In his second season with the St. Paul Saints, infielder Tanner Vavra has come to epitomize the style of play that has made the Saints one of the best teams in independent baseball. He is not a huge home run hitter, isn’t likely to hit .330, and won’t steal 30 bases, but he will come out every night and do all the little things that a team needs to be successful. Whether it is making the right first step on a ball hit into the hole, laying down a perfect sacrifice that puts the winning run in scoring position, or aggressively taking a calculated risk to go for the extra base that gives his team a chance at another run, Tanner is the kind of player that every manager would find a great addition for his team.
He is a different kind of five-tool player, one who hits for average, has exceptional range as a fielder, who runs well and smart on the base paths, handles the bat well, and puts the ball in play, traits that have made him a great fit for the Saints. Tanner has proven that he truly belongs in professional baseball.
Not to Beat a Dead Horse, But…
If you are a fan of baseball then the Tanner Vavra story is one that is probably familiar to you. The infielder lost the sight in his right eye when he was three and it became a permanent condition when he was 10. Despite that, Tanner proved that no obstacle was too great for him to overcome.
While the eye created a serious obstacle, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone seemed sure that there was no way that he could play baseball. The problem was that getting on the diamond was all he wanted to do; after all, it was the family business.
“Baseball is a family affair. It’s something we’re used to now. Everyone gets it, we have a big family and it’s trickled outside through our immediate family to our cousins who have gone on to play college baseball, we have other nephews or nieces or uncles who have coached at various high schools or colleges, so it’s a family game.”
Tanner’s dad is a coach for the Minnesota Twins, he has a brother playing baseball at the University of Minnesota, and another in the Twins system. It truly has become the thing to do in the Vavra household, and so not playing baseball would be like Pete Rose, Jr. deciding to be a dentist. It just wouldn’t fit.
Tanner proved that he had what it took to be successful in the game, earning three letters in baseball at Menomonie High School (WI), as well as being named to the All-Conference team twice and even earning All-State honors as a senior. The injury may have seemed like an obstacle to some, but it was clearly not going to be one to the infielder.
“You hear a lot of people telling you that you can’t play. Heck, even the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to. But I had parents that told me I could do it if I worked hard, and I wasn’t going to be told no. I wanted to play baseball.”
Most would be amazed at his performance but, as with anything, jealousy arose among other players and it was not long before they were using the injury as a taunt to try to get under his skin.
“Coming through high school, kids can be mean especially when you are more talented and more athletic than them. They’re going to find any way possible to get inside your head. That is what they tried to do, they tried to get inside my head that way. When they weren’t successful it frustrated them more and they just got meaner and meaner.”
He may not have been showing them that their words hurt, but it did anger him. Tanner found himself angry at the world and it took some time for him to get over the fact that he even had the injury.
“I was really angry for a long time. I was real angry, and I still am, but I have just matured. I have a higher level of maturity to handle it. You can ask my brothers, I wasn’t fair to them either. I took out my aggression on them in terms of always trying to push them to be better, yelling at them too much.”
College Becomes a Stepping Stone
After graduating high school, Tanner Vavra moved onto play junior college at Madison Area Technical College. He would play two seasons there, hitting .407 his freshman season and .421 in his sophomore year. He also successfully stole 32-bases combined and was named to the All-North Central Community College Conference Team in his sophomore year.
His time with Madison proved that he could compete at any level, but it also gave him the opportunity to get instruction from a man who had a profound impact on his career.
“I owe a lot to my junior college coach at Madison Tech, Mike Davenport. When I went down there I went down with my dad, and we both liked his philosophy and by the time I left there it was like hit-and-run, guaranteed hit. It wasn’t like put the ball on the ground; it was hit the ball hard, but we need you to swing at it no matter what. I learned to just shorten up and make sure I could do that. I really learned how to handle the bat there. I learned how to bunt really, really well there, especially during my freshman year.”
After two seasons at Madison, Tanner transferred to Valparaiso University for his junior season. Vavra started the season at second, appearing there for 31 games, before moving to short when an injury necessitated the move. The transition did not hurt his play at the plate whatsoever as he hit .332 with 52-runs scored and 20-RBI. He was voted to the All-Horizon Conference Newcomer Team, leading the team in runs scored, total bases, and stolen bases.
It was a remarkable season that caught the attention of the Minnesota Twins, who selected him in the 30th round in the 2013 amateur draft.
