Slice of Life

Israeli-American baseball player recalls team’s Olympic performance in Chabad House

Louis Platt | Culture Editor

SU junior and Chabad co-president Noah Wagner moderated Lavarnway’s talk.

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Ryan Lavarnway traveled to Israel for the first time in 2017 to be in the documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” about the Israeli National Baseball team and the team’s quest to its first World Baseball Classic.

The Major League Baseball player called this trip to Israel with his Team Israel teammates their “baseball birthright” while he spoke Tuesday night at Syracuse University’s Chabad House.

Chabad hosted the 10-year MLB veteran catcher for a nearly hour-long discussion moderated by Chabad’s co-president and SU junior Noah Wagner. Lavarnway discussed his MLB career, getting his dual Israeli-American citizenship and playing for Team Israel in the 2017 World Baseball Classic and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Wagner, a sports management major, reached out to about 15 Jewish athletes on social media in late August, he said. Lavarnway replied almost immediately to Wagner’s Instagram message, the junior said, and the catcher showed immediate interest — asking the SU student to hop on a call soon after connecting on Instagram.


The two also share a favorite position on the field: catcher. For Wagner, hosting Lavarnway at Chabad made sense since he could relate through their experiences as play-callers behind the plate.

“Ryan was one of the top people in my mind,” Wagner said. “He’s a catcher… (and) when I was growing up, I was a catcher. So it kind of made sense to me.”

Lavarnway and Wagner started messaging each other and chatting on the phone frequently to organize the event throughout September and October, the junior said. The two have developed a friendship over the last two months through their passion for baseball and strong connections to Judaism, even going to dinner together at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que the night before this event.

Lavarnway’s connection to Judaism has grown considerably since joining Team Israel and becoming a dual Israeli-American citizen so he could play on the team during the Olympics. He said he coincidently chose the jersey number 36 — 18 is considered a lucky number in Judaism — when he joined Team Israel and his catcher gear for the team has a gray outline of the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life.”

Early in the evening, Wagner poked fun at Lavarnway for mentioning the baseball player is fifth all time for most teams played on by an MLB player, ever.

“(Wagner) likes to make it into a nice compliment that I’ve played for the fifth most teams all time, which are 11 teams,” Lavarnway said. “But, my comeback to that is if I’d played better, I could have played for one team for a lot longer and been a lot richer man.”

The 34-year-old catcher mentioned that his agents warned him for the last five years that he is getting too old, not making a strong enough case for himself in the MLB and he shouldn’t be surprised if no teams offer him a contract the next time he’s a free agent. Nevertheless, Lavarnway is grateful to have played parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues.

Ryan Lavarnway

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway first traveled to Israel in 2017 for a documentary. Courtesy of Ryan Lavarnway

“I felt like a cat with nine lives,” he said.

The resilience that Lavarnway alluded to throughout the night is something he noticed his teammates tapped into during their surprising WBC performance to the quarterfinals.

For Team Israel to qualify for the 2017 WBC, they participated in a 16-team competition in 2016, where only four teams would advance. As the lowest ranked team in the tournament, expectations were low, but Lavarnway said the team felt like they had home field advantage playing in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

“The thing that stood out to me most was there were all these little yeshiva kids that came to the game,” Lavarnway recalled. “And they finally had someone to root for that had something in common with them.”

The team president, Peter Kurz, had the idea that the team would swap their baseball caps for yarmulke during the Israeli national anthem. Lavarnway remembered the positive responses he got from the Jewish community.

“People couldn’t get over the fact that we finally have some whole team to root for,” he said.

In the WBC, the team came one win shy of advancing to the semifinals, but the performance boosted them to 24th in the world rankings, where they currently sit. When the Olympics came around this year, Lavarnway said he almost skipped them because he was called up to the major leagues three weeks prior to the start of the games.

When the Cleveland Guardians sent him back down to the minors before the games started, his Team Israel teammates sent him cheerful messages since it meant he could participate in Tokyo, the catcher recalled.

Team Israel fell short of a bronze medal due to an injury to their top starting pitcher, Lavarnway said. But he called the Olympic Games a once-in-a-lifetime experience, literally, because baseball will not be in the next Summer Olympics. If the sport returns to the 2028 Olympics and Team Israel makes it to the game again, the Israeli-American baseball player alluded to his interest in coaching the team.

At the end of the night, Lavarnway stuck around to sign yarmulkes and shake hands. One guest asked Lavarnway if he’d ever signed a yarmulke before, hoping he’d be the first.

Lavarnway chuckled and said, “I’ve signed a few before, but never an orange one.”


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