"We went out and proved them wrong.”
There are a lot of reasons we love baseball and one of them is that at times, it can be bigger than life. When the game means more than just hits, runs and errors, it really shows its true beauty.
Baseball can connect generations, transcend social and religious groups and can teach life lessons that are invaluable to personal development.
It can even galvanize large groups of people during tragedy.
Ryan Lavarnway has experienced all of that and more during his time in the game and he joins us for this week’s installment of Spitballin’.
Lavarnway was a sixth round draft pick out of Yale (yes, that Yale) and that in itself is a point of interest. In the history of baseball, Lavarnway is one of just three position players out of Yale to play 10 seasons of Major League Baseball. The other two were Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke who played from 1872-1893 and Sam Mele, a post-World War II journeyman who spent time with the Red Sox in the 1940s.
Lavarnway was the first ever position player drafted from Yale to make the majors and if you’re wondering what brought major league scouts to the Ivy League, take a gander at what he did for the Bulldogs.
He led the NCAA in batting in 2007 at .467 and slugging at .873. He set the Yale single-season record for home runs with 14 and RBIs and set an Ivy League record with a 25-game hitting streak.
He was just a sophomore, so yeah, that will get people’s attention.
Lavarnway’s story isn’t just a Yale guy who made good in a world where that doesn’t typically happen, though.
He was an important member of the 2013 Red Sox team which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their improbable World Series title this fall. That was the #BostonStrong team that helped the city of Boston heal after the horrific marathon bombing that April.
Lavarnway was also a member of Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic and in the Olympics. In fact, in 2017, he was the MVP of Pool A in the WBC when Team Israel swept through pool play. That was the “Mensch on a Bench” team that beat #3 South Korea, #4 Chinese Taipei, #9 Netherlands and #5 Cuba consecutively. Israel was ranked 41st in the world at the time.
It wasn’t the actual baseball that ended up being most important to Lavarnway, though. Playing on Team Israel gave Lavarnway a connection with his Jewish faith and a sense of belonging that he hadn’t experienced before and eventually led to his new children’s book, Baseball and Belonging.
According to his website, ryanlavarnway.com, the book “was written to inspire children to believe in themselves and imagine their possibilities” and finding where you belong in life. It’s a fantastic lesson and one that will hopefully give young readers a point of reference and a role model to look up to as they navigate through life’s challenges.
He’s a World Series champion, an Olympian, a Yale baseball legend, successful corporate speaker and new author, so there is a lot to talk about as we go Spitballin’ with Ryan Lavarnway.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Lavarnway! Looking forward to talking about your new children’s’ book, Baseball and Belonging. First let’s go back to your own childhood though. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?
I grew up in Southern California and baseball was my life. I ate, drank and slept baseball. We were playing 100 games a year from the time I was ten years old. I was definitely a Dodgers fan. We went to games every once in a while and I liked watching Mike Piazza. The Braves were on TV a lot too, so I liked watching Chipper Jones. Ken Griffey Jr. was huge too. He was one of my favorites.
Ryan Lavarnway #60 of the Boston Red Sox tries his hand as a videographer while greeting fans at the gates before a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 26, 2012 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
You had a great scholastic career and then ended up going to Yale, where you can make a case that you were the best offensive player to ever play for them. First, how did you end up at Yale?
Yale recruited me out of the Stanford camp. You needed to have a 2.8 GPA to even show up at that camp. I was recruited there by Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell and UC-Davis. Yale was the only school to offer me a visit and when I got to their campus, I fell in love with it. It was a no-brainer for me. It was the best baseball option for me and the best academic option.
How were you able to do that while also working through the academic rigors of being an Ivy League student?
It was a matter of understanding what was important in the moment. When I had papers due or if I had a big test coming up, it was time to focus on school. Our coaches were really good about allowing us times where we had less practice so we could focus on school. I never missed a single class for a game. We scheduled our class schedule accordingly. We only had games on Wednesday evenings and the weekends. When it was baseball time, I did my best to not think about class. That was the time to do my job on the field.
