Tanner Vavra had a vision, even after eye mishap

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2011 - 11:13 AM

Tanner Vavra can no longer see out of his right eye, but the son of the Twins hitting coach has pushed himself to baseball success.

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Tanner Vavra lost sight in one eye in a childhood mishap 19 years ago, but he found his way to the Northwoods League — and eventually a Division I scholarship.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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ST. CLOUD - Joe and Lisa Vavra were walking to a Menomonie (Wis.) High School football game in October 2005. Tanner Vavra, the oldest of three sons, would be playing linebacker for the Indians.

"Joe's cell phone rang and he stopped to take the call," Lisa said. "It was Ron Gardenhire. He told Joe that the Twins wanted him to be the hitting coach in the big leagues. It was an amazing moment for us."

The Vavra boys -- Tanner, Treysen and Terrin -- found out that night. "We thought it was cool that our dad was going to be a big-league coach," Tanner said. "My dad and mom probably felt more a sense of relief. As a player, he had worked so hard, and he got hurt before he was going to get called up by the Dodgers.

"To have your dream almost a reality, have it taken away, and then to achieve it as a coach was quite an accomplishment."

Vavra was an infielder at Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie and taken in the eighth round by the Dodgers in the 1982 draft. In 1985, he was batting .272 at Class AAA Albuquerque, making the plays at second base and the word was Los Angeles would be calling up an infielder the next day.

There was a play at second base and Vavra suffered a broken thumb. The next spring, he started feeling weak and was diagnosed with desert fever. He wobbled through 38 games in 1986 and his playing career was over.

He became a coach and then a manager in Dodgers system. And that's how the Vavra family -- Joe, Lisa, 3-year-old Tanner and baby Treysen -- were taking in the splendor of a river near Mount Rainier on Aug. 23, 1992.

It was late in the season, and the Yakima rookie team that Joe was managing had an off day. "Joe was fly fishing for trout," Lisa said. "I had the baby in a backpack and we had a rule for Tanner: If he was going to be near the river, he had to have his hand in either Joe's back pocket or mine."

Joe and Lisa decided it was time for lunch. Lisa and the baby headed for the car. Tanner took a hand out of his dad's back pocket and took off toward the car.

"Three-year-olds ... they are so quick," Lisa said.

Joe's cast was in motion -- the whip-whip of a trout fisherman. The little hook on the fly found Tanner and embedded in his right eye.

Surgery was performed that night on Tanner's right eye, and then three more. A contact was placed on the eye and, over several years, his right-eye vision improved -- all the way, to 20-25.

"Tanner had a patch on his good eye for eight years, to make the injured eye stronger," Lisa said. "He could have the patch off one hour a day. He played sports -- baseball, football, hockey -- wearing the patch."

In 2000, Tanner was poked in the right eye during a back-yard game at a birthday party. The contact was broken. Shards were picked out of his eye and the diagnosis was that his vision would be back soon.

Four months later, Tanner couldn't see. It was discovered the retina was detached and four surgeries could not restore his vision. He is now 22 and has been blind in his right eye for 11 years.

• • •

THE ALEXANDRIA BEETLES were visiting St. Cloud's Joe Faber Field on the final weekend of the Northwoods League regular season. Tanner Vavra was playing second base and batting second for the playoff-bound Beetles.

A pregame drawing had designated him as Saturday night's "K Man," meaning if Tanner struck out, fans of the hometown River Bats would get a bargain price on a concession item.

Tanner obliged in the first with a strikeout, then followed with three hits in a 9-5 victory. That lifted his average to .292 in this wooden-bat collegiate league -- a nice recovery from being in the low .200s for the first few weeks of the 70-game schedule.

Vavra had joined the Beetles from Madison (Wis.) Area Technical College, a junior college powerhouse. His brother Treysen was a corner infielder for MATC, the third-place finisher in the 2011 JUCO World Series.

Tanner batted over .400 in both seasons in Madison and signed with Valparaiso, a Division I baseball program, for this fall.

"The Northwoods League has players from big D-I programs," Vavra said. "I think I started with the attitude, 'I hope I can play with these guys.' I finally stopped worrying about that, and started playing like I can."

• • •

YOU ASK JOE VAVRA about Tanner and the loss of his right eye. Immediately, you see pain on his face and he says: "Tanner's done a great job handling it -- made himself an outstanding athlete. He played football, hockey and baseball in high school, and never backed off.

"But all he's gone through started when I got him with a fish hook. You can't get that completely out of your mind."

Tanner acknowledges his father's ongoing angst over what happened late on that morning near Mount Rainier, but said: "He was in the middle of a cast when I took off running. There's nothing he could've done to change what happened.

"I'd rather talk about all the things my dad has given me, including my love for baseball."

Tanner paused, laughed and then added:

"My dad was managing the Great Falls Dodgers when I was born on July 6, 1989. I've always been told the first place my mom and I went when we were released from the hospital was to the ballpark.

"I would say it was determined early that I wanted to be around baseball."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com

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