Team Israel star looking to make impact for Pirates
Ryan Lavarnway made a splash in Israel, now coming to PGH

Team Israel star looking to make impact for Pirates

After helping lead Team Israel to several wins in the World Baseball Classic, Ryan Lavarnway's next move could be helping the Pirates make the playoffs.

Ryan Lavarnway, now with the Triple-A Indians, helped Team Israel finish a surprising sixth at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. (Photo courtesy of Adam Pinta)
Ryan Lavarnway, now with the Triple-A Indians, helped Team Israel finish a surprising sixth at the 2017 World Baseball Classic. (Photo courtesy of Adam Pinta)

After making a splash at the World Baseball Classic for Team Israel last spring, catcher Ryan Lavarnway is seeking to make an impact for the Pittsburgh Pirates as they fight for a playoff spot.

Lavarnway is currently the starting catcher for the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians. Triple-A is the highest level of minor league baseball, directly below the major leagues.

The Pirates, who find themselves in the thick of the division race after winning 11 games in a row, could call up Lavarnway in September when the team expands its active major league roster to 40 players. The catcher is hitting .285 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs for the Indians as of Wednesday, and recently competed in the Triple-A All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio.

Though his major league career prospects may be uncertain, Lavarnway’s impact on Jews around the globe arguably is not. As the team’s catcher, he led Team Israel to multiple upsets at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the country’s first appearance at the tournament.

Lavarnway helped the young squad pick up decisive wins against South Korea and Chinese Taipei, the third- and fourth-ranked teams in the world, respectively (Israel entered the tournament ranked 41st). He wound up hitting over .500 for the entire tournament and won the Pool A MVP award.

Team Israel — comprised of players who are citizens of Israel or could qualify for citizenship — ultimately fell to top-ranked Japan, finishing sixth overall at the tournament.

Prior to the WBC, the team traveled to Israel, the first trip to the Jewish state for many of the players.

“Being embraced by the Jewish community really helped me find my own spirituality,” Lavarnway said. “Being in Israel and being embraced by Jewish people around the country and by Israel, I really felt a member of the Jewish community.

“It kind of filled a hole inside of me that I didn’t even know was there, a sense of belonging,” he added.

“Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” (Photo courtesy of Film Pittsburgh)
Jonathan Mayo, a Pittsburgh-based reporter for, has taken a keen interest in chronicling Jewish baseball players throughout his career. He traveled with the team on its trip to Israel, working with Ironbound Films to produce a documentary called “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” The film, which follows the players as they tour the country, was featured at this year’s JFilm Festival and will be released nationwide on Aug. 5.

“Baseball still isn’t a big deal in Israel, though that’s changing very, very slowly,” Mayo said. “That said, the interactions Ryan and the rest of the players had with Israelis were amazing. The players were treated like rock stars and were absolutely swarmed.”

Lavarnway attended Yale University, winning the NCAA batting title his sophomore year with a .467 average. In 2008, he was drafted in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Boston Red Sox.

Just three years later, the Red Sox called up Lavarnway to its major league roster. He was never able to establish himself in the majors, though, going back and forth between the minor league and big league rosters for multiple years.

After stints with the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics, Lavarnway signed with the Pirates in January as a non-roster invitee. He competed for the backup catcher position on the major league roster, losing the spot to Elias Diaz.

(Photo from public domain)
Lavarnway said one of the benefits of the WBC is that players don’t have to worry about losing their roster spot as they would in the MLB or in the minor leagues, improving camaraderie and performance.

“Within the clubhouse and the team itself, it was different in that there was no ego, there was no worrying about getting sent up or sent down,” he said. “It was just 25 guys pulling on the same rope in the same direction, worrying about nothing but winning.

“It was very pure baseball in that sense and it was very enjoyable.”

Mayo — considered a foremost expert on the minor leagues — suggested Lavarnway could still make an impact for the Pirates, even at the age of 30.

“I really think all he needs is an opportunity to play in the big leagues again,” Mayo said. “I think he has all the tools to be a very good backup catcher at that level, but he just needs a shot to do so.” PJC

Jonah Berger can be reached at Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.

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