By Zev Ben Avigdor, Correspondent
Ryan Lashley has seen his share of independent minor leagues, where the teams are unaffiliated with MLB franchises. Three years into his pro career, the 25-year-old infielder already has traveled through four separate leagues: Frontier, United, Can-Am, and American Association.
2015 did not begin well. Injuries plagued Ryan’s debut with the Lincoln Saltdogs. Although the Saint Paul Saints signed the Florida native in July to “provide infield depth,” Ryan’s bat gave the team little choice but to make him an everyday player, and he rewarded them with a .295 batting average and a .470 slugging percentage.
Jewish Baseball News correspondent Zev Ben Avigdor caught up with Ryan before a Saints game earlier this year. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
JBN: Was baseball a big part of your childhood?
Lashley: I started playing from the time I could pick up a bat. I still have a picture at my house from about three years old, at the baseball field, swinging a bat that was a little too big for me.
My dad played one year at UF. My brother is a senior now at FAU. Right now he is playing summer ball in New Hampshire. He started off strong this year at Florida Atlantic University. [Note: In addition to being a talented infielder, Brett Lashley was named to the 2015 Conference USA All-Academic team.]
I have twin brothers who are 10 years old, and they have a shot. They’ve been playing [baseball] for a while—seven years already. Switch hitting. They’ll be good. My dad knows what to do now that he’s experimented with the two of us. He’s perfected it now. We have a cage in our back yard, so even during the winter, all we do is hit every day. Every day, all day. Off a tee, front toss—my dad has probably pitched over a billion balls to all the brothers.
JBN: Do you have an L-screen? [Note: An L-screen is used to protect a batting-practice pitcher from being hit by a struck ball.]
Lashley: Oh yeah, we have an L-screen. He’d die if we didn’t. Sometimes I’ll throw to the twins. We give lessons back there in the off-season. It serves a lot of purposes. It’s easy. Right in the back yard.
JBN: Did your sister play baseball?
Lashley: No, she didn’t. She did gymnastics growing up. Now she’s 5’7”, so she’s a little too tall for gymnastics. In high school she started diving. She just graduated [from the University of Florida], and she’s going to [physician’s assistant] school. She’s doing internships back home.
JBN: Did baseball ever conflict with being Jewish, or vice-versa?
Lashley: When I was 13, and I became bar mitzvah, and each of my friends was becoming bar mitzvah, I got teased a little bit, because I had to miss a bunch of games during that year. They just poked a little fun at me, just because, “Oh, he’s never here anymore,” because I didn’t show up to a lot of the games, because I had a lot of people that I was going to bar mitzvahs for. They were joking around because I was never at the games. They all came to [my bar mitzvah]. They all had a blast, too. They still talk about it to this day.
[The twins’ bar mitzvah is] still a little far away, but I’m assuming they’ll probably go together. They’re going to Hebrew School now.
JBN: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?
Lashley: [smiling broadly] Chanukah, of course. It’s just that time of year when everyone’s happy—and family. Usually we go up to New York or they come down to Florida, so a lot of family get-togethers. Both my parents are from New York. They’re both the youngest of three, and they both moved down to Florida, and everyone else is up there.
JBN: Have you had many Jewish teammates?
Lashley: There was at least one other [Jewish] kid on [each of] my [Little League] teams, for sure. I was at Stetson [University] for three years, and then I went to Lynn [University] for my senior year. I graduated with a degree in business.
JBN: And when you were at Stetson, you had at least one Jewish teammate, right?
Lashley: Two: Sean Emory and Nick Rickles. Sean has a job down in Miami, now, in finance. [Note: Sean Emory earned his B.A. in Finance from Stetson in 2011 and is now AVP and Senior Investment Analyst at GFG Capital. He played in the infield at Stetson, finishing with a career average of .326 and an OPS of .815. Nick Rickles caught for Team Israel in the 2012 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers and finished the 2015 season with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds of the Oakland A’s organization.] The higher you go, the fewer you notice, but there’ve been a few. Not a lot, but a few.
JBN: How do you know they’re Jewish?
Lashley: We just talk a lot, when one of us just says, “I’m Jewish.” It just kind of happens—and then, “Oh yeah, I am, too.” It’s cool because I know not many Jews play pro baseball, or any professional sports, so it’s cool to know that they’ve made it this far. It’s hard. There were actually three Jews playing in Fort Worth: Me, Adam Kam and Ben Ruff.
