September 27, 2011

Pair of Bulldogs in the Big Leagues

They may have taken very different roads to get there, but for the first time in 51 years, there are two former Yale Bulldogs on Major League Baseball rosters. Thanks to an Aug. 18 call up by the Red Sox, former Bulldog catcher Ryan Lavarnway '09 joined Oakland Athletics reliever Craig Breslow '02 in the big leagues, marking an historic occasion for an already storied Yale baseball program.

Lavarnway rocketed through the Red Sox ranks after being drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 draft after his junior season at Yale, having led all Division I players with a .476 average the previous year. The Woodland Hills, Calif., native opted to leave Yale prior to his senior year, and was last year's Red Sox Co-Minor League Player of the Year. This season, he blasted 30 home runs in a 2011 campaign split between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket before getting the call to Fenway. He blasted his first Major League homer - and then another - Tuesday night after getting the start in one of the biggest games of the season for Boston, who entered Tuesday night's game tied with Tampa Bay for the AL Wild Card spot.

Breslow's journey to the majors was a longer, if not more unlikely one. A Trumbull, Conn, native, Breslow chased down strikeouts (66 in 51 2/3 innings as a junior) as he also chased down a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Team captain and the Ivy League's leader in ERA (2.56) his senior season, Breslow was accepted to New York University Medical School before also being drafted in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2002 draft.  He bounced around the low minor leagues for much of 2002-2004 before having his contract bought for all of $1 by the San Diego Padres out of a 2005 tryout camp.

Though he made his Major League debut with the Pads later in 2005, Breslow was back in the minors in 2006, and bounced back and forth between Triple-A and short stints in the bigs before finally establishing himself as a full-time Major Leaguer in 2009 with the Minnesota Twins.

Since then, Breslow has not only appeared in more than 70 games each of the past two seasons with Oakland, but has also impressed many around baseball with his commitment to giving back through his Strike 3 Foundation for childhood cancer research. Breslow's sister was diagnosed with cancer at age 14, and the man who says he still plans to pursue medicine once his baseball career is over, has mobilized teammates and fans to aid in the eradication of the disease.  

Breslow and Lavarnway now represent a program that surrounded by major league ties. Head Coach John Stuper, who coached both players, appeared in 111 games with the Cardinals and Reds from 1982-85, most notably as a rookie in Game Six of the 1982 World Series when he fired a four-hit, complete game performance. Yale athletic director Tom Beckett played in the San Francisco Giants minor league system, and has seen 29 Yale players sign professional contracts since Stuper took over the program in 1993.

"It's something we can definitely hang our hat on," Stuper said. "It's a huge asset to be able to go out and tell a kid, 'hey, this is what our players are doing. This is something that could be out there if you come play for Yale.'"

Interestingly, Stuper didn't see major leaguers in Breslow and Lavarnway right off the bat. As a lefty who threw hard, Stuper says he knew Breslow would at least get a shot as his Yale career began to blossom, but as for Lavarnway, the 17th-year Head Coach admits he didn't know what kind of player he had right away.

"I knew coming in he could be a very good college player," Stuper said. "But then hitting coach) Glen Lugarini saw much more. Ryan had his sights set on All-Ivy for his sophomore season. Glen told him he could be an All-American."

 Lavarnway took the advice to heart, developing a work ethic that Stuper says has made him one of Major League Baseball's top hitting prospects.

"He's developed this reputation up there that you have to kick him out of the weight room, tell him to pull back a bit," Stuper said. "I told him, that's a very good reputation to have. He's your typical, laid-back California kid, but when it's time for baseball, it's all business. He's a professional."

In the midst of his fourth big league season, Breslow's reputation also precedes him. The winner of the 2010 Dave Stewart Award, the A's honor for community service, he was nominated for the Clemente Award, Major League Baseball's community service award, and was named the "Smartest Man in Sports" by the Sporting News.

Breslow and Lavarnway follow in the footsteps of Bob Davis '55 and Ken MacKenzie '55, the two Bulldogs in the majors the last time Yale was so well-represented at the big-league level. Davis appeared in 29 games during his career with the Kansas City Athletics, while MacKenzie was the winningest pitcher for the expansion New York Mets in their debut 1962 season. But both Davis and MacKenzie were pitchers, making the potential for a Breslow/Lavarnway, Yale vs. Yale showdown even more intriguing.  

The Red Sox and A's won't meet again this season, but Stuper believes Lavarnway's success and Breslow's consistency means there will be ample opportunity for the two to face off in coming seasons. If that happens, Stuper, who has been able to watch all of Lavarnway's major league appearances as New Haven falls in a Red Sox television market, knows exactly what he'll do.

"I'll have to go to the bathroom for that," Stuper said. "There's too much emotion involved, you want to see them both do well– I can't watch that."

But there's no doubt that Stuper and the rest of the community will be very proud if they have to.

 Report filed by Chelsea Janes '12, Yale Sports Publicity