- Marty Dobrow, ESPNBoston.com
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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 from St. Louis in the fall of 2004, a rather fortuitous season for a baseball fan to arrive on the scene.
He came with connections, of course, good enough to score him some valuable tickets. He was there at Fenway Park for Game 3 of the ALCS, when the Yankees overpowered the Sox, 19-8, to take that seemingly insurmountable 3-0 advantage. And he was there the next night when Dave Roberts stole second and David Ortiz went deep, and all things began to seem possible.
"It was electric," said Kramer, who was a devout fan of the Cardinals. "I don't think I've ever seen a sports environment quite like that."
Even after the Sox polished off his hometown team in four games in the World Series, the die of his ambition was cast: "It's hard to see something like that and not want to be involved with it as much as possible," he said.
According to Harvard baseball coach Joe Walsh (no relation to Chris), Kramer came in as a "tall, gangly catcher" who "just kept getting stronger and working hard." Displaying a mastery of the kind of baseball-speak that makes little sense to people outside the tribe, Walsh said that the player he still calls "Mattie" had one particular athletic gift: "He always had that gun behind the dish."
Walsh knew that Kramer had more than a powerful throwing arm. He had an impressive "Plan B" in his own right. The son of an orthopedic surgeon, Kramer plunged hard into his pre-med studies, often sprinting over to practice after lengthy labs. Once on a road trip, Walsh was asked to proctor an exam for Kramer. "I took one peek," Walsh recalled, "and I couldn't even read it."
Kramer's senior year of 2007-08 would ultimately convince him to put his medical ambitions aside. Batting fourth for the Crimson, he wound up hitting .310 and drawing some interest from the scouts, who saw that the velocity of his throws down to second base was already greater than most major league backstops. Of course, Kramer would be the first to admit that he was not the Ivy League's most sought-after catcher that year. That kid from Yale, one year younger, was becoming the stuff of legend.
"We didn't see people hit the way he hit," Kramer said about Lavarnway.
In mid-April, Harvard went down to Yale to play a pair of doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday -- the kind of schedule that keeps the focus squarely on academics. Records show that the age-old rivals split the four-game series. There were about 1,000 pitches thrown that weekend. One of them took place with Ryan Lavarnway at second base. There was a single up the middle, a charging center fielder, a hard cut of third base, a peg to the plate.
"In a last ditch-effort to avoid the tag, I jumped over his head," Lavarnway recalled.
"He tried to Superman dive around me," Kramer said.
Lavarnway was more than just out. He broke his left wrist on the play.
From Yale to the Red Sox
In the baseball draft almost two months later, Kramer was not one of the 1,503 players selected. Rather than medical school, though, he decided to chart out another professional course, signing a contract with the Harlingen White Wings, an independent minor league team in the United League that plays in a blazing-hot Texas town on the Rio Grande. His salary was $600 a month.
Lavarnway, the all-time home run leader in the Ivy League, was picked in the sixth round of the draft by the Red Sox -- despite missing the final month of his college career with the broken wrist. Though he still had a year to go to complete his degree (which he vows to finish), he signed. When the wrist healed, he got in a month of minor league ball in short-season Class A Lowell, playing 22 games and batting .211 with two home runs.
Since then, Lavarnway has been cutting a rapid swath through the Red Sox minor league system. In 2009, he hit .285 with 21 home runs at Class-A Greenville. Last year, split between advanced Class A ball in Salem and the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, he produced a combined .288 with 22 home runs and 102 RBIs.
This year he has bounded up the ladder even more impressively. In a month at Triple-A Pawtucket, he has become the everyday third hitter in the lineup, alternating between catcher and DH. While he still needs work behind the plate, his bat is not far from big league ready, according to PawSox hitting coach Chili Davis.
"He's a big, strong kid who works hard," said Davis. "He's got good plate coverage. He's got power to all fields. He's a good hitter."
His success has been followed avidly by former Yale teammates. Lifelong Red Sox fan Chris Walsh, slogging his way through law school, was recently teased by his mother, Jean: "Ryan is pretty much living your dream."
A different path for Kramer
Kramer has kept his eyes on his own prize, through an already zig-zagging baseball journey. He was signed away from the Harlingen White Wings by the Atlanta Braves, where he toiled in the low minors for parts of three seasons. In 2010, right after the draft's new infusion of young talent, the Braves released Kramer. Rather than studying to retake his MCAT exam (since his original results were no longer valid), Kramer plunged into another round of indy ball, this time with the Sioux City Explorers.
At year's end, he contacted a number of big league teams about tryouts and ultimately connected with the Red Sox. The Sox thought he was worth a precious roster spot with one proviso: it was time to take that golden arm to the mound.
The catcher-to-pitcher conversion is rare (especially given the short-arm mechanics that catchers are taught to employ, rather than the full extension that pitchers use). It's not without precedent, though. Troy Percival began his minor league career as a catcher. He wound up making more than $50 million as a major league pitcher, and his 358 career saves place him No. 8 on the all-time list.
Just 25, Kramer is down in Fort Myers in his third stint in the Gulf Coast League. Games are played at noon, often on back fields behind spring training complexes, before maybe 15 fans. But according to longtime Sox minor league pitching instructor Goose Gregson, Kramer has a shot at the dream.
"He's got swing-and-miss stuff," Gregson said. "He's got a fastball in the mid-90s with a lot of life and movement. He's easily the best worker we've got down here. He's hungry. He wants to do it. He's a sponge for information. ... This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he wants to give it everything he's got."
The dream is the same
The baseball dream is a difficult dream, but it lives on, even in the rarefied worlds of Harvard and Yale. Who knows? The Crimson have one graduate in the big leagues. Frank Herrmann, who has an economics degree from Harvard, is a relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, outearning former classmates who are stressing out on Wall Street. And the Yalies also have one of their ranks in the bigs. Former Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow now toils for the Oakland A's, the only member of the staff with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
Are the two former Ivy League catchers now on a collision course for Fenway Park? Lavarnway seems to be well on his way.
"Hopefully," Matt Kramer said, "I can catch up, and be on the same field with him once again."
Marty Dobrow contributes a monthly feature to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).
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