March 2, 2012


Vision Quest

By Sean Ryan Co-Founder @collbaseball


Take a good look at Tanner Vavra.


At first glance, Valparaiso’s junior infielder is the kind of player whose uniform seldom is clean. He bounces around the field, diving and sliding this way or that, barking out relay calls or praise for teammates. He tends to be in the middle of everything, drawing both the respect and ire of opposing teams. In short, he’s the kind of player who’s hard to miss. 


“He tries to figure out ways to beat someone,” said his father, Joe Vavra, a longtime minor-league coach who has been the Minnesota Twins’ hitting coach since 2005. “He’s not playing to do things for himself…he just tries to go out and beat people. Sometimes, maybe it rubs people wrong, but he goes out to compete and to compete to win.”


The way Valpo teammate and roommate John Loeffler sees it, “When he’s on the field, he’s almost in a different world.” He added, “I think Tanner is just a competitor. When he gets on the field, he’s vocal. He’s in the zone. He loves to win. He’s just a competitor.”


Upon closer inspection, the guy who helped lead Valparaiso to a 10-9 upset at No. 5 Arkansas – he hit .583 in three games, including a 3-for-5 performance with the game-winning run among his three runs and a RBI – plays with a disadvantage.


Vavra can’t see at all out of his right eye.


“When you stop to think about it, it truly is amazing,” said his mother, Lisa Vavra. “It kind of gets me teary eyed. He’s accomplished so much more than we expected.”


* * *


Tanner Vavra was just 3 years old when his life changed forever.


On an off day while his father was managing in Yakima in 1992, the Vavras went to the river for a fishing trip.


“I remember the deal was that I had to keep my fingers in my dad’s belt loop,” Vavra said.


When his mom and infant brother Treysen returned to the car, little Tanner forgot about the rules.


“I don’t know why I decided to, but I started to run back to the car when my dad was in mid-cast,” he said.


The hook intended for an ambitious trout lodged instead in Tanner’s right eye.


Vavra was unconscious but remembers his mom telling him that his father raced to the river and soaked a towel and used it to stop the bleeding. Later that night, he had the first of three surgeries


“I did it,” Joe Vavra said. “I was basically the one who was on the other end of this fishing rod…that was tough.”


Joe Vavra knew the freak accident was not something that was going to be gone in a matter of days or weeks. He also learned of the burden of being “the one that actually inflicts” an injury – unintentional or not.


“It’s a difficult thing to go through,” he said. “No parent wants to ever have something happen to their child.”


Tanner Vavra added: “He’ll say it’s his fault, I’ll say it’s my fault. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just bad luck.”


* * *


For the next seven years, Tanner Vavra wore a patch – over his good eye – all but one hour a day. The hope was that his surgically repaired right eye would continue to strengthen over the years, with the help of a contact.


“I remember running into a few walls as a kid as I was getting used to it,” Vavra said.


Tanner loved playing sports. Baseball, football or hockey, it didn’t matter. Outside of wearing his patch, he played like any other kid.


Doctors weren’t overly optimistic about his vision and ability to play sports and perform other activities as typically one eye supports the other in terms of vision and depth perception.


“When he was younger, every time we heard it, we’d say ‘Oh, man,’” Lisa Vavra said. “If he doesn’t have depth perception, his brain and body are just compensating so much.”


But the Vavras didn’t necessarily agree. What they saw went against the test results. Lisa recalled one occasion where Joe questioned the results, saying something to the effect of “Your tests tell us that, and he can go out and catch a ball as high as I can throw it in the air.”


Joe Vavra also remembers a time when his son was becoming discouraged. Young Tanner wanted nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps, a star baseball player who had spent his career playing or coaching in professional baseball.


The elder Vavra, who reached Triple-A Albuquerque in the Dodgers organization, remembers that Tommy Lasorda called Tanner to give him a pep talk. Tanner said something about not having the chance to play baseball, and Lasorda, with Joe Vavra listening on another line, challenged Tanner, wondering “Who said that?” and “Did the doctors say that?”


“As a little kid, I think that was a little bit of an inspiration to play with a little chip on your shoulder,” Joe Vavra said.


Although Tanner says it wasn’t too bad, his father also thinks some of the chip he continues to play with today comes from other kids who picked on his son growing up.


“There were times growing up he got called names and picked on, but he’s a tough kid,” Joe Vavra said. “There’s a little chip there. He handled it certainly better than I did.”


* * *


The contact in Vavra’s bad eye and patch over his good eye gradually allowed him begin seeing close to normal in his right eye.


When he was 10, it was time to take the patch off for good. He had stopped wearing the patch for about a week when he suffered another injury to the same eye playing football at a birthday party. His best friend went up for a catch, and Tanner went for the interception.


“They kind of say my right eye’s cursed,” said Vavra, from Menomonie, Wis.


He took a finger to the eye that shattered the contact lens.


“I thought I was in pain because the contact was cutting my eye,” he said.


The family rushed to see a doctor that Saturday, and the doctor reconstructed the contact to make sure there wasn’t anything left in Vavra’s eye. At the time, the doctor didn’t see any further damage.


A few weeks later, while at the children’s museum, Vavra’s father asked him read an eye chart at the museum – Tanner couldn’t read the top line.


Vavra saw more specialists and found that he had a detached retina. Four more surgeries followed to reattach the retina so that his body might adjust to it, not necessarily so he could see again.


* * *


Despite losing the vision in his right eye, Vavra continued playing sports. His lack of vision limited him in spots, but not nearly as much as one would imagine.


