Most coaches and players agree that making the jump from Junior College up to Division 1 baseball is not an easy transition. But junior infielder Tanner Vavra, who is blind in one eye, made the shift seamlessly this past season, helping lead Valparaiso University to a Horizon League Championship and gain a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Vavra, whose father coaches for the Minnesota Twins, sustained two major injuries as a child that left him without vision in his right eye. When he was just three years old, his family took a trip to Washington to spend the day fly fishing. Just as his father was casting his line, Vavra unknowingly ran off towards his mother and got a hook caught into his right eye, tearing the cornea and the lens.
Vavra had multiple surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage and ultimately ended up wearing a patch over his good eye, in hopes that his impaired right eye would be strengthened in the process. The doctors told him that he could only remove the patch for one hour a day.
Vavra continued to play sports as a child until a second serious incident occurred at 10 years old. Participating in a game of touch football, he was accidentally poked in his damaged eye by a friend, shattering his contact lens into fragments. Doctors were able to remove most of the fragments, but were not able to stop his retina from detaching. The damage was beyond the point of repair. Vavra lost full vision in his right eye.
Despite having just one good eye at such a young age, Vavra never thought that the injury would jeopardize his dream of playing professional baseball.
“I didn’t really think about that too much,” Vavra said. “I was upset because the surgeries were happening over summer and I was going to miss that summer of baseball, that’s how far my thought process was in terms of affecting my career. When you’re a little kid you don’t really think that far into the future. I think the only people who really understood were my parents.”
Vavra continued to play baseball through high school and played two years at Madison Area Technical College before transferring to Valparaiso this past season. He never had any doubt that he would have success in Division I, especially after having two stellar seasons at the junior college level, posting a .421 batting average with 25 RBI and 18 steals in 50 games in 2011.
“I feel like you need to have a lot of confidence,” said Vavra. “There’s a big difference between being cocky and being confident. I feel like I have a high level of confidence in my abilities. I wasn’t as worried about the transfer as I think the coaches were, because a lot of times the transition just doesn’t work out as well as people hoped for.”
Crusader Head Coach Tracy Woodson, who was named the Horizon League Coach of the year for 2012, believed Vavra was the kind of player his team needed to reach new heights.
“We needed his type of player, someone who not scared and knew the game,” Woodson stated. “We knew what kind of kid we were getting there. Playing wise, the only thing we were worried about it was him facing guys in Arkansas throwing 93 to 97, because he goes to right field a lot. But it didn’t affect him. Once that weekend in Arkansas was over we knew we had a good baseball player on our hands.”
Vavra posted a .332 batting average to go along with a .425 OBP and 15 steals for the Crusaders in 2012. Coach Woodson recognized Vavra as one of the most important pieces to his team’s Horizon League Championship run.
“He is one of the hardest workers I know. He’s hard on himself and disappointed in himself when doesn’t do well. I think he plays with a chip on his shoulder,” said Woodson. “For our team he is a role model to the younger guys just because of the way he plays. He doesn’t bring up his injury as an excuse and you’d never know he has this injury if you watch him play. Every guy on our team can watch him play and take something from it.”
But Vavra isn’t satisfied with his numbers; in fact he believes he can have an even more successful campaign in 2013. He strongly believes in trying to find holes in his game and working hard to strengthen his weaknesses.
“Never be satisfied with how good you are now, always try to be better tomorrow” Vavra firmly said. “That’s the biggest thing I have learned – you can always be better in some aspect, you just need to find that aspect and develop it.”
Vavra was quick to give credit to his father for helping him through the tough times he has faced in his baseball career and pushing him to improve even when he is enjoying success.
“From the time before I could walk, I was still throwing the baseball with him while I was crawling around,” said Vavra. “It starts and ends with him. He’s going to be the first person I talk to about something and the last person I run something by. He’ll always find something new for me to fix. Even if I think I’m doing something well, he’ll find something I can do better. That’s a perk of having a big league coach as your dad.”
Ultimately, Vavra has aspirations of playing at the big league level, and his coach believes that his dream is within reach.
“I hope somebody gives him a chance,” Woodson added “Because of the type of kid he is and the effort he gives you as a player. I think down the road he’s going to be a great coach. I think and organization would be lucky to have him”.
Vavra understands that the odds are stacked against him, but refuses to give in to the critics.
“You give it everything you have, and somehow, some way it will be good back to you. You don’t really know what way it will be,” a determined Vavra stated. “I’m sure when I look back in 20 years, whether I played pro ball or not, I’m going to say I accomplished a lot. But right now I have to keep working harder and getting to the next level because I’m not done. If you stay determined, stay focused and motivated and good things will happen.”
For Vavra, his faith in his abilities, and determination to prove the doubters wrong, has driven him to great success thus far in his career. But it is his respect for his coaches and teammates has allowed him to stay humble and be a leader on the diamond.
“It’s just one of those things where everyone has stuck their neck out for me,” Vavra said. “I mean my high school coach, my junior college coach and now Coach Woodson at Valpo. They all took a chance on letting me play, and I take that to heart. When somebody does that and says they believe in your abilities, regardless of the eye, I work that much harder because I don’t want to make somebody else look bad because I didn’t perform.”
“I want to be successful for myself, for my family and for the person who gave me the opportunity,” said Vavra. “I’m going to give you my best and hopefully I can wow you a little bit.”
The 2013 season will be a crucial year for Tanner Vavra and a fantastic opportunity to for him to showcase his talents to scouts from the next level. Only time will tell whether or not he makes it to the major leagues, but the baseball community is already impressed with this young man and the obstacles he has overcome to this point in his career.
Kat Hasenauer Cornetta also contributed to this report.