Ben’s a pitcher, from Seattle. Adam Kam is from our area, from Fort Lauderdale, around where Anthony Rizzo, from the Cubs, is from. I was surprised last year. We jelled. We hung out together. I have a picture together on my phone. Ben and I saw that we were both mentioned in a Jewish journal last year. That was pretty cool.
JBN: What about fans? Do fans know?
Lashley: Not that I know of. I’ve never had a fan come up to me and say that.
JBN: Do other players know you’re Jewish?
Lashley: Just my teammates, I would assume. Stuff comes up and—”Oh yeah.”
JBN: Do they ask questions?
Lashley: A little bit. They know a lot about the Jewish religion for the most part. A lot of guys do. I actually had a good conversation with Vinny DiFazio on our team. [Note: DiFazio, a New Jersey native, is St. Paul’s starting catcher.] He’s not Jewish, but he knows a lot about it. We went to Appleby’s the other day at the mall and he actually knew a lot about it.
JBN: Where did you begin your professional career?
Lashley: I started in the Frontier League, in Normal, Illinois. The Normal CornBelters.
JBN: Then your second year you were in the—?
Lashley: United League, in Fort Worth, Texas. United was all Texas teams. Fort Worth, San Angelo, Rio Grande, and then there was a travel team that didn’t have a home. I came a month late, so they all had a couple more at bats than I did. I was tied for the RBI lead going into the last game of the season, and we made the playoffs, and the guy who was tied with me didn’t make the playoffs, so he played that last game, and my coach sat me to rest the last game, and we were tied neck and neck going into that last game, and he had [three] RBI that game, and I didn’t play.
[Note: In 2014, with the Fort Worth Cats, Ryan led the league with a .369 batting average and a .556 slugging percentage, finishing second in RBIs and total bases, despite only playing in 53 games, 17 fewer than the league leader.]
I had a great year last year. I guess word got around. Coaches say, “Look at this guy.” And actually, I was signed for about six months in the off-season to go to Ottawa, in the Can-Am League. And then about a month before I was supposed to report there, I got a call from the manager, and he said I had been traded to Lincoln, Nebraska. And then I got injured in Lincoln after the first month-and-a-half. I had pulled a hammy, so I had to rehab everything. They released me, and the Saint Paul Saints picked me up.
JBN: What’s the level of play like here?
Lashley: I haven’t played in affiliated, but it’s equivalent to high-A or double-A competition. There are a lot of guys here who are really good. There are some guys, like Reggie Abercrombie, we’re playing him. He’s been in the big leagues; he played with the Marlins. A couple of former Triple-A guys. [The level] is very good. We have a lot of guys who were Double-A; some Triple-A on our team. They’re good, and they’re fun to be around.
JBN: What’s it like joining a team in the middle of the season?
Lashley: It’s always a little difficult coming into a group of guys who’ve been jelling—and obviously they are jelling when they’ve lost only 13 games all year—but after a while they get to know you and then gradually, slowly but surely, you get accepted into the group. We all stay in apartments—some three-, some four-player apartments—so it’s good, you get to know a lot of guys, hang out. That makes it easier.
JBN: You seem very versatile on defense.
Lashley: In college, freshman year was short, sophomore and junior year was third and first, and then my senior year at Lynn I played second. In the United League I played a little bit of second, a little bit of short, and a little bit of third. And the same in Normal. [Note: In 2015, Ryan played 21 games at 3B, 15 games at 2B, 8 games in LF, 1 game at SS, and 10 games as DH.]
JBN: What do you like best about being Jewish?
Lashley: The history of knowing what we’ve been through. The Holocaust and then getting past that and going from there to where we are now. That’s pretty amazing.
JBN: Have you been to Israel?
Lashley: I haven’t. I need to go on Birthright. My sister’s done it. I need to do it.
JBN: Last question. What would you ask if you were interviewing Jewish baseball players? What would you want to know?
Lashley: That’s a good question. I would want to know how does it feel to be a Jewish athlete, one of the few Jewish athletes playing at such a high level of competition. Not many people can say they have done that.
JBN: How’s it feel to you?
Lashley: Pretty amazing.
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“Zev Ben Avigdor” is the pen name of a university scholar who writes for Jewish Baseball News. Click here to see more of his interviews.