baseball

Original article published in the JNS

A 6-foot-2 right-hander from California currently pitching for Louisiana State University, he was the 160th overall pick in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball draft.

If everything goes according to plan, Eric Reyzelman may become the most Jewishly connected and affiliated Major League baseball player in history. Of course, there is a long road ahead for the friendly, hard-throwing 21-year-old Californian recently drafted by the New York Yankees. But to date, his Jewish credentials are almost as impressive as his pitching ones; the list of accomplishments already includes Hebrew school, bar mitzvah, a family trip to Israel and naches shepped (Jewish pride enjoyed) by parents and grandparents.

Reyzelman, a 6-foot-2 right-hander currently pitching for Louisiana State University (LSU), was the 160th overall pick in the fifth round of the draft on July 18. He spoke with the JNS from Tampa, Fla., where he will begin his Major League career at the Yankees’ development facilities.

While he had hoped to be picked by a big team, he says he still finds the experience surreal. He was watching the draft in a restaurant with his family and some close friends: “It was one of the craziest moments of my life. It was unreal. I was surrounded by those who got me here!”

He reports that the TV was delayed at the time, and he actually began getting calls from an “area scout” and friends before he received the official word from the Yankees. “I took my time enjoying the news,” he says, “and then they told us we’d be flying to Tampa in a day.”

Reyzelman notes that packing on short notice was no problem; after all, he quipped, “I have been living out of a suitcase for the past two years—going from San Francisco [SF Dons of the West Coast Conference] to LSU to Southern California to the Cape Cod League [Harwich Mariners] to LSU to Southern California to Cape Cod!” His mother, chiropractor Victoria Reyzelman, accompanied him and helped him get settled in Tampa. He says he works out daily from 8:30 a.m. until midafternoon.

Reyzelman and the 20 other players drafted by the Yankees will continue training at the southern facilities. “There are a ton of options to get some innings in,” says Reyzelman, who doesn’t yet know how he will spend the rest of the season. He may remain in Tampa and play in the rookie league; he may play for the Tampa Tarpons, the Minor League Baseball team and Single-A affiliate of the Yankees; or for the Hudson Valley Renegades in Fishkill, N.Y., the High-A affiliate.

Team Israel baseball at the Tokyo Olympics. Source: Team Israel Baseball/Facebook.

‘It is an unbelievable, indiscernible feeling’

Reyzelman being drafted by the Yankees is especially impressive given some of the obstacles he encountered growing up. He was cut from his high school team twice, and underwent and recovered from Tommy John (ulnar collateral ligament) surgery.

He grew up a San Francisco Giants fan, watching multiple Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum pitch. While Reyzelman enjoyed watching games, he acknowledges that “the eighth and ninth innings were the parts of the game with the most action!” Given his interest in late-game excitement, Reyzelman also loved watching Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. He also liked watching Yankee CC Sabathia pitch.

“It was an unbelievable group!” he gushes (just a bit).

The 21-year-old knows what a big deal it is to join the legendary organization and can’t wait to actually wear pinstripes. “It is an unbelievable, indiscernible feeling knowing their rich history and the number of fans they have everywhere. You say ‘Yankees’ all over the world and ears perk up. It is crazy to think I am part of this incredible organization!”

Still, Reyzelman is quick to note that his older 6-foot 5-inch, 250-pound football-playing (formerly a player at Fresno State University) brother is the “true athlete of the family.” He is also proud of his 13-year-old brother who is “obsessed with baseball.”

His parents and grandparents are relatively new arrivals on the baseball scene. While his father, Alex Reyzelman, a podiatrist, came to the United States from Moldova as a child, his mother, Victoria, a chiropractor, came to America from Ukraine (via Italy) in 1989. “My mother was here with me from the time of the signing until now; she just went back home,” he says. “My parents love it. We talk every day, and my dad loves getting updates.”

He notes that his grandparents are also enthusiastic supporters, despite arriving “late to the game,” so to speak

“My grandparents got into it when I was at the University of San Francisco [before transferring to LSU]; they started streaming every game,” he says. “Now, my grandmother who came from Moldova knows baseball and asks questions like, ‘Why was this pitcher taken out?!’ ”

Eric Reyzelman. Photo by Chris Parent/Courtesy of Louisiana State University Athletics.

‘Work ethic, determination and perseverance’

“We grew up in a pretty strong Jewish family,” reports Reyzelman, who went to Hebrew school and whose family was very active with Chabad of the Tri-Valley in Pleasanton, Calif.—some 38 miles southeast of Oracle Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there under the tutelage of Rabbi Raleigh Resnick. “We have made so many friends there and made so many connections. I am pretty sure I could pick up my Torah portion now if I reviewed it a few times!”

