U.S. Baseball Pros Arrive to Claim Israeli Citizenship, Qualify for Olympics

Led by Ryan Lavarnway, who played for six MLB team

Israel's national baseball team celebrating its qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Margo Sugarman

A group of five American Jewish Baseball players arrived in Israel to officially immigrate so they will be eligible to represent the country in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Team Israel earned a spot in the baseball tournament of next year’s Olympics by winning the Europe/Africa Qualifier in Italy in September.

The players are Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher who has played for the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds; Josh Zeid, a pitcher who played for the Houston Astros; pitcher Jared Lakind, who plays for the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League; shortstop Scott Burcham, who plays in Double-A ball for the Colorado Rockies’ Hartford Yard Goats farm team; and Jake Fishman, another Double-A player who pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays’ New Hampshire Fisher Cats. All of the players save Fishman represented Israel during the World Baseball Classic in 2017.

The players have spent time while in Israel coaching local baseball and working with the players in the Israel Baseball Academy. Lavarnway, Zeid, Burcham and Fishman have all received their citizenship, and Lakind will follow suit on Sunday.

“I think the opportunity to play in the Olympics is a lot of kids’ dream come true,” said Lavarnway, who was the MVP of Pool A for Israel during the World Baseball Classic. “Baseball hasn’t even been in the Olympics in the last 12 years, so it’s something I didn’t even think was a possibility, and now I’m very excited about it.”

Lavarnway noted that many people didn’t understand the World Baseball Classic, which allowed players to represent countries as long as they were eligible for citizenship without actually exercising that right. “They intrinsically know what the Olympics are,” he said in contrast, “so it makes it that much cooler.”

Commitments to his day job in baseball kept Lavarnway abroad at times, despite his commitment since 2012 to play for Israel. That year, he was with the Red Sox so he was ineligible. He joined the team for the World Baseball Classic qualifier in 2016 and its run in the tournament. This year, he missed the Olympic qualifiers because he was still playing for the Cleveland Indians’ affiliate Columbus Clippers, which won the International League championship. “Now the timing and my availability have lined up,” added the newly minted citizen.

Lavarnway said that when he was with Israeli youth at Baptist Field on Wednesday, he asked them what they need to help build up the local game. “The first thing they said was they all want more fields,” he recalled, noting that there is only one “legitimate field” in Israel.

Helping develop baseball in Israel is part of the players’ mission. “I think it would catch on like wildfire if they get the facilities,” he said, noting there is only one proper field in Israel. Hopefully we can get through the bureaucracy and raise the funds to be able make that happen.”