What a catch!
One might say that while contemplating the professional life of Ryan Lavarnway, who this year left the world of minor league baseball for what he hopes will be his new fulltime career as a catcher for the world champion Boston Red Sox.
One might also say that while contemplating the personal life of Ryan, who last month married Jamie Pepper Neistat, a young woman born and bred in the Denver Jewish community, whose career as a culinary blogger and online restaurant critic seems to be on a remarkably similar successful fast track to that of her new husband.
The proverbial handsome couple, Ryan and Jamie, who have known each other for nearly four years, were married Nov. 10 by Rabbi Joe Black at Denver’s Temple Emanuel and are — at least for the next few winter months — residing in their new home in suburban Englewood.
When spring arrives, and Ryan is likely to head for the Red Sox spring training camp in Florida, they’ll pack their bags and find a new place to live.
The wanderer’s lifestyle is nothing new to them.
The nomadic life of a baseball player — Ryan has already played for such Sox farm clubs as the Manchester Silkworms, Greenville Drive, Salem Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs and Pawtucket Red Sox — is something to which the couple is already well-adjusted.
“It is what it is,” says Jamie during a recent interview in a bakery near their home, “but it’s been fun for us so far. No complaints, minus all the packing.”
Jamie and Ryan, both 26 and both Jewish, met on the East Coast, while she was studying culinary arts at the Art Institute of Philadelphia and he was playing minor league ball in Virginia.
“Her friend from high school is my friend from college,” Ryan says. “Through her we exchanged phone numbers but nothing really came of it for about a year and a half. And then we started talking again.”
“I would drive back and forth to see him,” Jamie says with a heartwarming smile.
Jamie is a native of Denver and grew up here, attending BMH and Temple Emanuel in her youth.
Ryan is from Woodland Hills, Calif. and lived in the Los Angeles area until he began his studies at Yale.
Although Jamie has been involved in some form of Judaism through most of her life, Ryan describes himself in terms of religion as “lesser so than more so.
“But when Jamie and I start building our family we’re going to be more so than I have been,” he qualifies.
Although educated in, and now working in, culinary arts — a field often associated with the feminine gender — Jamie admits that when she had something of a tomboy streak when she was younger.
It has helped her not only to understand but to enjoy the game her husband plays professionally.
“Yes, I am a baseball fan,” she says, admitting that she was (and to a limited degree remains) a Colorado Rockies follower.
“I wasn’t a Red Sox fan until we started dating but definitely a baseball fan. I played softball my whole life, in high school and in college, so it’s sort of nested in my roots.”
Ryan, on the other hand, was never a “foodie,” although his new bride is helping him become one.
“I was more a meat and potatoes guy,” he says.
“My dad grew up in Indiana and he doesn’t try new foods, so as a family we didn’t venture into new foods. But on one of our first five or six dates, Jamie said about some Thai food: ‘You will like this, I guarantee it. If you don’t try new things this might not work out’ and ‘If you try it and don’t like it, I’ll never make you try anything new again.’
“I tried it and now it’s one of my favorite foods. Now I try new things all the time. On our honeymoon I tried five or six new fish that I had never tried before. It’s fun.”
Jamie adds that it has almost become a second career for her pro baseball husband.
“Someone has to eat the food I make for the blog,” she says with a laugh, “so that’s where he comes in.”
The fortunate thing about Jamie’s food career is that it’s something she can do from home — wherever home happens to be.
She does much of her blogging during the off-season and tries to work regular jobs during the baseball season.
“I work when we’re in season, wherever we start the season,” she says.
“So last year we started in Pawtucket in Triple A and I worked at a bakery and gourmet food store. I worked like crazy until our time was up in that place and then moved to the next place.
“I’ve always been really lucky in creating relationships with people. I’ve worked at the same places year after year. During spring training I work at the same bakery in Florida every year. It’s all about relationships with people. They understand our weird life.”
This is their first off-season living in the Denver area, which is nice because Jamie’s family lives here.
“This is home for us,” says Jamie, who says “I always have been and always will be” a Coloradoan.
“But we’re not here very often so we’re trying to just enjoy it.”
Ryan, despite his roots in California and his Boston-based career, is just fine with that idea.
“When we were honeymooning, people asked us where we came from. I easily said, ‘We’re from Colorado.’ It’s beautiful here. It’s great.”