He credits the rabbi with connecting him to Chabad centers and rabbis in Louisiana, and now in Tampa. “After I transferred to LSU, I was trying to get involved. The rabbi in Baton Rouge went out of his way to make me feel comfortable.”

Jay Johnson, head baseball coach at LSU, is excited about Reyzelman and his future, saying “he is a true testament to work ethic, determination and perseverance. Eric had a terrific season this year for us and is really prepared to have success with the Yankees organization.”

The 21-year-old finished three years of college, studying kinesiology at San Francisco and then sports administration at LSU. He’ll be leaving to play professional ball.

The coach adds that “he has a Major League-ready fastball and the ability to add to his arsenal as he works through Minor League Baseball. I believe the best is yet to come for him as a pitcher.”

As for Reyzelman, he says he would love to don No. 18 (chai, Hebrew for “life”) on his Yankees uniform if given the chance: “That would be awesome. It was always lucky in my family and in Judaism, though I am not so big on numbers.”

He makes it a point to note that he appreciates the Jewish players who have come before him. He especially admires baseball legend, Sandy Koufax. “We all know the story. He definitely has to be one of the biggest. And I didn’t know until recently that Ian Kinsler [MLB legend and current Team Israel manager] is Jewish!”

Reyzelman has been following Team Israel and has watched (and re-watched) the 86-minute documentary about them called “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.” He says, “I know the whole team from the documentary,” and adds that he would welcome the opportunity to play for Israel’s baseball team—in fact, “I am trying to get it set up for next year.”

He also acknowledges that he would be eligible to play in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers but would need to become a citizen of Israel to potentially play in the Olympics.

Peter Kurz, general manager of Israel’s Olympic and National teams, replies that he would be thrilled to see Reyzelman one day wearing the blue and white. He is also delighted to see him playing in New York—sort of.

He notes dryly, “as a Mets fan, he should be going to Queens … .”

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Original Article Published On The Jewish News Syndicate

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe.

Joey Wagman pitched a complete game shut-out to help take down Spain in Team Israel’s first game of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation Olympics Qualifiers 3-0 in Bologna, Italy. Danny Valencia dominated the offense, batting in all three runs, including a first-inning two RBI home run.

With the loss against Spain in the last game of the European Championships only days ago still fresh, Israel came out determined to start strong against the team that left Israel in third place in Europe. And they did. In the top of the first inning, after outfielder Blake Gailen was walked, DH Valencia stepped up and crushed a homer deep into left field, immediately putting Israel ahead by two runs.

Wagman followed up on Israel’s strong offensive start by retiring Spain in order in the bottom of the first. He maintained the pressure on the Spaniards throughout the game, not giving them a foothold and allowing only three hits in the game.

In the top of the fifth inning, Zach Penprase singled to deep center field and advanced to second on a single from Mitch Glasser. Gailen singled to center field, loading the bases. A sacrifice fly to right field from Valencia added another RBI as Penprase scored Israel’s third run.

“I just pitched my game,” said Wagman in a post-game interview. “(Nick) Rickles called a great game behind home plate. We were on the same page all night. It’s a lot easier for me when I can trust him and trust the defense.”

Wagman also won the award for the pitcher with the best earned run average in the European Championships last week, after pitching 10.2 innings with an impressive zero ERA.

“Everything was great tonight,” said Valencia. “It was important to start well, and we did.” I helped the team with the RBIs, but the credit goes to Wagman, who was amazing on the mound.”

“This was a fantastic start,” says Peter Kurz, Team Israel general manager and president of the Israel Association of Baseball. “We have every intention of competing for every run over every inning of the rest of the games against Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa. Our goal is no less than winning this tournament and representing the State of Israel in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.”

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Original Article Published On the Jewish News Syndicate

The five top teams in the European Baseball Championships, plus South Africa, have advanced to the Olympic Qualifiers taking place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22.

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series in 1969, baseball was virtually unknown in Israel. Israel had come out victorious in the Six-Day War only two years earlier, the first field was built at Kibbutz Gezer in 1979, and the Israel Association of Baseball (IAB) would be established less than a decade afterwards, in 1986.

Fifty years later, the New York Mets may need to share their “miracle” nickname with Israel’s National Baseball Team. Team Israel shocked the world in last week’s European Championships and now has its sights on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Israel got off to an unexpected 4-0 start with victories over the Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and Great Britain. Israel then lost on Sept. 11 to current European champions, the Netherlands.

Israel finished second in its pool with a record of 4-1 and advanced to the quarter finals, held last Friday through Sunday in Bonn, Germany.