Making a Statement on the Field
Most gushed over how Tanner Vavra was able to have such success on the field despite having an injury that left him blind in one eye. What was being missed was that he was not earning his place because an injury gave him some kind of assistance, like baseball had some form of affirmative action program. Tanner earned exactly where he was and did not see the injury as any hindrance at all. In fact, it became a true motivator for him.
“People tell you can’t do it and that made me angry. I knew I could play baseball no matter what. I just had to work harder than everyone else to get where I got. I have a lot to people to thank for putting that chip on my shoulder and all the people that told me that I couldn’t do it. So, thanks!”
In 2013, Tanner reported to Elizabethton of the Appalachian League where he hit .246 in 42-games. He showed a good eye at the plate, walking 21 times in 42-games, posting a .358 on-base percentage. The next season, the infielder moved to Cedar Rapids (Mid-A) where he hit .258 with 39-runs and 22-RBI in 81-games. He also kept his on-base percentage near .350 (.345) and played outstanding defense for the team.
Tanner kept moving up the Twins organization, moving to High-A Fort Meyers in 2015. He hit .258 there as well, scored 33-runs and posted a .346 OBP. In the off-season, he played winter ball in the Australian Baseball League, hitting .309 with 2-homers and 17-RBI in 45-games.
Vavra had a solid season at the plate everywhere he had been, and had played outstanding defense, but the Twins decided to release him coming out of spring training in 2016, and he was looking for an opportunity to keep playing. That is when he turned to a former teammate to try to get an opportunity.
“I had reached out to Nate Hanson right after I left the Twins and asked him if they needed somebody and luckily he thought enough of me as a player and as a person to call (Saints Manager) George (Tsamis) and get me in touch with him. George asked me to show him what I had, he told me he wasn’t promising me anything, but I had a good preseason and throughout the season it was a huge benefit to him as well because he asked me to do whatever and I was comfortable with doing it.”
Tanner was signed by the St. Paul Saints for that very reason. He could play several positions and, with a 22-man roster, that is an essential trait. His versatility proved to be a big asset right off.
“Opening day I was at second, Nate Hanson gets drilled in the arm and can’t throw for a few days so I was at third for a few days. Then I go to short for a long time last year. This season I came in here and realized it was going to be short and second. I just want to be in the lineup and hit, so I don’t care where George wants to put me.”
In 79-games, Tanner hit .270 with 33-runs and 22-RBI. He also scored 33-runs and added 9-steals. While he played outstanding defense wherever his manager placed him, it was the way that he handled the bat that made him even more valuable to the Saints.
“He can do anything at the plate because he has such good bat control,” Manager George Tsamis explained about Vavra. “He allows us to play for the bigger inning because he can get on base, or we can do things to try to scratch out a run because he can bunt or hit and run. He makes our lineup a lot more versatile.”
This is one of those areas where Tanner has proven to be a real star in the game. He understands his game and has accepted who he is as a hitter. Instead of working to be something that he is not, he has done everything he can to make sure that he is the very best in all aspects where he knows he can succeed.
“That’s what Davenport taught me. He told me, ‘You’re never going to be the five year, hundred million dollar guy. You’re going to be that guy that flies under the radar and plays good defense and scores 100 rounds a year.’ I kinda ran with that. I try to have a running game, an RBI a game and that’s what I want to do. I want to walk, I want to get on base and put some pressure on.”
A True Student of the Game
If you spend any time with Tanner Vavra, one thing you will learn is that he truly understands the nuisances of the game about as well as anyone you will find. It helps when you have a dad who is a Major League coach and family friends like Tommy Lasorda, but Tanner has done a lot of studying on his own, and it shows in how he describes building chemistry with his fellow infielders.
“All these guys here, Tony (Thomas), Nate, (Brady) Shoe (Shoemaker) are all veterans. When we are playing together there is like 30 years of professional baseball experience out there. That is huge, because these guys really know how to play the game, but it takes working with them and getting to know them to know how to position myself and what to expect when playing with them. Even Jon (Kristoffersen) is getting that. He is a young guy, but he is so smart in this game and we are really learning how to communicate well with one another.”
That may not seem like much of a process, but consider all that runs through his mind in turning a double-play and it is easy to have much greater appreciation. After all, Tanner not only has to worry about a runner bearing down on him, making sure he has his foot on the bag, that he makes an accurate throw to first, but he also has to be in position to receive the ball in the first place and where it could be coming from, all in the span of about 1.5-seconds. However, the infielder makes it sound so easy.
