Ivy rivals find common ground with Sox
Marty Dobrow [ARCHIVE]
Special to ESPNBoston.com
July 19, 2011
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There has to be a better way to make a living.

Why would any intelligent person want to endure the slings and arrows of being a catcher? The fastballs redirected by foul tips into the elbow. The back swings of cleanup hitters thudding into the temple. The squat after squat after squat, grinding knees to sawdust.

And, of course, the menacing prospect of a collision. The catcher is the body at rest, often with his eyes on the ball. The runner is the body in motion, a human missile. It's an unfair showdown -- just ask Ray Fosse or Buster Posey.

So it's no surprise that the catcher's equipment has long been known as "the tools of ignorance."

How, then, do we account for the showdown at the plate playing out in these photos taken on a spring day in 2008?

The runner barreling in from third is a burly catcher -- 6-foot-4, 225 pounds -- but he's wearing a Yale University jersey. What's more, he is a philosophy major, drawn to books like "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

And the catcher bracing for the impact, an imposing physical specimen in his own right at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, sports the crimson socks of Harvard. He is a biology major who has already taken his MCAT and applied to medical school.

In this looming confrontation -- this meeting of the minds -- one thing seems clear: These guys have a big future ahead of them.

Into the future

Three years later, to greater or lesser degrees, that future is playing out. In a rough economy, both young men are, if not yet gainfully, at least employed. As fate would have it, the two collegiate rivals now work for the same company: the Boston Red Sox.

The catcher from Yale is Ryan Lavarnway. He has emerged as one of the Red Sox's top hitting prospects. One year removed from being the organization's co-offensive player of the year, he has continued to mash the ball in 2011. After hitting .284 with 14 home runs at Double-A, he was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 13. In the 26 games since, all he has done is hit .343 with seven home runs. After two home runs and a double in a Pawtucket win over the Buffalo Bisons on Sunday, Lavarnway arrived at the All-Star break with more home runs than anyone in the organization -- even at the major league level.

The catcher from Harvard, Matt Kramer, is no longer behind the plate. After three years in the low minors with the Atlanta Braves sandwiched around two stints of independent ball, the strong-armed Kramer was signed this year by the Sox -- as a pitcher. He's learning his craft with the Gulf Coast Red Sox, working on fastball command, increased extension and developing secondary pitches. Rookie league ball is a long way from the bigs, but who knows? Kramer's fastball, like many of his biology tests back in the day, has touched 97.

This year in spring training Lavarnway and Kramer were reunited in Fort Myers, Fla. They swapped stories of Ivy League baseball and got to know each other a little bit better.

"Nice kid," said Lavarnway, unwrapping a box of 34-inch Louisville Slugger T141s in front of his locker in Pawtucket on the night of June 28. "Well-educated."

Big league plans at Yale

In New Haven, Conn., Lavarnway used to score the occasional invitation out to eat from the parents of his roommates. As a Californian, he was 3,000 miles from home, so he would get momentarily absorbed into other families. Over dinner, he would charm them with his laidback but wry wit. When the conversation would inevitably turn to future plans -- to how their pricy Ivy League education would be put to use -- he used to smile and say, "I think that Yale is an excellent Plan B."

Say what? Who goes to a place like Yale thinking about becoming a major leaguer?

The truth was that there hadn't been a lot of interest in a strong and smart but slow-footed kid coming out of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. There were 521 high school players selected in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft that year -- none of them Lavarnway. Division I colleges didn't dangle any scholarships. So it was off to Yale.

His first year, playing the outfield, he hit a respectable but unexceptional .281, while plunging into classes. "I took Ancient Philosophy my freshman year and absolutely fell in love with it. I remember all the classics -- Plato, Aristotle, Descartes -- just being fascinated and completely drawn in by their work." A subsequent class in Philosophy of Religion really hit home: "It's all about being where you are and doing what you are doing with your entire self."

Where that lesson was applied most directly was on the baseball diamond. Yale baseball coach John Stuper says that Lavarnway's work ethic really stood out.

"Ryan became possibly the hardest worker I've ever had," said Stuper, who pitched for the Cardinals and Reds in the 1980s and has now coached at Yale for 19 seasons. "He is very single-minded. After his freshman year, he said he wanted to play in the big leagues and began doing absolutely everything to make that happen."

Among other things, that entailed wearing a weighted vest everywhere he went on campus: to class, to meals, to practice. On a campus where fashion statements sometimes include monogrammed sweaters and sport coats with elbow patches, Lavarnway had a style all his own.

While the student-athlete juggle is a constant at Yale, Stuper paused for a moment when asked if he had ever coached a philosophy major before. Finally he answered, "Not one that hit .450."

Actually it was .467. In his sophomore year, having converted to catcher, Lavarnway blossomed into a hitting machine. He led all Division I hitters in batting and smashed 14 home runs.

"It was a combination of growing up a lot -- mentally and maturity-wise -- and also finally hitting that last growth spurt," Lavarnway said. "Combined, I took off a little bit."

That "little bit" began to register on the radar of big league talent evaluators, including a certain Yale graduate who knew a thing or two about the game: Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. At the same time, the Red Sox were also showing up on Lavarnway's radar, thanks to his best friend, Chris Walsh. A pitcher for Yale who is now in law school, Walsh grew up in Westwood, Mass., as a huge fan of the Sox. About once a semester, the two friends would hop aboard an Amtrak from New Haven to South Station and head for the bleachers.

According to Walsh, Lavarnway was transfixed by the scene: the passion, the history, the clear connection between fans and players as the bleacher crew began chanting, "Wily-Mo, Wily-Mo," while the belovedly baffling Wily Mo Pena tapped out the beat on the outfield grass.

The Harvard story

Lavarnway was not the only expatriate touching down in Red Sox Nation. Matt Kramer came to Harvard...
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