Ryan Lavarnway Hits Home Run with Baseball Book for Jewish Kids

Ryan Lavarnway, still playing baseball for Team Israel, is out with an inspirational book for Jewish children.Photo byKeith Allison, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

By Dan Schlossberg During his 10-year career in the major leagues, Ryan Lavarnway was never more than a backup catcher, hitting .217 with nine home runs for eight different teams. Though out of the majors since 2021, he’s been an integral part of Team Israel, which he joined for the World Baseball Classic in 2017. He says that affiliation changed his life. A Californian drafted off the Yale campus by the Boston Red Sox in 2008, he found new life with Team Israel — for whom he chose uniform No. 36 because that number signifies “double life” in Jewish tradition. “When I played for the WBC team in 2017, that was a really life-changing experience for me,” Lavarnway, 36, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I didn’t feel a huge connection to my Judaism, to any religion, or to the community at all. Playing for Team Israel, I felt that for the first time.” Now he’s trying to change the lives of others through a new children’s book entitled Baseball and Belonging, illustrated by Chris Brown, in which the journeyman catcher talks about life, his career in pro sports, and how a call from Israel helped him rekindle his Judaism. Lavarnway, whose mother is Jewish but father is Catholic, was pushed in neither direction. His parents let him choose. But thinking he was half-and-half made him feel like he was neither. Now, with a Jewish wife and a whole new family from Team Israel, Lavarnway has chosen. The World Baseball Classic allows players to represent countries where they are eligible for citizenship. That means Jewish ballplayers can play for Team Israel even if they were citizens of another country, such as the United States. That worked well for Lavarnway, who was named MVP of Team Israel’s division in the first round after it won its first four games — all against higher-ranked countries. Only a loss to Japan in the second round knocked the tenacious underdog out. Team Israel catcher Ryan Lavarnway, right, enjoys a moment during a pregame warmup with Team Israel bullpen coach Alon Leichman. Credit: Hillel Kuttler Lavarnway had never been to Israel before going there to play baseball. His book features illustrations of sites he has seen, including the Dead Sea, Western Wall, and Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. It also includes his excitement about Israeli kids treating the players of Team Israel like superstars and the euphoria of entertaining Jewish fans. The book contains pages of information about Israel, its most significant sites, and its baseball program — which once featured a six-team Israel Baseball League with retired Jewish major-leaguers Ron Blomberg, Art Shamsky, and Ken Holtzman as managers. Lavarnway got the idea for the book after question-and-answer sessions following the release of the 2018 documentary Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel. The film depicted the team’s surprising success in the previous year’s World Baseball Classic. After audiences urged the former big-leaguer to share his stories of meeting Israelis, leaning about the country, and discovering his own Judaism, he began a college speaking tour. “I think that was a great audience to hear [my story] because college students are deciding who they want to be and deciding who they want to develop in their community,” Lavarnway said. “It’s a transformational time in their lives. And [for me] that was a really transformational experience.” The college tour prompted an idea from Rabbi Joe Black, who heads Lavarnway’s congregation in Denver, to craft a children’s book. For someone who had never authored a book before, the concept came out of left field. After striking out in his first few attempts, all rejected by publishers, he finally found the formula — after reading children’s books to his own daughter. The key for the catcher was keeping it simple. “I think the concept of religion is over most children’s heads, especially the younger audience,” Lavarnway told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But what they can relate to, and what is universal, is doing what you love and feeling loved. If I really had to boil down the message, that’s what it is: doing what you love, and finding somewhere where you can feel loved.” Peter Kurz, general manager of Team Israel, first recruited Lavarnway in 2017 and calls him “a tremendous inspiration to Israeli players for the last seven years.” Kurz calls Lavarnway “a true team leader” and “true friend,” and adds that he named the catcher Team Israel’s first official captain two months ago. When his playing days are over, the veteran would be welcome to coach for Team Israel, the GM adds. Although his days in the U.S. majors are over, Lavarnway will play for Team Israel in the European Championships next month. He’s hoping things go better than they did in the 2023 WBC, in which Team Israel won just one game before elimination. In addition to the World Baseball Classic, Lavarnway appeared with Team Israel in the 2020 Olympics, which required him to obtain Israeli citizenship [he now holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship]. Playing for Team Israel, according to Lavarnway, has been “an experience that changed my life.” Earlier this year, he told JTA, “I don’t have a future in playing the game, but I’m so excited to be a member of this team, and what we’ve done with the program and with the whole sport in the country.” Lavarnway still has a connection to the U.S. majors: he’s does pre and post-game analysis for the Colorado Rockies. In his spare time, he continues speaking at schools and colleges. That leaves little time for writing but Lavarnway doesn’t rule it out. “I don’t know that I’ll make a habit out of making children’s books,” he says. “But this felt like something I needed to do.” Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the author of 40 baseball books and writer for forbes.com, Memories & Dreams, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and other outlets. Email him via ballauthor@gmail.com.

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