“Playing with Nate, I know that when he throws the ball that it is coming in low so I have to adapt to that as compared to Tony who is feeding it to me more in my chest area. When I am at second I know Jon is going to come at different positions with the ball depending upon where he is playing and I have to prepare for that as well. Then there are things like are we facing a right-handed or left-handed batter, where is the shortstop, second baseman, or third baseman playing, who is on base at the time, am I covering for the stolen base? There is also what kind of pitch is going to be thrown, and where the batter is likely to hit the ball. These are all things that I have to know before the ball is pitched because it affects the way the throw is coming to me and how I need to position myself to make the catch and turn to make the throw to first.”
There must be an algebraic equation involved here.
The truth is that Tanner is quite correct that he has to be better than everyone else in every facet of the game to even be given a chance. It is not that he can’t play baseball at the highest levels; it is that no one wants to believe that he can. He is already at a huge disadvantage because all that any scout or baseball executive wants to see is that in one eye he can’t see, not that he is as talented as many of the great utility players that have excelled in their role in the Major Leagues.
Providing Inspiration Because of Those Who Inspired Him
While not allowing the injury to be any kind of handicap or crutch, he is honored that his success has helped to inspire people across the globe.
“More and more, it became a bigger deal as I kept advancing on. You realize your inspiring other kids to keep working at something. Tommy Lasorda, Uncle Tommy, has told my story to people. It is great to know that kids are being inspired.
“I’m glad that they’re not stopping. I’m glad that they’re going to keep playing Little League. Every little kid should play baseball. It’s been a kid’s game and it always will be a kid’s game. You shouldn’t lose that in your childhood just because you have this. That’s what I’m here for. I always tell everyone, I don’t know how far this will work or why it works for me, but you better try.”
While being humbled by the opportunity to inspire others, it has been the inspirations in his own life that have played a huge role in getting him to where he is today. It starts with his dad, who has not only been a great inspiration to him, but also has been an incredible teacher, one he wished he had listened to more when he was younger.
“The first thing I said when I got to college was I told my brother I wasted four years with dad at home; I didn’t listen to him enough. ‘You need to listen.’ So, Trey got two years in the high school and he told Terrin that he needed to listen to him. There was a point where we realized that our dad’s pretty intelligent in this game and is not just a normal dad. He’s always been the one who worked with us; we’ve always wanted to work with him because when you’ve worked with him for 20+ years and he is your father it’s an added bonus.”
His grandfather has also earned a special place in Tanner’s heart.
“My grandfather basically raised us for the times when our dad wasn’t there. He helped my mom out a lot. With three boys we needed an extra car, so my grandfather was at a lot of our games. My first college game I was playing in Arizona on a Thursday, and my grandfather left on Monday morning and he and my grandmother came because nobody else could make it for that game.”
While appreciative of these two, there is one person who has stood out the most. A person who he has come to appreciate so much more as he has matured – his mom.
“God bless my mom. She’s got four boys playing baseball or coaching baseball, so she’s got the Twins on the TV, my game on the iPad, my brother’s game on the cell phone, my other brother on the computer. She’s there with four devices on while she’s trying to take care of three dogs when she’s not on the road traveling. She retired just so she could watch us more.
“The older I get, the more I realize how much my mom has done for me. It takes a pretty strong person to do what she does with her whole family traveling. With me playing at home and my little brother going to the U (University of Minnesota) you can just see how happy this makes her because she’s gotten to see me more now than she has in quite a while. She gave up teaching so that we could travel, she homeschooled us, and put in endless hours with that. A lot of opportunities that we have had have been because of her.”
A lot of opportunities have been created for Tanner Vavra because of his parents and his grandfather, but it has been the hard work that the St. Paul Saints infielder has put in that has really earned him his place in professional baseball. Many will look at Tanner and think how incredible it is that he has been able to get to this point or may wonder what could have been had he not suffered the injury, but the truth is that the injury may have been a blessing.
All it has done is drive him to be one of the hardest working players in the game and has helped to turn the infielder into a truly astute student of the game of baseball. It is true that he may not make it to the Majors, but no one should think for a second it was because of his eye. St. Paul Saints infielder Tanner Vavra has created an impressive resume that speaks for itself. There is simply no need to add a qualifier to that.
Featured Images Courtesy of Betsy Bissen, St. Paul Saints
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA