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  • Ryan Lavarnway

    Catcher, Team Israel

World Baseball Classic Star Ryan Lavarnway on Playing for Israel and "Heading Home"

Team Israel wasn't expected to make much noise at last year's World Baseball Classic. That was... Show more

Team Israel wasn't expected to make much noise at last year's World Baseball Classic. That was before they beat Cuba, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. In fact, this scrappy group of overachievers did the unthinkable in moving on from the "Group of Death" to the second round. Ryan Lavarnway, who hit over .560 in four games, was dominant. We talk to Ryan about baseball, Israel, and the forthcoming documentary, "Heading Home" the story of Israel's surprising and inspiring baseball team. Show less

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Ryan Lavarnway

A one-time Wold Series champion with the Red Sox, Ryan Lavarnway was the heart, soul, and engine of Team Israel.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    How did you end up playing for Team Israel? How did this amazing journey get started?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      It was basically just a phone call. There's not a ton of Jewish baseball players, so it wasn't a rigorous application process from my end. I think they had a harder time finding enough guys to fill the team. But five years ago when they tried to qualify for it the first time in 2012 or 2013, I believe, they called me and asked if I would participate. And I was all about it, I was like, "Definitely, I'll play." The qualifier was in September, so I happened to be in the big leagues that year. I wasn't able to play. But then four years later, got the same phone call, "Hey, would you be willing to participate?" I said, "Yeah, if I'm not in the big leagues, I'd love to play." And this was the first year I didn't get a call-up, so I was there, and it was fun.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      We had like a team mini camp, I guess you could call it, up in Upstate New York for the few days leading up to the qualifier. And the guys that had played four years ago spoke very powerfully about how the experience meant so much to them, and it kind of changed their relationship with Judaism, and Judaism and baseball especially, and that when they lost in the last inning of that qualifier five years ago, that it still hurt four years later, and that it was one of the more devastating losses that they had had. So them speaking so passionately, and then when we got into the qualifier, it was crazy how dead on their description was, and how we all just wanted to win so bad. And it was a little bit different than a lot of minor league baseball, because you have all the guys in the team pulling on the rope in the same direction, and there's no ego. There's no, "I wanna play a little bit more." There's no worrying about a contract. It's all just about winning. It was so pure, just about the baseball, just about the results. And then to get the victory and go to the tournament, it was a pretty special thing.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    And that's something you don't get to do very often at a professional career, not be striving toward something besides winning the next game, or winning the game that you're in, right?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Yeah. I mean, a lot of times in pro baseball, you got a guy in a contract here, you got a guy fighting a nagging injury and he's worrying if he should play. Or you have the younger guys worrying about maybe getting sent down. There's so many different things to worry about in professional baseball, where it really is... It is about the baseball, but it also can be a business at times. You have trades, you have all sorts of things, guys that are new to the team, all sorts of things. And then this World Baseball Classic, it was different, it was pure. It was pretty cool.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    I read an MLB.com article last year describing the team as, "Has-beens and never-will-bes." So expectations for the team were low. A lot of minor leaguers who no one had heard of before. What did you guys honestly think that your chances were coming into it?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      We all thought we had a chance, and I think that maybe the low expectations was a blessing in disguise maybe, because it was another thing that just rallied us around each other. And we all know that in our hearts that we're not John Carlos Stan, we're not Derek Jeter, that goes without saying. We haven't had these unbelievable careers where we get to the big leagues and never go down. At this point, I think I've been called up and sent down 13 times. Cody Decker leads the minor leagues, all of the minor leagues in home runs in the last six years, and only has 11 at bats. There's so many of these guys that, for one reason or another, the opportunity hasn't been as strong or consistent. Or maybe when the opportunity came, you hit a cold spell, where as a group, that bonded us as well. I mean, not just the Judaism, not just being a minority within baseball for that reason, but also the struggles that we all knew we didn't have to explain it to each other. We all understood where we were all coming from, from the way were raised in the Jewish households, but also within the game. So the fact that that was pointed out so... Let's say not subtly. It was just another thing that we rallied around.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    Pool A, you guys were in... I don't know if there's an equivalent for a World Cup, but it seemed like certainly the group of death, and the one that you guys were not supposed to get out of. Yet Team Israel absolutely crushed. And you were voted MVP of the pool. You've batted over 550 with an on base percentage of 692 and a ridiculous 889 slugging percentage. How did you elevate your game to this level? I mean, is this how you always play? Or was this something new for you?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      I mean, I certainly don't hit 550 every year, or I wouldn't been a has-been or a never-would-be, right? Tournaments like this are all about who's getting hot at the right time, and it's similar to the playoffs. And you talked about the Super Bowl coming up, but over the course of one game, anybody can win, that's why you play the game. And I think we got hot, the coaching staff and the organizers did a great job of bringing us together in those mini camps that we did. And we just got hot at the right time. We got over to Korea a week early, we played a couple of warm-up games against the police type of team they have there, the firefighters. I'm not exactly sure how they do it. I think everyone serves in the military, and they have some of the guys that would have gone professional but ended up having to serve for the police or the military, they have their own team. So we got a couple of warm-up games in. They play different baseball over there, so we got a little bit of a introduction to the way that we could anticipate that the national teams were gonna play. And we just got hot. And I think, once we got over to Japan, we were one win away from getting hot enough to make it to the final four, and I think a lot of us think we should have won that game, too.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    I remember very distinctly last year I would get into work early and I'd turn on my computer and there was live streaming on, I think, ESPN 3 or something. There was this group of Jewish guys on Twitter who were up super early live-tweeting everything that was happening in the game, just losing their **** honestly.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      I think in order to win, you have to be able to visualize yourself winning ahead of time. And we definitely did that. As much as the mass media had us as the big losers of the tournament beforehand, there were a couple of media members that actually scouted the teams and gave us more favorable odds, I think. Instead of just reading Israel is 65,000th in the world, whatever. So we had an idea that Taiwan maybe wasn't bringing the best squad they possibly could have put together, and that maybe the Korean team was getting a little bit older. And we were certainly better than we were getting credit for, not just in our own heads, but in the minds of other people that understood baseball. So I think we definitely had the idea that we could at least make it to Japan. And then once we got to Japan, It was another thing of, "Wow, can we wrap our heads around seeing ourselves win this thing before we actually do it?" And though that Japanese team was really good, the Netherlands team, they were a different team the second time we played them. But man, I think that next time, I think it's gonna be a lot easier to visualize ourselves making it all the way to the final now that we made it as far as we did.