On Sept. 13, Israel faced France, which Pool B with three wins and two losses. Team Israel handily beat France 8-2 in the quarter finals, securing a coveted place in the Olympic Games qualifiers for this week in Italy.

But over last weekend, Israel dropped two games to Italy and Spain, finishing fourth overall in the European Championships. This was the first time that Israel has even gotten that far.

A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.
A Team Israel pitcher in its victory against France in the European Championships. Photo by Margo Sugarman.

“We faced some extremely strong teams this week,” says general manager and IAB president Peter Kurz. “The fact that we were able to beat these tough competitors is a great credit to all the players and the staff. We are ready for the next phase, and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israeli baseball in particular with pride.”

The five top teams in the European Championships, plus the already qualified South Africa, advanced to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifiers, which take in place in Parma and Bologna, Italy, through Sept. 22. Israel beat Spain on Wednesday in a 3-0 complete game by Joey Wagman. Israel now faces the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Italy and South Africa.

One Olympic spot will be awarded to the winner of the Europe-Africa qualifier tournament in Italy, which will feature the five European teams and South Africa, the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship. The second-place team in Italy will get another qualification opportunity for the Olympics in the final world qualifying event.

Continuing its storied run

The Miracle Israel Team continues its storied run, which started with the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in September 2016. Israel won all three of their games in Brooklyn, N.Y., beating Great Britain twice and Brazil once. It then advanced to Pool A, playing in South Korea in March 2017 against South Korea, Taiwan/Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands.

Israel then advanced to the second round (Pool E), playing Tokyo in March 2017. In that first game, Israel beat Cuba, then lost to the Netherlands and Japan. Israel’s storied World Baseball Classic run to the quarterfinals is chronicled in the recent documentary, “Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel.”

The team is currently qualified for the 2021 World Baseball Classic.

While the World Baseball Classic only requires that players be eligible for citizenship of the country they represent, for Olympic qualifying tournaments (and for the actual Olympics players themselves), they must be actual citizens of the country they represent. Several American Jewish players, including Valencia, Blake Gailen, Ty Kelly, Corey Baker, Jeremy Bleich and Jeremy Wolf, recently got Israeli citizenship. Most will continue to reside in America.

Despite Team Israel’s incredible success thus far, competing in the Olympics is still a distant dream. The winner of the qualifier tournament will get a bid to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The runner-up will have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo at a future qualifying event.

In an interview from Germany with JNS following the team’s Sept. 13 victory, Kurz deconstructed the meaning of the team’s recent success for Israel, as well as the experience of playing in Europe.

Q: What does the team’s recent success mean for Israel, for the players and for baseball?

A: When any Israeli sports team excels in international tournaments, it excites the country. While baseball may not yet be a mainstream sport, when Team Israel starts grabbing headlines for exceeding so many expectations, people take notice.

This is a team that has worked hard to achieve their goals. We have players who have left their wives, their young children and their full-time jobs to come and represent Israel at the tournament. They are all committed to winning.

When our teams excel abroad, the first and most palpable result is that it raises the professional level of our players in Israel. We saw this phenomenon after the excellent sixth-place result of Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic in 2017. In the two years since, our youth players have become more dedicated and have understood the need to focus on increasing their skills. In July, our Under 18 national team competed in the European Championships Qualifiers for the first time and won the tournament. The success of our Senior National Team will give our players a lot to strive for. Our teenage players now have a goal: to be a member of the SNT in the coming years.

This can only be positive for Israeli baseball. The great results of this team are also being noticed outside of the immediate community. This type of exposure increases awareness of baseball in Israel and can attract new players who may not have thought about the sport. We are building two new fields in Beit Shemesh and in Ra’anana; this will only add to the excitement we are generating here in Europe now.”

Q: Can you describe the experience of playing games these past two weeks in Europe?

A: Most of Israel Baseball’s international competition takes place in Europe. Israel is a member of the Confederation of European Baseball, or CEB. It is a tight-knit baseball community, and a good atmosphere exists between the players once the games are over. In most of Europe, baseball is also still a niche sport, so the players share a common love of it and work to support one another.

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Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

The 32-year-old catcher played for Team Israel during its run through World Baseball Classic qualifiers and tournament in 2017

Ryan Lavarnway is one of the lucky ones – if you consider switching jobs every few months on average “lucky” – though he doesn’t take his success for granted.

The 32-year-old catcher, who played for Team Israel during its stellar run through the World Baseball Classic qualifiers and tournament in 2017, has bounced around Major League Baseball, but mostly in the minors – with 10 teams in 10 years. Still, Lavarnway represents the roughly 10 percent of minor league baseball players who ever see action in the majors.

