Joe Vavra doesn’t need a Father’s Day present. He received his gift last week in the sixth inning of a game in Washington when Twins manager Ron Gardenhire approached him in the dugout, smacked him hard on the chest and said, “Congratulations.”
Vavra’s son, Tanner, had just been selected by the Twins in the 30th round of the MLB draft.
“A really cool moment,” the proud dad said.
Any father would feel that way. But this was different because Tanner had to kick down so many barriers to reach this point. He’s blind in his right eye, and playing baseball is hard enough with two good eyes. So yeah, his father, the Twins former hitting coach and current third base coach, gets a little emotional when he talks about his son’s refusal to place limitations on himself.
“Tanner has earned everything he’s got,” Joe said. “He’s never been coddled or treated specially. I never used my connections with baseball. I wasn’t going to make it easy on him because if he was going to survive, it would be tough for him to do that.”
Joe doesn’t remember the rest of the inning after Gardenhire gave him the good news. His emotions, mostly elation, overtook him.
Tanner’s injury stemmed from a fishing accident as a child. Joe was fly fishing and 3-year-old Tanner ran by as his father was in the middle of his cast. The hook caught Tanner’s right eye. Tanner recovered with the help of four surgeries and a contact lens. But a freak accident during a backyard game in 2000 caused him to lose his sight permanently in that eye.
Joe has lived with emotional pain over the initial accident, but the family never has dwelled on it.
“When he reaches a milestone like being drafted, it eases some of the pain,” Joe said. “But things happen for a reason.”
That’s how they’ve always approached Tanner’s condition. He has a disability by definition only. His path in sports might be harder but not impossible, regardless of what he’s told.
“He’s had to prove that he can do it,” Joe said. “It’s always going to be like that because there’s a world of doubters out there.”
Joe had his doubts, too. That’s only natural, right? Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things in sports, and even the best players fail on a consistent basis. But Tanner, a second baseman at Valparaiso, just kept rising through the ranks unencumbered by his challenge.
“I’m not going to doubt him anymore,” Joe said. “I was just like everybody else [thinking] he was going to get to a certain point and that’s it. I quit doubting him.”
Joe is tickled that his son begins his pro career with the Twins organization, which says a lot about the way he handled his reassignment after seven seasons as hitting coach. He didn’t quit in a huff or use his baseball contacts to find another job with a different team. Informed by General Manager Terry Ryan that he was being replaced by Tom Brunansky, Vavra told his boss that he picked the right guy.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of animosity or anything like that,” Vavra said.
By nature, hitting coaches become easy targets in assigning credit or blame, and Vavra received an unfair amount of criticism last season. Hitting was not the Twins’ primary problem. But the organization felt compelled to shake up the coaching staff to give the appearance to a frustrated fanbase that losing won’t be tolerated.
Vavra accepted the news and promised to pour himself into his next role.
“My allegiance to Terry and Gardy is pretty strong,” he said. “You want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.”
There’s not a hint of bitterness in his tone. He said he loves his job. In addition to coaching third, he makes defensive charts and helps with infield positioning and base running. He also organized the daily schedule in spring training.
And while he used to spend hours upon hours in the batting cage before games, he doesn’t stop by anymore.
“That’s Bruno’s job,” he said. “We confer and talk about players and things that he’s trying. But I’ve got too much to do myself.”
He has one more thing to track now. Tanner accepted his $1,000 signing bonus and was scheduled to report to Fort Myers with other draft picks this week. His father has encouraged him to keep a journal so that he can share his story with others.
“Whatever he accomplishes beyond this point, it’s just another chapter in the book,” Joe said. “He’s going to be an inspiration. He doesn’t look at it as he’s disabled. As long as he’s got that belief, why should anybody doubt him?”