    • Israel360 logo AMA Host

      So you said that when you spoke to the previous team, when you went up to the training camp, and they talked about how much it stung to lose, do you feel like you've overcome that? Or how much that it hurt to lose? And you said looking forward that you can really see yourselves winning next time.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Yeah. I can't speak for those guys that were there in 2012 or '13, whatever year that qualifier was, but for the way that they spoke so passionately about the disappointment of the first loss, I think that's how proud the rest of us are of this last tournament. We feel like we really did something special, and beyond baseball even. It just changed the conversation about Jewish people and Jewish baseball, and changed the conversation about Israel. Even if it was just for a few days or a week, just changed the conversation to a more positive light, something more constructive that brings people together, as opposed to the way that a lot of the media and a lot of the politics tend to be negative a lot of times.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      We just wanna bring positivity. And our goal was really to help grow baseball worldwide and especially in Israel. And we said it a lot during the tournament, I'd like to reiterate it right now that our main goal, as mostly American players playing for Israel, and that was a little bit controversial in itself, was we want to grow the game in Israel and we want Israeli kids that were watching the tournament or listening to it on the radio to fall in love with baseball, when maybe they hadn't played before. And then when they grow up, maybe 12 years from now, 16 years from now, those are the kids... You have a team playing for Israel, with all Israeli passports, they all grew up playing the game, and maybe this kids, they watched this tournament, and that's the reason they started playing baseball

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    Judaism connected you when you went up to the camp in New York, in Upstate New York. And specifically Judaism and baseball... Is there some connection there for you?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      We don't have to talk about the way we were raised, because every single one of us was at the dinner table, and our Jewish mom or Jewish grandma was like, "Hey, do you want some thirds? Do you want some fourths?" Like force-feeding us. Or embarrassing us when they drop us off from school, just like everyone. Or how on Sundays they have baseball chapel every week, and you have the kids or the players that were like, "Hey, you wanna join me for baseball chapel?"

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Oh, yeah. So like I just said about having the Jewish mom or Jewish grandma force-feeding you food, I was raised in a household that my dad was Catholic and my mom was Jewish. we had a Christmas tree in the house, and we celebrated for the presents, it was never about the religious side of it. And then we would celebrate Hanukkah with the candles. An we didn't really celebrate the miracles that have religious significance, we just celebrated it just to celebrate, just to have something to give presents for. And as I've been growing older, I kind of felt a void within myself about... I didn't really have a community that I belonged to, I didn't really feel a strong relationship with God. And I started going to temple in my senior year of high school with my friend's mom, just because she had MS, she needed someone to drive her. I was looking for a reason to go. As I got into Yale, I started joining small religious groups, whatever, to explore my own relationship with religion. And then you get into pro baseball and the media training they give you is always very strongly emphasizing not to say anything controversial, or not to say anything that could be a tagline. So I always was a very private person in the media. And even my wife these days is like, "Man, your interviews in your first few years of pro ball, you were so bland. Who would ever wanna listen to that?" Because I was trying so hard to just not say anything. So playing for Team Israel was really the first time that I really broadcast in a public way my own beliefs in any form. And I feel like jumping in with two feet was really a great experience for me, and I say life-changing because I do feel more of a sense of the community of the Jewish people now, and I feel the support, and I feel... It's really just more of a feeling and a relationship that I have with understanding that the Jewish religion can't be separated from the Jewish people and the Jewish community. And I think that I finally understand that now.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    Can you talk a little bit about the Mensch on the Bench, what that was, and if you thought that that had influenced the game at all.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      I don't know the influence maybe the game, as far as the movie Major League with Jobu or whatever. So I had never honestly myself heard of the Elf on the Shelf, I didn't know anything about it. But Cody Decker shows up for the qualifier with this little Mensch on a Bench, basically still in the wrapper, still in the cardboard setup, and it happened to be in the locker next to me in Brooklyn. And we just kind of... Guys were joking around, making the Jobu reference from the Major League movie, giving it a little Manischewitz shot to sacrifice before the game instead of whiskey. And then when we qualified, I think it was Nick Rickles, runs out of the dugout with the Mensch high over his head, and it just became a rallying point. And then I don't know how much we really thought about it, but then Cody shows up to Korea... Or I think he showed up even to Arizona for the mini camp, with a life size, six foot tall mensch. We're like, "Where in the world, Cody, did you get that?"