The California-born Colorado resident has been blessed with memorable moments with several major league teams, and has faced often unexpected, last-minute call-ups and cross-country moves – including three in the past month alone.

“It has been crazy!” exclaimed Lavarnway to The Jerusalem Post during a phone interview from his hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky following a Sunday game in which he went 1-for-3 for the AAA Louisville Bats in a 12-0 loss to the Toledo Mud Hens.

“One day you are in Triple-A in Scranton, Pennsylvania [for the New York Yankees]. The next day, you are in the big leagues.”

In July, Lavarnway was released by the Yankees and immediately signed with the Cincinnati Reds, where he hit two home runs and had six RBIs in his Reds’ debut on July 19, becoming the first Reds catcher to tally three hits, two homers, and six RBI in a game since the legendary Johnny Bench did it in 1973. He went 5-for-18 in five games with the team before being sent down to Cincinnati’s AAA affiliate in Louisville.

Given Lavarnway’s chaotic past month and the 140-game minor league baseball schedule, it is impressive that he was able to commit to a day and time to speak with a reporter. He was upbeat, friendly and forthcoming in recounting his exciting and fulfilling baseball journey so far.

He vividly recalled career highlights, including his first two-homer game with the Boston Red Sox, and a similarly exhilarating walk-off homer with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lavarnway also spoke fondly about his great run with Team Israel, and his amazing trip Israel.

Lavarnway was born in Burbank, California, grew up in Woodland Hills, California, and has mainly been a catcher – with stints in the outfield and first base – since his little league days. He attended Yale University in Connecticut for three years, where he juggled his academic studies with a very successful baseball experience.

Lavarnway earned Ivy Player and Rookie of the Week honors in March 2006 as a right fielder before switching to catcher full-time. In 2007, he led the NCAA in batting average (.467) and slugging percentage (.873), set the Yale single-season record in batting average, slugging percentage, home runs (14), hits (70), doubles (17), RBIs (55), and total bases (131). He also had an Ivy-League-record 25-game hitting streak and won the G.H. Walker, Jr. Award as Most Valuable Player.

In his junior year in 2008, Lavarnway led the Ivy League in home runs (13), RBIs (42), walks (29), slugging percentage (.824), and on-base percentage (.541), while batting .398. He missed the last 11 games of the year after breaking a bone in his left wrist while diving into home plate in April. He finished his three-year college career with a .384 batting average, 33 home runs, and 122 RBIs in 120 games, and he became the Ivy League’s all-time leader in career home runs.

Lavarnway left Yale 11 credits short of graduation as he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox. He played at every level of the minors within the Red Sox organization –from the Class A South Atlantic League Greenville Drive, to the Class A+ Carolina League Salem Red Sox, to the Class AA Eastern League Portland Sea Dogs. He racked up many honors, including 2010 Red Sox co-Minor League Offensive Player of the Year. Lavarnway spent the 2011 season between the AA Portland Sea Dogs and the AAA Pawtucket Red Sox.

Lavarnway got his first big break on August 18, 2011 when he was called up to the Red Sox; fellow Jewish player, Kevin Youkilis, went on what was then called the disabled list (now known as the “injured list”). He got his first major league hit the next day, and started for the Red Sox on September 27. Lavarnway still proudly remembers this game as he hit his first two major league home runs and had four RBIs in an 8–7 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

Lavarnway returned to the minors and again saw action with the Red Sox on August 1, 2012, when he was called up from the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. Lavarnway and fellow Yalie, fellow Jew (and in 2017, Team Israel battery mate), Craig Breslow, were Boston Red Sox teammates during part of the 2012 season. Lavarnway returned to Pawtucket where he was named best power prospect in the International League as well as the 2012 International League All Star starting catcher.

Lavarnway continued to be part of the Red Sox organization through 2014. In June, he had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his left wrist. He was designated for assignment in November, and his dizzying “see-the-country” baseball career continued as he was claimed off waivers in the winter, first by the Los Angeles Dodgers, then by the Chicago Cubs, and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles – his fourth team in 18 days. He played 10 games with the Orioles early in the 2015 season, then chose to become a free agent over accepting a minor league position in the Orioles’ organization.

He signed a minor-league contract with the Atlanta Braves in May 2015 and had 49 plate appearances for AAA Gwinnett before being called up to the majors. He was released by the Braves in May 2016. Lavarnway signed a minor-league contract with the Oakland Athletics, started the season with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, and was called up to Oakland in July. He played in one game – covering for a catcher on paternity leave – and then returned to the minors before being called up again by the A’s on July 27. He was designated for assignment in August and chose to become a free agent at the end of the season.

