JUPITER, Fla. • Ryan Sherriff was only seven when he noticed the strange numbers on his grandmother’s left wrist. He’ll never forget asking about the odd tattoo after he noticed it as she placed his breakfast on the table.
She initially kept her explanation light, fearing he was too young to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust. Over time, the Cardinals’ minor-league lefthander learned about the Auschwitz concentration camp where his maternal grandmother, Helen Wildfeuer, was held. Her future husband, Seymour, was held in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
Sherriff eventually grew to understand the evil that his Jewish grandparents endured after they were taken from their native Poland by the Nazis.
“She’d just be like, ‘This is what they are. They gave us numbers and stuff like that,’” Sherriff, a nonroster invitee to camp, said. “As I got older it finally clicked.”
His grandparents were liberated in January 1945. They met when Helen, a nurse, helped care for Seymour Wildfeuer. They married in Europe and eventually immigrated to Newark, N.J., before settling in Colorado, where Seymour established Denver Boneless Beef, a successful meat-packing company.
Sherriff thought of his late grandparents often last September when he helped Team Israel qualify for the World Baseball Classic.
Although he has never been to Israel, he was eligible for Team Israel because of his Jewish faith. He relished the opportunity to honor his mother Renee’s parents.
“Being able to pitch for Team Israel made me feel very appreciative for everything that they had gone through,” he said. “Just to represent the Jewish heritage for them was just a great honor for me. She (Helen) would have been stoked. She would have been really happy if she was still alive today.”
Playing for Team Israel carried a weight unlike anything he had felt since he first started swinging a bat as a 4-year-old in Culver City, Calif.
He embraced the atmosphere at the WBC qualifiers in Brooklyn, believing he was playing for something greater than himself and the team.
“I’m playing for a whole entire country that’s looking upon us,” he said. “So the pressure to do well is just unbelievable. It was just so fun.”
Nonetheless, the 26-year-old had a difficult decision to make this spring when Team Israel invited him to participate in the first round of the WBC in Korea.
Although he wanted to honor his grandparents once again, he declined an invitation to participate in the first round because he wants to impress in big league camp.
He remains on Team Israel’s roster, so he will consider playing if Israel advances out of a tough Pool B that includes South Korea, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei.
“It kind of boiled down to, ‘What did I train for my whole life, the World Baseball Classic or to pitch in the big leagues?’” he said. “That’s the decision I made to stay here. As much as I want to go to Korea, I think this is more important for my career.”
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The 6-1, 185-pound lefthander set his sights on the big leagues early in life. He was captivated immediately after his parents bought him his first bat and miniature batting tee for his fourth birthday.
He would spend hours hitting the ball off the tee and rushing to retrieve it so he could take another swing. His father, Larry, was actually on a rec league baseball team when he met his mother, Renee.
Renee Sherriff has fond memories of watching Larry play on the local post office’s baseball team. Nobody was surprised when Ryan fell in love with the sport.
“He always wrote about playing baseball,” Renee Sheriff said. “Little poems and stuff. Everything was just baseball, baseball, baseball. We just kept him in the loop. … He just excelled and you could tell it was something he was very passionate about at a very young age.”
Ryan’s commitment to baseball almost disappeared, though, in the first offseason after the Cardinals drafted him out of West Los Angeles Community College in the 28th round of the 2011 draft.
Ryan had a solid pro debut with a 3-3 record and 3.93 ERA over 12 appearances between the New York-Penn and the Appalachian leagues in 2011. A few days after he returned home, he learned that his father had been diagnosed with Stage 4 multiple myeloma.
Ryan spent the next four months rushing from his offseason conditioning workouts to his father’s bedside. His father died in January 2012, leaving a grieving son unsure if he wanted to keep playing.
“I don’t want to play,’” Ryan told his mom that January.
“What would your dad want?” Renee countered.
“He’d want me to play,” Ryan conceded.
Sherriff is still playing. He is 29-20 with a 3.01 ERA with five saves in 169 games over six years in the minors.
He had the best season of his professional career last year with a 7-1 record, a 2.84 ERA and three saves at Class AAA Memphis. He was rewarded with a spot in the Triple-A All-Star Game and on Team Israel.
“The qualifiers were the best experience of my life, the atmosphere there and just everything,” he said. “The group of guys that we had was unbelievable. It was the most unbelievable experience that I had playing baseball.”
He embraced the chance to honor his late grandparents by donning Team Israel’s jersey, but now he wants to achieve the ultimate goal.
Larry Sherriff surely would support his decision to remain in big league camp and fight to leave an impression.
He’s as close as he’s ever been to the majors, and he doesn’t want to have any regrets. If you pay close attention when he is called in from the bullpen during a Grapefruit League game, you’ll see him honor his father.
“Before I go up to the mound I always look up to the sky and tell him how much I love him,” Ryan said. “I’ll step on the mound and just know he’s there.”
Since 2012, Ryan has visited his father’s grave in California at least three times each offseason. Before leaving, he always tapes one of his baseball cards to his father’s headstone.
As much as he wants to honor his grandparents, he knows they all would appreciate it when he finally has major league stats on that card.