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    Let's switch gears a little bit, talk about the documentary that's coming out in February, Heading Home. Was this your first trip to Israel?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Oh my God, it was a whirlwind. It was unbelievable. We got to take a plus one with us, so my wife got to come with me. And she had gone on Birthright with her sister, and my sister had also did Birthright. And she was like, "This is a very different type of trip." The 10 of us went, and we basically had scheduled 16-hour days where we were trying to fit in as much of the country, as much of the history, of the learning, seeing the sights, tasting the food, meeting the people, really as we could. We spent four nights in Tel Aviv, we took a bike tour of the city, we saw the National Hall where they declared independence. We took a graffiti tour, where... This was actually cool. I don't know if this will be in the movie or not, one of their most famous graffiti artists, Solomon, had almost done a paint by numbers piece of graffiti, and he had us fill in his holes, because obviously none of us are strong graffiti artists. And we got there, we're not really sure what it is, but it ends up, when we fill it in and then he cleans up our mistakes, it was a beautiful graffiti mural of Sandy Koufax wearing the Team Israel hat.

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Oh my God, it was a whirlwind. It was unbelievable. We got to take a plus one with us, so my wife got to come with me. And she had gone on Birthright with her sister, and my sister had also did Birthright. And she was like, "This is a very different type of trip." The 10 of us went, and we basically had scheduled 16-hour days where we were trying to fit in as much of the country, as much of the history, of the learning, seeing the sights, tasting the food, meeting the people, really as we could. We spent four nights in Tel Aviv, we took a bike tour of the city, we saw the National Hall where they declared independence. We took a graffiti tour, where... This was actually cool. I don't know if this will be in the movie or not, one of their most famous graffiti artists, Solomon, had almost done a paint by numbers piece of graffiti, and he had us fill in his holes, because obviously none of us are strong graffiti artists. And we got there, we're not really sure what it is, but it ends up, when we fill it in and then he cleans up our mistakes, it was a beautiful graffiti mural of Sandy Koufax wearing the Team Israel hat.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    Did the trip help bond the team? Did it contribute to your success on the field, do you think?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Definitely. There was 10 of us that went and then eight of us ended up playing for the team. One was Jon Moscot, who's gonna play in four years, he just had surgery. And Gabe Kapler, who coached the team four years ago. So the eight of us that went and played on the team definitely felt a stronger connection. I feel like we felt like we were the core... Whether it was true or not, we felt like we were the core and we were kind of emanating out and trying to lead the rest of the group. But we had this amazing trip. I still keep in contact with a few of the guys, especially from that trip, and we definitely still have a group text chat going. People yesterday were asking about Super Bowl tickets. But yeah, no, the trip was unbelievable, and I can't wait to go back.

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    What was the more significant experience for you, the World Series or leading Israel in the World Baseball Classic?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      Oh, man, they're so different. Well, the World Series I didn't get the chance to play in, so as much as that was something that I've looked forward to since I was five years old and even knew what baseball was, I still have a hard time claiming responsibility for like, "I won the World Series." It's still a tough thing for me to swallow. I mean, I know I was a big part of the team, and being there was an unbelievable experience, definitely one of the coolest things I'll ever be able to do in my life. But this World Baseball Classic... To feel like I had a real impact on the games and on the team, it's just a whole different type of animal, you know?

  • Israel360 logo AMA Host

    So you've already said you'd wanna play for Team Israel again, but do you think there's some new talent coming up that could help bolster the ranks?

    • Lavarnway sq Ryan Lavarnway

      certainly hope so. There was a few not so much has-beens, there's a few major league superstars that could play for us if they chose to, and I think a few of them chose to play for Team USA. A few of them were maybe in contract years and didn't wanna make the trip during spring training, when they're trying to get ready for the season. But I hope that our success would encourage people. Because another thing is, nobody wants to volunteer to play for a loser, you know what I mean? So I really hope that our success, it kind of builds on itself and snowballs, and these guys that maybe weren't so sure are hopefully jumping at the opportunity to play for us, and we can really make a run at this thing.

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