They like to hike in the mountains, but, at least for Ryan, there are definitely no plans to go skiing.
“That’s a career peril,” says Ryan, whose contract with the Sox forbids him from engaging in sports and recreational activities when there is a high risk of physical injury. “To be honest I wouldn’t want to risk my own health. That would be stupid of me.”
The couple says it’s quite possible that when Ryan’s baseball career comes to an end, they might well settle down here.
They also says it’s quite possible — “one of these further days,” as Jamie puts it — that they’ll have children.
“We’re going to enjoy each other,” Ryan says of their current plans. “Being mobile we need to be able to pick up and go when the phone rings. Hopefully when there’s some more stability in a few years…”
Ryan pretty much always knew that he wanted to play baseball but he didn’t always know that he’d be a catcher.
His career began when he was 5, in the Little League.
“My dad always played pickup games on the weekends. There are pictures of me in a stroller, before I can remember obviously, going to those games. And in kindergarten I decided it was time to get involved in a team sport so it was a natural choice.”
As a youth, Ryan played multiple positions.
“I changed positions many times growing up. At seven years old, I caught because I was the only kid who wasn’t afraid. I later played shortstop, first base, left field in high school and right field in college.
“And then — since I was a slow runner — I thought I needed to catch. That was my best opportunity and I’ve really come to love the position.”
There is danger to playing catcher, he agrees, “but it’s a calculated risk.
“As long as my face is protected with a mask I’m not afraid of the ball whatsoever,” he says, adding that playing third base would probably be much more frightening, especially “when the ball is hopping unpredictably.”
He feels catcher is the most challenging position on the team.
“It’s easily the most difficult position defensively on the field,” Ryan says.
“You have to have soft hands to receive, you have to have good eyes, you have to build a good relationship with the pitchers, watch the ball, develop a game plan against hitters, block plays against runners.”
At Yale, Ryan was mostly an outfielder for the Bulldogs and was most valued for his batting prowess. He won the NCAA batting title with a very impressive .467 and led the NCAA with an .873 slugging percentage. In 2007, he set Ivy League records with a 25-game hitting streak and 33 career home runs.
Drafted by Boston in 2008, Ryan kept up or improved those impressive numbers in the team’s farm system.
His first call to the majors came late in the 2011 season, to replace the injured Kevin Youkilis. Ryan had his first major league hit, a single, on his second day.
He was called back to the Red Sox in August, 2012, then sent back to Pawtucket early in the 2013 season. Last season was a topsy-turvy one for him, with several calls back to the minors and then back to the majors.
Finally, in midsummer, he came in for the duration of the regular season, playing in 25 games and batting .299.
Although classified as inactive during the Red Sox’ American League playoffs against the Detroit Tigers and World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, he was in uniform and in the dugout the whole time, just in case he needed to fill in for an injured starter.
“I really did everything that I would have done if I was active, except for playing in it,” he says.
Being at the World Series but not playing wasn’t frustrating to Ryan, who understands that he’s a young player and has a lot of dues to pay before playing regularly as a starter.
“It was a great experience to be part of. You dream of playing in the World Series since you know what the World Series is. There are guys on the team who have been in the major leagues for 15-plus years and have never even been to the World Series.”
He’s not sure how things will come together for the 2014 season. Ryan understands that he might have no choice but to go back to the minors, or that he might well keep his place on the Red Sox.
Baseball, he says, can be a very uncertain and unpredictable career.
“As of this point, I’m on the Red Sox roster,” he says. “That could change any time.”
Asked whether he would look forward to a return to the minors, Ryan pauses and smiles before providing a diplomatic answer: “I’d rather be in the majors.
“Jamie’s sister, I think, put it most eloquently: Going from the minors to the majors is like working for the same company and being promoted from janitor to CEO.”
Perhaps because he probably has years of productive baseball ahead of him, Ryan isn’t interested in making any plans for the period after his career as an active player is over.
“I think Plan B distracts from Plan A,” he says, “so at this point I’m trying to establish myself as a permanent major league player. We’ll see.”
For Jamie, cooking has always been “a lifelong passion,” just as baseball has been for
“My grandmother and my mother are both very good cooks,” she says, “and all of our holidays have always centered around what’s on the menu and who’s coming for dinner. It’s always been a big part of our life.”
