A waste of an Ivy League education? Tigers’ Ryan Lavarnway begs to differ

Detroit News
Ryan Lavarnway, 34, Yale educated, is entering his 15th season of professional baseball. He will be starting the season with the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo. The Tigers are his 13th organization. He has put the ‘journey’ into journeyman and the question he gets asked over and over is, why? Here is his answer:

As spring training comes to a close and I head to Toledo to play my 15th summer of professional baseball, I am grateful to the Tigers’ Organization for giving me another chance. I’m excited the lockout is over and we get to play baseball again.

You may or may not have heard of me. My name is Ryan Lavarnway and I’ve been bouncing around chasing my dream for a decade and a half. Odds are I’ve played for a team you love, and also a team you hate. The Tigers are the 11th MLB team uniform I will be wearing, and my contract has been owned by 13 different teams. It’s been one heck of a journey, but it has not been smooth sailing. I’ve been sent down, traded or released 24 times.

But smooth sailing or not, I love playing baseball. I really do. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. “Why do I love playing baseball” you ask?

I love being “one of the guys” and the camaraderie that comes with playing 162 games together, working together toward a common goal. I love the competition and that baseball demands the best of what you have that day, even when you aren’t at your best. I love that the underdog always has a chance until the last out is made and that it’s not always the biggest, strongest, fastest athlete that wins.

I love that I have something in common with every kid in the stands. And I love when older folks tell me stories about their ‘glory days.’ I even love when I’m on a plane and I can look out the window and see ballfields scattered across the cities below. I imagine the games being played and the memories being made on those fields.

After last season ended, as I drove across the country toward my home in Denver with an apartment’s worth of belongings stuffed in the back of the car, I thought about the season and how I could have never imagined how it unfolded.

It wasn’t until two days after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training that I got the call to join the Cleveland Indians. I made the taxi squad for Opening Day. Then, it was back to the Covid-era “alternate site,” which turned into AAA. I got a one-week call-up to Cleveland in June before heading back to the Columbus Clippers.

Then, I was suddenly flying to Tokyo to play for Team Israel at the Olympics. When I returned from Japan, I headed back to AAA Columbus, contracted Covid-19 from a teammate and after my 10-day protocol, was activated straight back up to the big leagues with Cleveland for two weeks. Then finished up the season in AAA. Up, down, up, down, up, and then down again. What a ride!

Truth is, the 2021 season was more similar than dissimilar to all the other seasons of my career. Since 2008 when I was drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of Yale University, I have only finished the season with the same team I started it with once. And that was during my first full season, for the Low-Class A Greenville Drive of the Carolina League in 2009.

As a kid, when I imagined what it might be like making it to the big leagues, I envisioned buying a house and becoming a part of the community in the city where I played. Suffice to say, that hasn’t happened.

I’ve heard people say: “Getting to the big leagues is the easy part. Staying is the hard part.” I didn’t get it. Getting to the big leagues seemed impossibly hard. How could that be the easy part?

I started to understand when I got sent up and down eight times over four years with the Red Sox from 2011 to 2014. Luckily I got to be a part of that unforgettable 2013 World Series team!

And after that, it got even more complicated.

Since I left the Red Sox in 2014, I’ve played for or had my contract controlled by 12 different MLB organizations: (Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins, Cleveland Indians, and now the Detroit Tigers).

However, most of my time has been spent in the minors with — get ready for this list — the Lowell Spinners, Greenville Drive, Salem Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs, Peoria Javelinas, Pawtucket Red Sox, Bravos de Margarita (Venezuelan Winter League), Gulf Coast League Red Sox, Gwinnett Braves, New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Nashville Sounds, Indianapolis Indians, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, Louisville Bats, Columbus Clippers and now the Toledo Mud Hens.

In that world, you never know what’s going to happen.

The craziest turn of events happened in 2019 when the day after I got released from the Yankees’ AAA club in Scranton, I was back in the big leagues with Cincinnati. I was in the starting lineup and drove in six runs to break the Reds franchise record for RBIs in a debut game. At the time, all I felt was a huge sense of gratitude for the opportunity to be back in the big leagues. I remember thinking, “This almost doesn’t seem real. I feel like a cat with nine lives.”

Two weeks later, I was sent down to AAA Louisville and subsequently traded to Columbus on a day that those two teams were playing against each other. I walked across the parking lot, moved into a new locker, took BP, and went to work again.

Since then, I’ve made it back to the big leagues with Miami in 2020 and Cleveland in 2021. If I was the cat with 9 lives in 2019, then these were perhaps my 10th and 11th lives. Staying in the big leagues is the hard part.

It isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be.

Several of the call-ups or trades throughout the years have meant that my wife, Jamie, and I had to move out of where we were living in less than 12 hours and travel across the country.

We’ve set up temporary homes in 15 states and have driven across the country more than a dozen times. I’ve slept more than 1,500 nights in hotels and spent thousands of hours on buses, planes and trains going to games.

Luckily I’ve had a great partner for the journey. A long time ago when Jamie and I were first dating, we decided to live this baseball life together, wherever it takes us. We got married and she sacrificed her chance at a career to support me so that we could be together as a family throughout the year.

One thing we say all the time in our little family is, “keep chopping wood.” As in, no matter what happens, just keep working; keep chopping wood. So anytime I get called up and my dream comes true again — keep chopping wood. And anytime I get sent down and my heart is broken a little bit — keep chopping wood. Keep working. Keep trying to get better and be ready for the next opportunity.

Recently, friends and reporters have started asking me, “What is it about baseball that keeps you coming back for more? Surely, you could go do something else with your Yale education.”

The answer is simple. I love baseball.

Special to The Detroit News

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