Before you, no position player had ever been drafted and made the majors out of Yale and the last position player to be active in the majors who attended Yale was Dick Tettelbach in 1955. Considering that it doesn’t happen too often, was there a time where you thought that you had a real chance at a professional career?
My sophomore year I led the country in batting average and slugging percentage and that let me know I could compete with the rest of the guys in the country. I always heard that the Ivy League stats were discounted, so you had to do extra to make sure you were noticed. I always had the idea in my head that if I was good enough, they would find me. I even made a t-shirt when I was working out that said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That became my mantra and I had a few other mantras that helped me along the way. I never liked to look at the odds against it, but I always tried to beat the odds.
We were playing to give the city a sense of normalcy and to give them something to cheer for in a time that was so devastating. We wanted to give them a team to rally around.
You were called up to the Red Sox in 2011 for the first time. You had about seven starts under your belt in August and early September. Then in Game 161, you hit your first two big league home runs while you were in a tight race with the Rays for a Wild Card spot. What was it like to have a game like that so early in your career?
The team had been struggling all month and I was really just there as a rookie to get experience and see what the big leagues were all about. I really wasn’t expecting to play. Jason Varitek and Jarrod Saltalamacchia both went down on the same day and Terry Francona came to me and said, “You’re catching tomorrow.” I wasn’t expecting that and was super nervous. I had to borrow Jason Varitek’s scouting report on the Orioles to make sure I was prepared. I was always confident in my offensive ability, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t let anyone down with my glove. I didn’t sleep at all that night. It ended up being a great day and great memory and we won the game. I wish we would have won the next day too. Who knows what could have been different.
You mention Saltalamacchia and Varitek and the next year you played with Mike Napoli too, who also had catching experience. Those guys were veteran winning guys who knew a thing or two about catching. Did any of those guys have an influence on you as a young player?
Jason Varitek did. I mentioned my favorite players from when I was a kid in California, but I went to college in the Northeast. Varitek became one of my favorite players at that time. He was the gold standard of what it meant to be a leader. I ended up getting to play with him and he was always so generous and kind to me. I have nothing but respect for him as a player and as a man.
Ryan Lavarnway #20 of the Boston Red Sox in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 7, 2013 in the Bronx. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
We’re at the ten year anniversary of that incredible 2013 World Series Red Sox season, so I have a couple of questions for you there. First, you were on the 2012 team that went 69-93. What were your expectations the next Spring in 2013? Could you see a turnaround coming?
We mostly had the same team both years and in 2012 we started and ended the season in last place. [In 2013], we had a new manager in John Farrell who helped turn the culture of the team around. Then we had a few new players that played key roles in the attitude of the clubhouse. Guys like Johnny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli. The attitude they brought from day one changed things. I remember meeting Johnny Gomes for the first time. I introduced myself and asked how he was doing. He said, “I’m doing great! I’m one day closer to the World Series parade.” He started talking about our goals and what we were going to do. As a baseball player, I’m superstitious. Maybe not superstitious—but a little ‘stitious. But [Johnny Gomes] didn’t worry about jinxing anything. It was more like, how’s it going to happen if we don’t talk about it. How is it going to become a reality if it is not in the front of our brains every day?
That’s a great point and I appreciate any Michael Scott reference! Of course that 2013 season was so special in large part because of the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened on April 15. Can you take us through some of the events of that day as you remember them?
I was in Pawtucket the day of the bombing. The Red Sox had a getaway game [11:05am first pitch] that day, so they were on the way to the airport already by the time the bombing happened. We were taking BP in Pawtucket 45 miles down the road when we heard about what happened. I immediately started thinking about my friends that I knew who ran that race or ran other races and how scary that was. We didn’t know who was injured and who was OK. We didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember being just as scared as the next guy. It was horrible.
Taking into account the way the city came together after the bombing and how the Red Sox had this incredible 28-game turnaround, what was it like being a part of that experience?
Will Middlebrooks started the BostonStrong hashtag and the city really rallied around that. Our team was already in a place where we knew we were playing for something more; we had changed our attitude from the year before and had our vision. But after the bombing, we immediately understood we were playing for more than wins and losses. We were playing to give the city a sense of normalcy and to give them something to cheer for in a time that was so devastating. We wanted to give them a team to rally around. We hung a jersey with the area code in the dugout and we just felt like that movie Angels in the Outfield; we felt like we had a little bit of extra help. We had that extra help from the city each and every night and we knew were weren’t just playing for wins or losses, we were playing for everyone in the city of Boston.