Jamie’s grandmother, Denverite Joanne Pepper, co-hosted a cooking video, “The Jewish Mothers Video Cookbook,” with Jackie Frazin back in the 1970s that is still available today. The video concentrated on traditional kosher cuisine.
“My grandmother is notorious among all her friends and anyone who has ever eaten there once,” Jamie says. “It really doesn’t get much better than that.”
Jamie’s mother, Cathy Neistat, is considerably less traditional in her cooking.
“We rarely had the same thing twice growing up. She’d look in the magazines to see what she wanted to make that month. She was always changing while my grandmother was very traditional, old school recipes.”
During college, one of Jamie’s teachers gave this advice: “Find what you love to do and find a way to make money doing it and you’ll be happy every day for the rest of your life.”
Says Jamie: “I applied to culinary school that afternoon.”
“It’s creative, it’s hard, it’s challenging but it’s fun. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”
On her own blog and on the website of the popular magazine Cooking Light, on which she is a guest blogger, Jamie creates recipes that emphasize “local and healthy,” she says.
“I always try to cook locally and seasonally, so you’re not going to see watermelon in December or chili in July.
“That’s the very broad base of where I start and then, depending on what’s in season — this time of year there’s new types of squash and there’s pumpkins — I’ll start from there.
“Or I’ll try something at a restaurant and put my own spin on it or have a sandwich and think, ‘that would be really good as a main course.’ Sort of just play with different ideas. The restaurants that I’ve worked in all really fuel creativity.”
Local, she qualifies, specifies locally grown or locally available ingredients, not necessarily the recipe’s ethnic or national origins. She particularly likes Asian cuisine, a result of her mother’s eclectic menu.
“If you were going out with my parents you were eating Indian food or Vietnamese food,” Jamie says. “Comfort food in our family was Indian food. I’m actually more familiar cooking Middle Eastern or Indian than I am with something like lasagna.”
Various Israeli and Arab recipes appear on Jamie’s posts, as do lots of other things.
“It seems like every week there’s a holiday to cook for,” she says. “This week it’s all Thanksgiving side dishes and Chanukah starts right in the middle of all that.”
When it comes to recipes, Jamie considers holidays on a universal basis.
“We celebrate everything all the time — the Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Chanukah, Christmas — at least in our dining experiences. It’s fun.”
They all have to adhere, however, to Jamie’s strict code of healthiness.
“Healthy food does not have to have this terrible connotation like it normally does,” she says.
“You can eat really well and still do well for your body at the same time. That’s my underlying theme.”
Even traditional Jewish food needn’t be detrimental to one’s health, she says.
“You can have two dishes that do clog your arteries then maybe throw in two more that don’t and create a healthy balance.”
Her husband and official taster can only agree.
“I’ll ask her, ‘Should I feel bad about this,’” Ryan says about Jamie’s recipes, “and she’ll say, ‘No, there’s only 10 calories or something absurd.’
“And it’s made with real food. She’ll make these healthy versions and it’s not with fake sugar, it’s not with fat free this or low calorie that. She makes it with real food and just finds ways to be creative.”
Asked to name his absolute favorite Jamie dish, it only takes Ryan a second or two to respond.
“I’m a big breakfast guy and when we were living in Portland, Maine she made peanut butter and banana-stuffed French toast,” he says, his face beaming with the memory.
“It was really, really good.”
For both Jamie and Ryan the future looks full of promise. Ryan is becoming increasingly popular among Red Sox fans and his numbers are looking very good. He’s looking forward to more Sox visits to the Series, hoping that he’ll be at the plate as a batter and behind it as a catcher.
Jamie’s blog is steadily gaining visits and clicks and she’s hoping for it to grow.
“I’d love for my blog to grow into something really substantial, nationally substantial,” she says. “Maybe TV.”
She gives her new husband a loving glance.
“Although he’s much better in front of a camera than I am.”
The best thing about talking to these newlyweds is the obvious and unabashed pride they take in each other.
When Ryan says something like “it’s really fun to watch her be inspired,” or Jamie blogs about what “an amazing adventure” it is to be married to a major leaguer — or when they speak about traveling together, he for road games with his team, she for forays into the exotic restaurants of faraway cities — the chemistry is more than obvious.
A grand slam if ever there was one.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News