Ryan Lavarnway looks out from behind home plate
ProfileMLB catcher recounts personal journey

Ryan Lavarnway looks out from behind home plate

Given his commitment to the game, his fans and faith, Pittsburgh Pirates player is true mensch on the bench.

Ryan Lavarnway’s time with Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and late season play for the 2018 Pirates has inspired legions of fans.

(Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Pirates)
Ryan Lavarnway’s time with Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and late season play for the 2018 Pirates has inspired legions of fans. (Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Pirates)

In baseball, crouching behind home plate gives the catcher a unique view of what is at play. Ryan Lavarnway, a member of the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates who represented Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, has an even clearer perspective. A decade after being drafted by the Boston Red Sox, the Jewish catcher who made a September splash with the Pirates recognizes being a role model is more than mentoring young prospects; it is about representing a community, a country and sometimes even a people.

On Sept. 4, Lavarnway, 31, who had spent the bulk of the season with the Indianapolis Indians, Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate, was called up to play. Over the course of six games with the Pirates, he recorded six at-bats, four hits, one run and an RBI. The highlight of Lavarnway’s big league play may have been his second major league at-bat of the season, when, as a pinch-hitter, he drove in the winning run with a walk-off single in the 11th inning, leading to a 2-1 Pirates victory over the Kansas City Royals.

“It was really a great opportunity for me,” Lavarnway said of his late season performance. “The last few years I’m not the highly sought after prospect that I once was, but Pittsburgh gave me the free agent opportunity.”

Early on, the organization was clear: “They would like to see what I had and how I could help the younger guys develop, and that was kind of going to be my role,” said Lavarnway. “And if I played well then that could change, but coming in they didn’t anticipate a ton of playing time, and I appreciate their honesty with that.”

At the end of the season, the Pirates “were really excited. They said, ‘Thank you for filling the role we asked you to fill,’ and they noticed that my play exceeded the expectations [that] they had when I came in.”

Lavarnway, center, is celebrated by teammates after his walk-off single against the Kansas City Royals.

Lavarnway and his fans hope there is much more baseball left for the Yale-educated slugger who in 2007 won the NCAA batting title with a .467 batting average and a .873 slugging percentage (along with his 25-game hitting streak, an Ivy League record).

“I’m hoping the opportunity is there to continue with the Pirates,” said the elder statesman. “We’ll see what happens.”

While the offseason brings unknown developments, more certain is Lavarnway’s place within Jewish baseball lore. As a member of Team Israel in last year’s World Baseball Classic, Lavarnway helped lead a 41st-ranked squad that defeated the third-ranked South Korea and fourth-ranked Taiwan teams. Lavarnway’s heroics, as well as the personalities and play of his teammates, were showcased in a 91-minute documentary titled, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel” (2018).

Apart from film festivals throughout the country, “Heading Home” was featured last month at the 123rd annual meeting of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

“Getting to see this movie a year and a half later, for me it kind of gave me the chills and the feeling that what we did kind of meant more, a lot more, than baseball to a lot of people,” said Lavarnway. “I’m really, really proud not only of the way that we played but the way we handled ourselves as men and as Jewish players in this game, because there’s not a lot of us.”

Over the course of making the film — following the team from its Brooklyn, N.Y., qualifier through its Asia tournament play, Jonathan Mayo, one of the film’s producers and an MLB.com reporter from Pittsburgh, spent increasing time with Lavarnway.

“One of the things I learned when making a documentary, especially with the major characters, is you do get to know them,” said Mayo. Lavarnway is “an incredibly smart and thoughtful person. His willingness to explore what that experience of going to Israel and playing for Team Israel meant for him was really impressive to me.”

Ryan Lavarnway, left, and Jonathan Mayo: “The experience of getting to play for Team Israel was a life-changing experience for me,” said Ryan Lavarnway, catcher for Team Israel featured in the film “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” Lavarnway, who grew up in a nonobservant home, added that “being embraced by the whole Jewish Community as part of Team Israel helped me in finding the connection to Judaism in myself.” (Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh)

Looking back on it, “one of the coolest parts for me was to see the younger kids and kind of understand that while I had baseball players to look up to growing up, I didn’t have Jewish baseball players to look up to as much,” said Lavarnway. “I think that one of the coolest things was when we had the qualifier in Brooklyn, you had a bunch of yeshivas and a bunch of kids in yarmulkes all waving Israeli flags, and you could tell that they had been kind of craving someone that they could relate to, someone that they could root for.”

The benefit went both ways.

“I grew up in a household where religion was not important and my parents never pressured me in any way,” he said. “We never went to synagogue, we didn’t go to church. My dad is a disenchanted Catholic, so they really just let me find my own identity, and in a lot of ways I didn’t have one. And then the way that I felt and the way that the Jewish community really embraced the team and myself, I really felt a sense of community that filled a hole inside of me that I really didn’t know existed.

“Now I am really, really proud to be a member of the Jewish community, whereas before I was more of a passive member,” added Lavarnway, a member with his wife Jamie of Temple Emanuel in Denver. “Now I feel I’m more of an active member … an actively proud member of the Jewish community.”

Among the ranks of great Jewish players, Lavarnway is not out to displace Sandy Koufax. For him, it’s more about modernizing the idea that “Jewish people can play baseball.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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