(JTA) — When Ryan Lavarnway joined Team Israel for the World Baseball Classic in 2017, the journeyman catcher chose jersey no. 36 not because of the number stitched onto the back, but because the shirt fit him best.
But in the years since that tournament, any time Lavarnway has represented Israel, he’s stuck with 36, which holds meaning as a multiple of 18, a number that signifies life in Jewish tradition.
That choice is emblematic of Lavarnway’s experience with Team Israel, one that he says has changed his life. It’s also the inspiration for a new children’s book, which hits shelves today, written by the recently retired member of the 2013 World Series champion Boston Red Sox.
In “Baseball and Belonging,” illustrated by Chris Brown, Lavarnway chronicles his life, athletic career and how a call from Israel’s burgeoning baseball program helped him find his Judaism.
“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, to the community at all. Through playing for Team Israel, I felt that for the first time.”
In the book, Lavarnway wrote that growing up in an interfaith family — his mother is Jewish and his father is Catholic — left him feeling lost.
“His parents let him choose his path,” Lavarnway writes early in the book, which is narrated in rhyme in the third person. “They said, ‘You can be either.’ But thinking he was half and half made him feel like he was neither.”
When Israel recruited him to join the 2017 team — the WBC allows players to represent countries where they are eligible for citizenship — Lavarnway writes that it was “the answer to his dreams.”
He tells the story of Israel’s Cinderella run in that tournament, during which the team won its first four games, all against higher-ranked countries. Lavarnway was named MVP of Israel’s group in the first round. The team exited the tournament in the second round after a loss to Japan.
In the book, Lavarnway also shares his experience traveling to Israel for the first time with the team, including illustrations of his visits to famous sites like the Western Wall, the Dead Sea and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
He writes about meeting Israeli kids — who he says treated the players like superstars — and playing in front of Jewish fans. “By representing Israel, Ryan played for something more,” he writes.
At the end of the book, Lavarnway includes three pages of information about Israel, its baseball program and sites the book mentions.
“Playing with Team Israel, was just the very start,” reads the last page of the book. “Ryan found where he belonged, on the field and in his heart.”
Much like Lavarnway’s journey to Team Israel, his experience writing his first book was not a straightforward one. The idea first began when Lavarnway participated in Q&A sessions surrounding the 2018 documentary “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel,” about the team’s unexpected success in the previous year’s WBC.
Audience members encouraged Lavarnay to share his story of learning about Israel, meeting its citizens and discovering his connection to Judaism, and he began speaking on college campuses.
“I think that’s a great audience to hear it because college students are deciding who they want to be and deciding who they want to develop as their community,” Lavarnway said. “It’s a really transformational time of their lives. And this was a really transformational experience.”
From there, he received a suggestion from his rabbi, the popular Jewish musician and rabbi Joe Black, who leads a Reform congregation in Denver, where Lavarnway lives: why not turn his story into a children’s book?
Lavarnway had never written a book before, much less a kids’ one. So just like facing a new pitcher for the first time, it took a few tries to get it right.
Lavarnway began work on the book in early 2021. His first few drafts were turned away by publishers, and he put the project aside.
Then he and his wife, who is also Jewish, had a daughter.
“I was reading stories to her at night, and I found a few that I gravitated towards, that I read the same books over and over because I really loved them,” Lavarnway said. “And I started to pay attention to the structure of the book, and then I had a lightbulb moment of, ‘Oh, mine is nothing like this.’ Which means that my book was probably not very good — the first two iterations of it.”
After becoming more familiar with the structure and rhyme schemes of the children’s books he enjoyed, he took another crack at his own. He said the key was simplifying the story.
“I think the concept of religion is over most children’s heads, especially the younger audience,” Lavarnway said. “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.”
Lavarnway said when he first joined Team Israel in 2017, he did so because “it was an amazing baseball opportunity.” The catcher played for eight Major League teams from 2011-2021 in a career that saw him move between the majors and the minors, and he played 25 regular season games for Boston in their 2013 championship season.
After his experience in the 2017 WBC, Lavarnway would go on to play for Team Israel in the 2020 Olympics — for which he obtained Israeli citizenship — and the 2023 WBC, in which Israel won one game before eventually being eliminated. He will suit up again for Israel at the European Championships next month.
Peter Kurz, the general manager of Team Israel who first recruited Lavarnway in 2017, said he has been “a tremendous inspiration to Israeli players for the last seven years.” Kurz receives his own cameo in the book and gets high praise in the acknowledgements, where Lavarnway writes that the GM gave him “an experience that changed my life.”
Kurz called Lavarnway “a true team leader” and “true friend,” and said he named the catcher as Team Israel’s first official captain two months ago. Upon Lavarnway’s retirement in March, Kurz said that when his playing days are over, the veteran would be welcome as a coach for Team Israel.
“All that I can say is that Ryan was the ultimate professional, going about his work in a joyful and experienced manner,” Kurz told JTA earlier this year. “He was and is dedicated to Team Israel and was our ultimate warrior. But he was also warm and funny and emotional, and those are wonderful traits.”
Lavarnway said playing for Team Israel has taken on meaning beyond his love of the game itself.
“It’s no longer a baseball opportunity for me at all,” he said. “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.”
As his debut book is released, Lavarnway isn’t sure if he has a future as a writer. He recently joined the Colorado Rockies’ broadcast team, where he offers analysis during pre- and post-game coverage. He also speaks at schools and synagogues.
“I don’t know that I’ll make a habit out of making children’s books,” he said. “But this felt like something I needed to do.”