He would never be good enough to play college baseball, let alone professional baseball. Even if he did, he wouldn’t be as good as his peers.
Heck, Vavra’s father had his doubts.
But earlier this month, when the Minnesota Twins took Vavra in the 30th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft, all those doubters were silenced. That includes Joe Vavra, the Twins third-base coach, who once thought his son would never ascend past high school baseball.
Blind in one eye, Tanner Vavra has proven the doubters wrong. On Thursday night, he suited up as a professional ball player for the first time with the Elizabethton Twins of the Appalachian League. Leading off and playing second base, Vavra went 1 for 3 with a walk.
He may not be able to see the baseball as well as his new teammates, but Vavra has proven that he belongs in this game.
“With any kind of limitation, there’s a lot of disbelief,” Joe Vavra said. “As a parent, I was in disbelief as he climbed the levels. As a baseball person having him on your team, you’re in disbelief. … He’s proven a lot of people wrong. If he plays a day, a month, whatever beyond what he’s doing, that’s more than I ever expected.”
When Tanner Vavra was 3, he and his dad went fly fishing in Washington, where Joe was managing Class-A Yakima of the Northwest League. Father and son had just started the day of fishing when Joe began to cast. At the same time, Tanner started running toward his mother.
The hook from his father’s fishing pole happened to snag Tanner in his right eye, spinning the 3-year-old around. Both the cornea and lens were torn, and despite numerous surgeries — and thanks in part to another injury to the same eye seven years later — Tanner no longer can see out of his right eye.
That hasn’t stopped him from being a pretty good baseball player. He spent two years at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin before transferring to Valparaiso. As a junior, Vavra batted .332 with 20 RBI in 59 games for the Crusaders. His numbers were equally impressive as a senior, when he batted .330 with 20 RBI and 10 doubles in 60 games.
Those numbers drew the interest of several major league teams, but it was the Twins who ultimately gave Vavra the chance to pursue his dream of being a professional baseball player.
“Every scout that I talked to said, ‘You’re a great player. I’m really amazed at what you can do.’ That was kind of it. Nobody ever wanted to take the chance,” Vavra said. “After two years at the Division I level, I finally got that shot.”
Joe Vavra has spent more than three decades in professional baseball, first as a player in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and later as a coach. He figured that, as a senior in college, his son might have a chance to be drafted, but it would likely come in the later rounds.
When the Twins took Tanner Vavra on June 8 as the 890th overall pick, Minnesota was playing the Nationals in Washington. Joe Vavra found out from Twins manager Ron Gardenhire that his son had just been drafted.
“Gardy came up and about put his hand through my chest and said, ‘Congratulations, they drafted Tanner in the 30th round,'” Joe Vavra recalls. “I don’t really remember what happened after that inning. I’m pretty good about recalling the whole game and most definitely an inning. I wasn’t quite prepared for it.”
Joe Vavra tried calling his son but couldn’t get a hold of him. As it turned out, Tanner was busy cleaning out all of his old Twins gear that he had put into storage in case he was drafted by another team.
When the Vavras were finally able to connect on the phone later that night, there was plenty of congratulating from the father — and a little bit of “I told you so” from the son.
“He’s always wanted to play the game. It didn’t matter if he had one arm, one finger, one eye, one leg, it didn’t matter,” Joe Vavra said. “He was going to go out and play the game and prove everybody wrong. That’s just a chip that he carries. It’s a really productive chip. I’ve worried about that chip because of anger and issues and things like that growing up, and ‘Why me?’ I don’t think that’s ever crossed his mind. It’s like, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I? Who’s going to tell me I can’t?'”
The Twins believed Tanner Vavra could, and now he’s trying to prove them right after proving so many people wrong for so many years.
“I just felt relief that I knew I was going to get the opportunity to keep playing baseball and knew what was ahead of me, at least a little bit, rather than having to try to find a job or play independent ball and try to go that route,” Tanner Vavra said of being drafted.
“I’ve got a long ways to go to work up to actually having (my dad) coach me, but that’s the ultimate goal. Now I have the opportunity and I’ve just got to keep putting the work in.”