Terrin Vavra got backstage access to Twins games as a kid.
His father, Joe, was the hitting coach, studying the action from the bench. Meanwhile, Joe Mauer, Jim Thome and other players would be back in the batting cage, honing their swings. Terrin was the one placing balls on the tee.
"He wasn't just a kid that was hanging out in the cage; he was actually helping out," Joe Vavra said. "He was like my assistant back then."
Now, Terrin Vavra is taking big swings himself. The junior shortstop is batting .387 for the No. 11 Gophers, who won the Big Ten regular-season title last weekend and open the conference tournament Wednesday in Omaha.
The Gophers are a lock for the 64-team NCAA tournament and could become one of 16 first-round regional hosts, something that hasn't happened at Minnesota since 2000.
"We're ready to match up with anyone in the country at any time," Vavra said. "We play with kind of a chip on our shoulder because a lot of people don't give us the credit we deserve."
The Gophers went 18-4 in Big Ten play, with Vavra's consistency as the No. 3 hitter helping fuel their success. Besides holding the conference's second-highest batting average, he leads Minnesota with nine homers, 50 RBI and a .618 slugging percentage.
The youngest of three brothers, the 6-foot, 190-pound Vavra wasn't always this imposing. He was undersized before hitting a growth spurt as a junior at Menomonie (Wis.) High School.
The Gophers took interest his senior year, but until then, he wasn't heavily recruited. He was less focused on travel ball and showcases than other aspiring college players.
"None of my boys did all that," Joe Vavra said.
"They played mostly local baseball. I always believed if you're good enough, and your abilities show, somebody will find you."
Both older brothers played Division I baseball — Tanner at Valparaiso and Trey at Eastern Illinois — and Gophers coach John Anderson said Terrin had an "advanced hitting approach" the moment he stepped onto campus.
But Vavra developed a stress reaction in his spine as a Gophers freshman, costing him about half the season. He batted .358 when he played. Last season, he started 50 games, batting .308, but couldn't work out between games until last summer, in the Cape Cod League.
"Combine his talent and his baseball IQ and the fact he's been healthy, and I think you're seeing what we thought we had all along," Anderson said. "And that's a very talented player."
And one who continues to lean heavily on his dad's advice. The two speak by phone each day. Joe Vavra was a Twins assistant for 11 years before joining his former boss, Ron Gardenhire, this season in Detroit.
The Tigers made their season debut at Target Field this week, and Joe Vavra stopped by Gophers practice Monday at Siebert Field to congratulate Anderson on his 11th regular season Big Ten title.
In Omaha, the Gophers will be aiming for their first conference tournament title since 2010. Then comes the NCAA tournament and the MLB amateur draft (June 4-6), with Vavra a potential pick between rounds 5-10.
"If I get the opportunity [to be drafted], that'd be awesome," he said. "But I'm kind of focused right now on our team, and that will take care of itself."
Soon, he'll have a decision: whether to turn pro or return for his senior year.
"He's going through all the stuff, being scouted and analyzed, doing all the health and eye tests, everything they can think of," Joe Vavra said.
"They do that for the top 300 in the draft, so I guess he fits somewhere in that range."
It's a lot to think about, but Joe Vavra reminds his son of the lessons learned from Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Denard Span.
"They were all high-profile guys who went high draft and they had that pressure," Joe Vavra said. "He got that experience from them."
Call it payback for all those balls Terrin Vavra placed on the tee.