Lavarnway continued to find major league clubs interested in him. In January 2018, Lavarnway signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he had a decent 77 games for Triple-A Indianapolis before being called up to Pittsburgh on September 4. He had four hits in six at bats.

In November, Lavarnway again became a free agent – and was again picked up by another club. The New York Yankees signed him to a minor-league contract for the 2019 season, where he played with AAA Scranton, before being released July 18, and rushing off to Cincinnati. The next day, he hit two home runs for his new team.

Lavarnway continues to enjoy the excitement of playing baseball – and the potential to be called up for that dream moment.

“I am with my 10th organization since 2014,” he said. “I go where the job is, I don’t think about it. Every time I am called up – that’s what makes it worth it. Hopefully, I will help get a team to the World Series – it is an opportunity I don’t take for granted.”

Lavarnway feels his experience over so many years in different organizations and at different levels has made him a “quick-learn” on the job.

“It helps that I’ve been around a while and have so much experience catching different types of pitchers. I can catch guys I’ve never seen before, and I can build trust with new pitchers.”
As Lavarnway looks back on the 11 years since leaving Yale, he is proud of his professional and personal accomplishments.

He reported that he and his wife of six years, Colorado native Jamie Neistat Lavarnway, have gotten used to the “ups and downs.” She has had jobs in each town, has written a food blog in the past [“The Fork and Knife of a Baseball Wife”on cookinginredsocks.com] and has most recently done volunteer work in animal rescue in Nashville.

“It is hard to find something portable,” notes Lavarnway, indicating that Jamie has done an amazing job coordinating their personal travel and professional moves and “could be an excellent travel secretary” for a baseball team.

Ryan and Jamie love to travel and try new restaurants.

“We are trying to cross off the top 50 restaurants in the world,” reports Lavarnway. They recently visited the well-known Israeli restaurant in Paris, L’As du Fallafel (“it was so good!”). Next up on the Lavarnway’s off-season travel agenda is Thailand.

“In each city, [Jamie] finds the best restaurants for us to explore.” Lavarnway truly appreciates how fortunate he is to have a job with a long off-season. “We have a great life-where else can you have four months to travel?!”

The Lavarnways’ travels have also taken them to Israel, though that trip, with other members of Team Israel, was different from the others—Ryan recalls it as being “life changing.”

The blue-and-white’s impressive run in the World Baseball Classic and the team’s trip to Israel, was chronicled in the recent film, “Heading Home.” Lavarnway – who served as Team Israel’s starting catcher, went 8-for-18 (.565) with two doubles, a home run, and six RBIs, while walking five times – loved the movie.

“They did an amazing job, and it’s cool that a moment that was so important in my life is on video so I can relive it.”

Lavarnway can barely contain his excitement when speaking about the trip to Israel. While he always thought of himself as Jewish (his mother is Jewish and his father is not) and connected to the religion in his youth, he proudly stated that “the Team Israel experience and going to Israel helped me find my Jewish identify and reaffirm my own Jewishness.”

Lavarnway never got to participate on a Birthright Israel trip as he was busy playing baseball each summer. He refers to the Team Israel trip as “our baseball Birthright.” He especially enjoyed “seeing Israel, feeling the love, and seeing the people,” and liked learning about Jewish and Israeli history.

The Lavarnways continue to be connected Jewishly and are members of Temple Emanuel in Denver.

Lavarnway still feels very connected to Team Israel and to Israel Baseball.

“Our goal is for Israel Baseball to continue to grow. We didn’t want to just be a one-time WBC highlight. We wanted to grow the game internationally and domestically. Our whole goal was to get homegrown Israeli baseball players to keep playing at the highest level.”

While Lavarnway is willing to consider future involvement with the team as it works to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, he notes that he “hope[s] to be on a big league team in September – that is when the qualifiers are. But if I’m not, I’m totally willing to participate.”

Lavarnway loves baseball and hasn’t given much thought to life beyond. As he playfully commented, “Plan B distracts from Plan A.” While completing college is not itself a Plan B, he is taking steps in that direction. Lavarnway said that Yale has recently begun offering credit for online courses. Despite his busy 2019 baseball season, he recently completed two courses – Movie Physics and The Genius Course. “I just submitted my final paper for two Yale credits – I am now two credits closer to graduation,” though he still has seven more classes to complete to earn his degree.

For now, Lavarnway will focus on the rest of the baseball season – and dream of the call-up which may bring him back to the majors for a pennant race and another twist in his whirlwind tale.

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