CEDAR RAPIDS – Here’s the thing. In all of professional sports, there’s nothing more difficult than hitting a baseball.
It goes beyond taking a round ball and trying to strike it with a round bat. That round ball can come at you from multiple angles at 100 miles per hour, breaking in or fading away, sinking or even rising.
Hitting it is an incredible skill, for sure. Then when you can do it using only one eye, that’s beyond incredible.
Tanner Vavra is beyond incredible.
The Cedar Rapids Kernels infielder has played high school, junior college and Division I college baseball, was drafted professionally last June and is in his second season in the Minnesota Twins organization. And he has accomplished all those things despite being blind in his right eye.
“I don’t call it a disability,” Vavra said Monday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Stadium. “You’ll hear it around here in the clubhouse. I’ll make jokes, the guys will make jokes. I’m good with that. As long as it’s in good humor and stuff, I have fun with it. I do. But I can’t afford to look at it as a disability because excuses start happening and you start putting blame on it. As soon as you start doing that, your competitive edge is gone. The chip on my shoulder is gone. I don’t know what type of player I’d be without that chip.”
Vavra, 24, is the son of Twins third-base coach Joe Vavra. He was three years old and on a fishing trip with his parents in the state of Washington when the first of two life-altering freak accidents occurred.
Supposed to be near his father’s side, Tanner wandered away just as Joe Vavra cast his pole backward. Somehow, someway the hook at the end of the pole stuck in Tanner’s eye, spinning him completely around.
Multiple surgeries were performed to repair his lens and cornea, and a contact lens helped him to 20-25 vision. But seven years later, Tanner was playing football at a friend’s birthday party.
A pass was thrown his way, he and another kid went up to catch it. You can probably guess the rest of the story.
Vavra was inadvertently poked in his right eye, detaching the retina. A few weeks later, he and his family learned his vision could not be saved this time.
“The right eye is cursed,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”
As engaging a young man as you'll meet, Vavra smiled when he said that, so seemingly at ease with the tragedies. He admits it has taken awhile to get to that point.
“It’s been a lot of late nights, a lot of tears over the years, a lot of pain,” he said. “It’s pain, it is when you go through something like this. It’s tough, probably tougher for my parents to see their child go through it than it was for me. I’m just grateful for them.
“I have never felt sorry for myself. I have never been allowed to. As soon as I started feeling sorry for myself, dad was there to snap me back in line. Or my mom. They’d say ‘Hey, I don’t want to hear it.’ … I’d be stupid to say I don’t wonder ‘What if?’ My junior college coach always used to joke about it. He’d have never met me if I had two eyes. But I think in the long run this is a blessing. God has a plan, and this was just my plan. So far I’m liking the results of it.”
Vavra played junior college ball in Madison, Wis., then two years at Valparaiso University in Indiana. The Twins drafted him in the 30th round, and he hit .246 in 42 games last season for Elizabethton in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
He’ll be mostly a second baseman for the Kernels.
“It tells you the type of athlete he is, to be able to do what he does,” Manager Jake Mauer said. “The challenges he faces, he takes on full bore. He doesn’t back away. That seems to be his personality. He’s happy to be a professional, but he wants it. If you ask him right now, he’ll say his goal is to play in the big leagues, as it should be. He’s going to do everything in his power to give himself the best chance. He is doing everything he can do, without a doubt.”
“It means everything,” said Vavra, who has a brother, Treycen, who is likely to be drafted this year from Division II powerhouse Florida Southern and another, Terrin, who is tearing it up in the prep ranks in Wisconsin. “It means hard work pays off in the long run. I’ve worked at this since I was three years old, trying to prove people wrong and be able to play with what they call a disability. It’s good. It’s great for people who have similar disabilities. From college to getting drafted last year, I’ve had several people contact me, people in the same situation or who know someone in the same situation. It’s kind of gratifying, I’d say, to know that I’m helping somebody somewhere, when really I’m just working to play baseball.”
Vavra was a switch hitter growing up, but has hit from the right side only since his second accident. He said he has never considered playing baseball with only one eye to be potentially dangerous, pointing out he has 20-15 vision in his left eye and is able to react quickly and normally to inside pitches that might strike him.
It’s the same with grounders that take bad hops.
“It wasn’t always easy,” he said. “I wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with, especially growing up. Kids can be mean. That’s kind of where I got the fire to work and prove people wrong. Luckily, my parents never listened to the doctors who doubted, people who doubted. They just always said ‘When he can’t compete, he’ll know it. We’re not going to take him out (of baseball) when he’s still doing what he’s doing.’ I really owe a lot to them.”
He was asked if he has ever given thought to maybe someday reaching the major leagues, getting that first hit and being greeted on the bases by his father. He just smiled again.“That’s so far off in the future,” he said. “I’m just trying to do well here. Make him proud, make the Twins proud, hopefully climb up the ladder.Then if that ever happens, it’d be a dream come true. Right now, I just want the first hit in a Kernels uniform.”