically, even if America has got a B team, none of our players would have made it. Even if they had a C team, D team or F team, none of our players would have made it.”
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Lavarnway’s connection to Team Israel came with a call from his agent, who explained that because Lavarnway’s mother, Jill, was Jewish, he was eligible to play for Israel. “According to the Law of Return in Israel,” said Team Israel general manager Peter Kurz, “anybody who has a Jewish grandparent or is married to someone who has a Jewish grandparent is allowed to get citizenship in Israel.”
Lavarnway showed up for the team’s qualifying round, which was played in MCU (now Maimonides Park) in Brooklyn, home of the Cyclones, the New York Mets’ minor-league team in the Class-A South Atlantic League. There, Lavarnway got his first hint that this was more than he had signed up for.
In Brooklyn, which has a large Jewish population, it felt like Team Israel was the home team.
“It was like the first time I’d seen a crowd full of yeshiva kids in yarmulkes and tallits (prayer shawls),” Lavarnway said. “To me, it was super meaningful because they had never had a team of all Jewish players to root for. It kind of hit home.”
In a home in which one parent was Jewish and the other Christian, Lavarnway had never really identified with either faith. That would soon change.
As part of a documentary project, Team Israel took a group of players to Israel. They were greeted by government officials, signed autographs for aspiring young players and visited the Wailing Wall, the Wishing Bridge, Masada and the Dead Sea. During their visit, a terrorist attack occurred.
“None of us had ever been,” Lavarnway said. “None of us had a huge tie to Judaism. They brought us there for this whirlwind eight-day tour, and it was unbelievable. I think all of us found a lot of meaning in it.”
“It was kind of like I was Jewish, but religion wasn’t a big part of my life,” Lavarnway added. “And through this team, I kind of found my place in the community. The worldwide Jewish community embraced me, and I embraced it. It was the first time that I had ever kind of publicly announced that I’m Jewish.”
Lavarnway has written an as-yet-unpublished children’s book about his experience. One passage from the book:
He no longer felt like “half”
He now was finally WHOLE!
“I am Jewish, I am proud!”
He could feel it in his soul.
“Your religion is something that, unless you announce it, nobody knows,” Lavarnway said. “It’s not like the color of your skin or a birthmark that’s just obvious, right?
“So by playing for Team Israel, I faced anti-Semitism for the first time. But I also was embraced by the Jewish community for the first time, and I feel like those two things — at least in my experience — have kind of come together. And by jumping all the way in with two feet, it helped me face the adversity, but also reap the benefits of it, too.”
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And so Lavarnway will be back in the World Baseball Classic, proud to wear the blue and white of Israel with the Star of David on his cap, just as he did in the 2021 Olympics. Former big leaguer Ian Kinsler will manage Team Israel, and ex-All-Star Kevin Youkilis will be one of his coaches. The biggest name to commit is San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson. Two other MLB outfielders, Kevin Pillar of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Harrison Bader of the New York Yankees, were early commits but have bowed out. Lavarnway expects to share catching duties with Philadelphia Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs.
WBC rosters will be finalized on Feb. 7. Kurz expects there will be only one “sabra” — native Israeli player — on his team. “The goal is to have homegrown kids playing for this team in the years to come,” said Lavarnway in “Headed Home,” the award-winning documentary conceived in part by MLB.com baseball writer Jonathan Mayo.
For now, Lavarnway and his teammates will wear the colors and serve as the inspiration for future players. On March 11-15 in Miami, Team Israel will face the daunting challenge of trying to advance from Pool D, which includes powerhouses Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Nicaragua rounds out the field.
“It’s the power pool. It’s the ‘death pool.’ It’s the Jews and the Latinos,” Kurz said. “Every game is going to be incredible. Every game is going to be 50,000 people, yelling and screaming. It’s going to be a lot of hot action, those four days, no doubt about it.”
Underdogs? Of course. Ask the team. Or the country. It comes with the territory.