“I had to give up left-handed hitting when people started throwing breaking balls,” Vavra said. “I couldn’t pick up the spin.”


He also had what he calls a “double blind side” that caused him to get hit pretty hard a few times in hockey.


But he kept going.


“He never looked at this as a setback,” Joe Vavra said. “He never did that from the time he was a kid.”


By the time he was a junior in high school, Vavra was a very good ballplayer. He made a big and risky decision. 


“I didn’t wear any eye protection because I didn’t want anyone to look at me like I wasn’t the same as everyone else,” Vavra said.


Ultimately, he began wearing protection. And ultimately, his play attracted the interest of Madison (Wis.) College coach Mike Davenport, who saw Vavra playing in a regional high school tournament.


Davenport didn’t know anything about Vavra’s eye. But he liked what he saw on the field, and when Vavra told him about his vision, Davenport didn’t shy away.


“My reaction was I don’t care,” Davenport said.


Davenport loved the energy Vavra showed while playing short and tracked down Lisa Vavra at the game to find out more about her son.


“He was the type of player I like most in that you could just tell he was ultra-competitive,” Davenport said. “For me it’s tough to find guys who are high energy but aren’t out of control. That’s exactly how he plays.”


Still, it was a bit of a leap of faith.


“He had all the athletic ability in the world, but you didn’t know about the eye level and what he could do,” Joe Vavra said. “That guy stuck his neck out for him.”


After taking a medical redshirt his first year, Vavra made 36 starts and batted .407 as a freshman. As a sophomore, he started 45 of 50 games and put up Madison record-book numbers – a .421 average (11th), 69 hits (ninth), 64 runs (fourth), 18 stolen bases (15th). Vavra was named a NJCAA third-team All-American and was a key contributor to the WolfPack’s run to a third-place finish at the NJCAA Division II World Series and a 45-16 record.


Vavra left Madison ranked in the top-15 in school history in average, hits, triples, stolen bases and runs.


“At some point, I think people are thinking this guy can’t play at the highest level,” Davenport said. “At this point, there’s no saying that he can’t. He did it as well against the better guys in the time he was here than anybody we’ve had.”


* * *


Vavra was hurt during his freshman year when Valparaiso coach Tracy Woodson (left) was at a Madison game. Woodson, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers team that won the World Series in 1988, told Vavra to tell his dad hello for him. Later, Valpo assistant Adam Piotrowicz saw Vavra play.


Vavra liked the academics Valparaiso offered and the direction the baseball program was headed. And that his eye wasn’t an issue.


“They didn’t want anything to change, and they didn’t see it as a problem, and that meant a lot for me,” Vavra said. “I didn’t want to play for anyone who saw me as a big league coach’s son…It meant a lot they wanted me to come here to play ball and be myself.


“Not everyone is so open-minded about my eye. Some people still have their doubts.”


Woodson had but a few doubts.


“Number one, our biggest interest in him was how he played the game, whether he had one eye or two eyes,” Woodson said. “He’s a leader on the field, he’s all over the place. We need more players like him.


“Of course, I did have concerns about the hitting part because he goes the other way a lot. Was he late on the ball, what’s going to happen when you see guys throwing 93, 94 miles per hour? We maybe had our doubts a little bit in that area. Once we got him here in the fall, it wasn’t even a question. He’s been a whole lot better than we thought.”


Vavra entered the weekend hitting .423 and was named the Horizon League’s player of the week after his huge weekend against the Razorbacks.


Amazingly, after all he’s been through, and all the critics he’s silenced, Vavra still hears negative comments about his eye. John Loeffler, his roommate and teammate, said Arkansas fans were getting on Vavra, adding, “He doesn’t let that bother him.”


“He’s just got incredible talent,” Loeffler said. “Being his friend and roommate, I’m unbelievably proud of him and all that he’s accomplished.”


And almost as amazing is the fact that the guy with the easiest excuse on the field never takes advantage of his situation.


“I think he’s a typical college player,” Woodson said. “There are no excuses for his eye or how he plays, he’s just like everyone else. I think deep down, he goes out there and he thinks he has something to prove.


“He’s at a disadvantage, but you watch him go out and do his thing, you wouldn’t even know it. It has to rub off on other players, and helps bring the team to another level. It’s fun to watch.”

* * *


It’s a Wednesday night, and Vavra, a sports management major who admits he’s consumed by baseball, is interrupted to talk about his eye. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last time.


Well-spoken and sincere, he tells his incredible story, one that starts with a tragic accident and ends – for now – with one of his greatest baseball memories: scoring the winning run in an upset of No. 5 Arkansas before a crowd of 6,885.


His dreams haven’t changed.


“Ever since I’ve been a little kid, I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps and play professional baseball,” Vavra said. “Whether it happens or not, it’s going to be my dream until somebody tells me I can’t.”


Joe Vavra has been around the game for decades and says he’s most proud that his son has made everything happen on his own, without the help of his connections.


And like most, he continues to be amazed at what his son is doing.


“It’s an interesting story because you just can’t imagine doing what he does under the circumstances,” Joe Vavra said. “It should be quite an inspiration to his teammates and others who might have to overcome some kind of adversity in their life, some kind of physical limitation.”


For his part, Vavra said “I wouldn’t call myself an inspiration,” but he welcomes that description.


You see, Tanner Vavra is different from the lot of us.


“I understand that everybody sees this as a disability, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see myself struggling at all,” he said. “I don’t see it as a disability.”


(photos courtesy of Valparaiso Media Relations Office)