Ryan Doumit #9 of the Minnesota Twins is out as Ryan Lavarnway #20 of the Boston Red Sox defends home plate as umpire Paul Schrieber #43 looks on during the sixth inning of the game on May 18, 2013 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Considering all of that, when Koji Uehara struck out Matt Carpenter to end Game 6 of the World Series to clinch the title, where were you at mentally as you celebrated what had to be an emotionally exhausting run?
I was on the top step of the dugout out there celebrating with everyone else. I didn’t get to play in the playoffs, but I traveled with the team and in the dugout in uniform. My wedding was eight days after we ended up winning that World Series. I didn’t play an inning on defense and didn’t get an at bat. Most people go on a little bit of a wedding diet so you look good in the photos, but I was nervous-eating in the dugout the whole time. It’s something that I cared about so much and wanted to be a part of, but I couldn’t affect. It was an incredible experience to be a part of and there’s not a cooler place than Fenway Park in the postseason.
Just absolutely incredible. What a special season. In addition to being a World Series champion, you have been able to represent Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic and in the Olympics. What was it like being able to represent Israel on the national stage?
When I first played for Team Israel, I saw it as an incredible baseball opportunity. It wasn’t something that I saw as my heritage yet because I didn’t have that connection at the time. I grew up in a house where my mom was Jewish and my dad was Catholic. We didn’t really have a ties to a religion outside of the house. We celebrated holidays for Hallmark purposes. We were tight and we had a lot of love in our family, but not a lot of deeper meaning. When I played for Team Israel, it started as a cool baseball tournament. Then being embraced by the community and the team, which was the first team of all-Jewish players I ever played on. There was confidence that came with truly being yourself. You could have true conversations and find deeper meanings. That really was what changed my life. I felt like I was part of something outside of baseball field and outside of my family.
Ryan Lavarnway #36 of Team Israel hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning against Team Republic of Korea during the baseball Opening Round Group B game between Team Israel and Team Republic of Korea on day six of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yokohama Baseball Stadium on July 29, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
That’s really awesome perspective and self-reflection. The 2017 Team Israel really captured the early stages of that year’s World Baseball Classic. You swept through pool play and were named MVP of Pool A, even beating a very good Netherlands team along the way. Then you guys beat Cuba 4-1 and that really opened some eyes. What was that run like in 2017?
The Team Israel team had a lot of qualities that the 2013 Red Sox team had. We had a chip on our shoulder and were setting out to prove everyone wrong. We were called “The Jamaican Bobsled Team of baseball” and people said we had no business even being in the tournament. ESPN said that we perfectly filled out the cast of the Bad News Bears. We went out and proved them wrong.
It’s so awesome that you guys were able to do that. That ties into your new kid’s book, Baseball and Belonging. I have a few questions about your book. First, let’s start off with your motivation for writing the book. How did that come about?
I didn’t set out to write the book, it kind of just happened. I do public speaking with corporate audiences and was sharing these stories with adult audiences in the faith-based community and in the corporate world and kept hearing that people loved the message and that I should share it with a younger audience as well. A lot of people when they’re young go through an experience where they don’t belong and don’t know who they want to be yet. It’s a tough time in everyone’s life. If my story can be an example that even helps one person to do what they love and find a community that they feel they’re a part of, then that’s what the book is all about and what I hope it brings to the world.
It’s such a great message and you’re right, we all go through it. If an adult was going to give this book to a youngster to read, is there anything he or she should say to that kid to help him understand the message of the book and where is it available?
My story is about finding where I belonged in the Jewish community. My hope is that the message is universal. Regardless of what your community is and regardless of whether you love baseball or something else, I hope they can see themselves in the character in the book. It’s about following your passion, following your passion and doing what you love and finding people you love doing it with. The book is available everywhere, but if you buy it through my website, ryanlavarnway.com, you will get a signed copy of the book.