June 06, 2008

Road trips were an obvious clue that Ryan Lavarnway was different. If he wasn't knitting on the bus or returning from meal stops with a toy water gun, he was probably doing something else to make the Yale baseball team laugh.

But when Lavarnway stepped on the field, that's when it really became clear he was something special. The junior catcher has always wanted to be a baseball player, but when it came time to choose a college, he spurned traditonal baseball powerhouse schools in favor of a league with such a strong emphasis on academics it doesn't even offer athletic scholarships.

Now, thanks to the relentless work ethic and powerful bat that have earned him a slew of accolades and attention from pro scouts, Lavarnway's uncoventional path appears to be leading right where he wanted: the pros. He was selected in the sixth round (No. 202 overall) of the MLB's First Year Player Draft, making him one of the most high-profile players to emerge from the Ivy League.

In 2007, Lavarnway hit .467 to lead the nation. He holds the league record for career home runs (33) and was the league leader in RBIs (42) and home runs (13) this season despite missing the final 11 games because of a wrist injury.

"When I came here my mentality was if I did good enough, I'd get noticed," said Lavarnway, who hit a team-high .398 this season. "I wasn't worried about the scouts."

Growing up, Lavarnway played in the baseball hotbed of Southern California. As a high school senior, he was a star slugger on an El Camino Real (Woodland Hills) team that won a section title and saw more than half of its starting lineup go on to play for Division I colleges or the pros. And in his college career, he's shown he can compete at a high level against non-Ivy League opponents.

"As a kid, the first word out of my mouth was 'ball'" Lavarnway said. "I could throw before I could walk. Like every kid in Little League, I dreamed of being a major leaguer. I never really had any other career goal. I'm still so focused on busting my butt to do whatever it takes to make it in baseball, I haven't thought of what else I want to do yet."

Onlookers warned that going to Yale would hurt his chances at a pro playing career, but Lavarnway didn't want to pass up the educational opportunity offered by the school. He knows his history and knows others before him succeeded on this route.

"The minute they called me, part of me knew that's where I wanted to go," Lavarnway said. "As soon as I stepped onto the campus, that sealed it, being surrounded by excellence everywhere you look."

At Yale, Lavarnway has maintained a B average as a philosophy major and promises he will graduate, having already received assurance from school officials that he will be welcomed back whenever he is ready if he puts his education on hold after the draft.

Although Lavarnway was more likely to be found in the library than playing video games, friends don't describe him as the nerdy type or an isolated athlete. His popularity around campus stemmed more from his fun, outgoing personality than from his baseball exploits, allowing him to mix well with athletes and non-athletes alike.

Attention garnered from scouts, though, created an unusual phenomenon for the Bulldogs.

"This year more than ever we've had scouts out at games looking at him," junior Chris Walsh said. "There were a lot of them. This isn't a league that has a ton of players who are high draft picks or make it to the majors, but if you have the talent, they will find you wherever you're playing. He's an example of that."

Surrounded by peers with lofty academic aspirations, Lavarnway made it clear from the start that his goal was a career as an athlete. While others slept in, he'd wake up early to train with the track coach, one of the many extra efforts Lavarnway exerted.

"He's definitely a fun-loving guy," Walsh said. "He keeps the atmosphere lose in the clubhouse. But when he's between the lines, he wants to win. He kind of gets in a zone and goes after it 100 percent. He does everything he can to achieve his goals. I've never really seen anyone work as hard as he does. It's crazy."

Senior teammate Josh Cox echoed that sentiment.

"Ever since I've known Ryan he's talked about the draft," Cox said. "That's what drives him. He worked harder than anyone on the team because of it. He's put in so much extra work to get where he is."

Where Lavarnway is, is at the top of the charts for several school records. Yale coach John Stuper is in his 16th year with the Bulldogs, but Lavarnway is just the second All-American he's coached.

"He had a solid freshman year," Stuper said. "But I don't think anyone could have predicted how he exploded last year. He just blossomed into one of the premier power hitters out there."

Teammates soon made sure not to miss a Lavarnway at-bat.

"Literally, we all came to expect a home run every night, a couple hits every game," Cox said. "Very seldom were we surprised."

Certain moments have become staples of the Levarnway lore. The Bulldogs still express awe over a home run he hit last year against Fairfield. It was a towering blast to center, a feat that only a handful of players have ever accomplished at Yale's field, where a monsterous 35-foot high center field wall looms 400 feet from home plate.

"He cleared it with room to spare," Stuper said.

And this year against Penn, Levarnway added to his own legend by driving a ball onto the highway.

"There are times you definitely feel spoiled," Walsh said. "He'll come up and hit that double in the gap or a home run right when you need it. There's almost that certain level of expectation that's unfair, but he lives up to it...There are times, no matter how much you've seen him, he still amazes you."

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