Since he was a little kid, Tanner Vavra has been told what he wouldn’t be able to do. But Vavra continues to be an inspiration by proving all of those doubters wrong.
Vavra, the son of Minnesota Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra, is an infielder for the Valparaiso University baseball team. He is also blind in one eye, the result of multiple accidents as a child. Despite that fact, he has continued to play the game he has loved for as long as he can remember.
“If somebody told him he couldn’t do it, he’d say, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it,’ ” Joe Vavra said of his son. “He’s always had that in him where if you get challenged, he’s always up to it.”
Tanner Vavra still has vivid memories of the initial injury to his eye. His dad had the day off from managing Class A Yakima of the Northwest League, so the Vavra family spent the day fly fishing in Washington. As Joe Vavra prepared to cast his line, his 3-year-old son Tanner stood by his side. Just as Joe was casting, Tanner took off running toward his mother, Lesa.
The hook from Joe’s fishing pole caught Tanner in the right eye and tore the cornea and the lens, forever changing his life.
“I felt my head start to spin around when the hook caught me,” Tanner Vavra said. “I remember hitting the ground, and then after that I just kind of blacked out. My memory goes blank, I guess you could say.”
From there, Vavra had numerous surgeries to try to repair the cornea and lens. He eventually wore a patch on his left eye in order to use the bad eye in an effort to strengthen it. The patch could be taken off for only an hour a day.
“I remember running into quite a few walls,” Vavra said. “A lot of tears because I didn’t want to wear the patch.”
After the injury, Vavra continued to play sports and remained just as active as a normal kid. In fact, he participated in three sports — baseball, as well as football and hockey — through high school.
But when Vavra was 10, he suffered another injury that caused him to permanently lose vision in his right eye.
While at a friend’s birthday party, Vavra took part in a game of touch football. As he went up to intercept a pass, another player’s finger inadvertently poked Vavra in the eye. It shattered a contact lens that Vavra was wearing to help his vision. Fragments of the contact were removed, but several pieces remained. Eventually, his retina detached past the point of repair.
Tanner Vavra would never regain the sight in his right eye.
“That’s kind of irreparable damage that you just inflicted upon your son,” Joe Vavra said. “That’s the hardest thing for a parent to go through, and you want to make it all better. You want surgery to make it better. You don’t care about the money that it’s going to cost.”
While Joe and Lesa struggled to adjust to their son’s partial blindness, Tanner Vavra remained even-keeled in the face of adversity.
“I think it was harder to watch my parents have to deal with it than me personally,” Vavra said. “I was 10 years old. I didn’t really understand the severity of it. … I was kind of mad because I had to have more surgeries and I had to miss a summer of baseball.”
Proving doubters wrong
Through it all, baseball kept Vavra going. It was by playing baseball that Vavra proved doctors wrong — and he owes part of his perseverance to Tommy Lasorda.
Joe Vavra spent five seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor league system from 1982-86 and knew Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager. One day, Lasorda had a phone conversation with a dejected Tanner Vavra, who was beginning to get discouraged due to his disability.
“I was listening to the phone. Tanner said, ‘Well, I guess I’m not going to play pro ball, Tommy, and I probably won’t be able to play college ball. I’m going to try to shoot for high school. That’s my goal,’ ” Joe Vavra recalled. “Tommy said, ‘Who told you that? Who said you weren’t going to do that?’ He said, ‘Well, the doctors.’ ‘The doctors? Are they God? God’s the only one that can tell you that you can’t do that, son. You can do anything in this world.’ “
Tanner Vavra took Lasorda’s words to heart. Last season, he played Division I baseball for Valparaiso after spending two years at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin. In his junior year at Valparaiso, Vavra batted .332 with 20 RBI and a team-high 15 stolen bases in 59 games.
Before Vavra stepped foot onto the Valparaiso campus, there were worries about whether he could adjust to the competition at the Division I level. Without the use of both eyes, there were questions as to whether Vavra’s lack of depth perception would allow him to pick up on pitches at higher velocities.
Those worries were quickly squelched.
“The second weekend, we go to Arkansas and we faced six guys that threw 93-97. He wasn’t having a problem at all,” said Valparaiso head coach Tracy Woodson. “We went back and the coaching staff, we were like, ‘This kid’s not going to struggle with velocity.’ …
“Players on the other team, they see it and they’re like, ‘Holy cow.’ My biggest thing that I say is, How good could he be if he had two eyes? That’s what’s amazing to me.”
The past two summers, Vavra played for the Alexandria (Minn.) Beetles of the Northwoods League, a summer league for college players. After batting .284 in 48 games for Alexandria in 2011, Vavra emerged as one of the league’s top batters the following year. He finished the 2012 season tied for the best batting average in the league (.381) while also driving in 40 runs and hitting four home runs in 62 games for the Beetles.
His numbers earned him a spot on the NWL postseason All-Star team.
“I absolutely loved it,” Vavra said of playing for Alexandria. “The first summer was great, and the second summer when you know everybody a little bit better it’s even more fun. Unbelievable. I wouldn’t trade it for everything.”
Dreaming of the majors
Vavra — a graduate of Menomonie (Wis.) High School — returns to Valparaiso this fall for his senior season as he looks to lead the Crusaders to another Horizon League championship. And just last week, Vavra was named one of five winners of the second annual Tom Walter College Baseball Inspiration Award.
Others are taking notice of Vavra’s inspirational story.
“I don’t allow myself to see my eyesight as a disability, whether you have to check yes in the box on the piece of paper or not. I can’t afford to think like that,” Vavra said. “Just to win an award with some of the people and the competition that was nominated for that, that’s pretty special to think that my story is helping other people or that it’s inspirational to other people.”
As inspirational as Vavra’s baseball journey has been, it isn’t over yet. He’ll complete his sports management degree this year while providing senior leadership for the Valparaiso baseball team. Once he’s done playing for the Crusaders, Vavra hopes his baseball career continues. The ultimate goal is to hear his name next June during the Major League Baseball draft. His dad was an eighth-round pick of the Dodgers back in 1982, and Tanner Vavra would love to follow in his father’s footsteps.
A professional baseball player who is blind in one eye seems like an unlikely scenario. But Tanner Vavra didn’t listen to his doubters in the past, and he’s not about to start now.
“Until somebody tells me I can’t play anymore, that’s going to be my goal,” Vavra said of playing professionally. “I love this game too much to think any way else.”