Philosophy has long shared a connection with baseball, but it is the rare player who has chosen the discipline as a course of study. Ryan Lavarnway is just such a ballplayer, having majored in philosophy at Yale prior to being chosen by the Red Sox in the sixth round of this year’s draft. A right-handed-hitting catcher who led the NCAA in 2007 with a .467 average, Lavarnway made his professional debut with short-season Lowell, where he hit .211 with a pair of home runs in 71 at-bats. Lavarnway sat down to share his thoughts on Nietzsche, free will on the diamond, and the philosophical mindset of Cubs fans.
David Laurila: What is the baseball life story of Ryan Lavarnway?
Ryan Lavarnway: When I was in kindergarten, my teacher suggested to my parents that they get me involved with team sports so that I would learn how to share better. I was always a super-competitive kid. My first word was ball, and I could throw before I could walk. I always loved running around the house trying to keep a balloon in the air; my mom now gives that game credit for much of my hand-eye coordination. At four years old they took me to the ball field and I took to it immediately, making the all-star team my first year. I didn’t understand the game right away, and would sometimes even argue with the umpires because I wanted to be safe every time. I never wanted to leave the field, and when I finally did go home I wanted to watch or even just talk about baseball. After dinner, or on long drives to school in the morning, my dad and I would talk about the mental parts of the game.
DL: It sounds like you were strong-willed.
RL: I have always been very strong-willed, especially when it came to baseball. Even at a very young age, I wanted to play the little parts of the game the right way. Growing up I would play all over the field; infield, outfield, pitcher, and catcher. I was always one of the smaller players, so I had to hit the ball on a line or on the ground; any ball I hit in the air was a sure out. Senior year of high school I finally hit my growth spurt and grew six inches and put on almost 30 pounds. At that point the coaches started telling me to hit the ball in the air and maybe it would get out of the yard. After high school I went to Yale and continued to grow. I played the outfield my freshman year, and quickly started realizing that my speed wasn’t going to allow me to play professionally in the outfield. I asked if I could catch. I had done it previously and had enjoyed it. Now I’m here.
DL: Why did you choose to go to Yale?
RL: My parents had always stressed that playing baseball was a privilege. For a student-athlete, the student part always came first with my family. I had worked hard in high school and done well, but hadn’t ever really seriously considered the Ivy League as a realistic option. After attending a showcase at Stanford, I got a recruiting call from the coach at Yale and was so excited I about jumped through the ceiling. I was offered a couple of minor scholarships in other places, but when Yale brought me on an official visit I knew that’s where I wanted to be. The moment I stepped on campus I fell in love with the place. The way people went about their business, the way they conducted themselves drew me in. I could sense the dedicated effort and hard-working honesty the students and faculty applied to everything they did, and understood almost immediately the culture of excellence that breeds. I knew Yale was a place to help me grow into the person and player I wanted to be.
DL: Why did you elect to study philosophy?
RL: I had a couple of years-my senior year of high school and my freshman year in college-where I was really exploring my spiritual side. I did a lot of thinking about the mental and emotional aspects of my life. I enjoyed thinking deeply about what makes us who we are beyond our physical being. Being a baseball player, I feel that I have always been pretty in tune with my body, but beyond the physical I came to realize that some of life’s most interesting questions go beyond purely tangible depths. I believe that we live not only through our actions but also through our thoughts and ideas. I enjoy thinking outside of the box, and right away from my first philosophy class at Yale I knew that I would have those types of opportunities within the major.
DL: How did a philosophy major fit within the structure of the Yale baseball team?
RL: There is definitely an initial reaction or stereotype for a lot of people when they would hear I was a philosophy major. Not just other players, but friends, other students, and even reporters. Some people wonder-half jokingly, half seriously-if I am going to muse over the slightest things or bring up overarching theories on life into everyday conversations. The truth is that I had always enjoyed it as a leisure activity, something to keep my mind occupied during free time, and when studying it became an option it seemed almost too good to be true. Most of the other players were economics or political science majors, but what we were studying didn’t matter when we were on the field. Our camaraderie stemmed from our respect for each other and our love for the game. Where the spectrum of our education came into play was off the field. Many of the most riveting conversations and fiercest debates between brilliantly well-spoken people occurred not at school-sponsored debates or lectures from special guests, but at the table in the dining hall or in the locker room before practice with, and between, my teammates.
DL: Some people will argue that thinking can be detrimental on the baseball field. Do you agree with that?
RL: In a sense I agree, and in another I completely disagree. Hitting requires a controlled effort, and over-thinking at-bats can be detrimental. But knowing how your swing feels on a given day, as well as the positioning of the fielders and the situation of the game, is necessary to be successful in professional baseball. I need to have a plan when I walk up to the plate. Catching, especially calling pitches, trying to work with my pitching staff, and being a leader on the field-I believe those require constant thought. I think that I need to present myself a certain way as a catcher, and that my mindset as a hitter has to be completely separate. I need to be giving and selfless on defense, and when it comes my turn to hit, I need to be a little more selfish. On defense I work to give my pitcher and my defense confidence and display strength, and when it’s my turn to hit I have to get the job done.
DL: Can you say a little more about your studies at Yale?
RL: It’s a liberal arts education, so along with the philosophy courses I enjoyed taking applied physics and economics courses. I tried to be as broad with my education as I could. In the philosophy field, I focused on ancient and Eastern philosophy. A lot of the more modern philosophy I didn’t like immediately, not in the way that I took to the ancient. I really liked the Plato and Aristotle that I read, and then there was the Eastern philosophy. Much of the ancient philosophy [courses] surveyed human and societal capability and perspective. Some of the Eastern philosophy I studied focused on who we are beyond our bodies, which paralleled some of my personal searches for meaning. I enjoyed it for giving my spiritual side a more rounded perspective.
DL: Did you form an opinion on Friedrich Nietzsche?
RL: Actually, the one Nietzsche writing that I did study, I really liked. His thought experiment on ‘eternal return’ really made me think. But by the time I began studying Nietzsche I had already been turned off by other modern philosophers, such as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. Some of their concepts are so specific, they express it cryptically, and it was a bit of a pain to read. Besides that, it seemed like the modern stuff I was studying focused more on negatives than the ancient stuff I had looked at. It was selected readings though; I obviously couldn’t have read everything. I’m more of an optimist, so the musings on death were not my favorite.
DL: Can one really talk about life without also talking about death?
RL: There are some perspectives from which you can talk about life without talking about death, such as through the idea of continuous life cycles in some Eastern beliefs. Or finding meaning in life through interpreting our relationship with a higher power. But no, in general, in order to talk about the meaning of life you have to talk about the meaning of death. Having said that, however, I really understand that means I have to focus on what I can control. This is my time here, to do everything I can to live the life I want, to seize opportunities as they come because they may never come again. Death may be the result, but what I do while I’m here is what I try to focus on. I just try to be happy and do what I love to most.
DL: Can philosophy and religion coexist peacefully?
RL: I think they can absolutely coexist. I like to think that there is a God, and that he is benevolent and all-powerful and chosen so that we can appreciate happiness.
DL: You touched on this somewhat in an earlier answer, but what are your thoughts on existentialism?
RL: I’m a little bipartisan on existentialism. Saying that existence precedes essence says that there is no predetermined essence in a man. This gives credit to people who do good things, because according to existentialism they did these good deeds by free will and not by predetermined essence. But it’s completely in opposition with the Platonic ideas and the Aristotelian forms, and I think it puts too much pressure on environment.
DL: How much free will is there in baseball?
RL: There’s a lot of chance in baseball, and I think that leaves more room for free will. Through willpower you can make things happen. Physical preparation is only half the battle in a game that has time built in for reflection and thought.
DL: The Cubs haven’t won the World Series in 100 years. Are Cubs fans, out of necessity, more philosophical than fans of other teams?
RL: I don’t know if superstition is the same as philosophy, but thinking about the great curses in baseball really makes me smile. The Red Sox finally won during the years that Babe Ruth and his records started looking less godly, and now The House That Ruth Built is coming down and the Yankees‘ amazing playoff run finally ended. Those curses really do make me think whether there is more to it. If Cubs fans are more philosophical, it’s because these curses really do make you feel that some of this stuff is more than folklore.
DL: Do you ever think about why you play baseball?
RL: I don’t know why I’m playing baseball, other than the fact that I love doing it. Life’s too short to do something unless you love it. I go out every day and play with everything I’ve got. Baseball has been great to me so far, so I try to respect the game and be as great as I can back to it.