The cards were stacked against him, but Tanner Vavra, 23, has managed to rearrange them and build a solid home in the game of baseball.
On Saturday, his path to a lifelong dream took a giant leap as he was selected in the 30th round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Minnesota Twins, where his father, Joe, is the third-base coach. Selected 890th overall in the draft, Tanner became Valpo’s 19th MLB draftee all-time and fifth under seven-year head coach Tracy Woodson.
Tanner also became the second Menomonie High graduate to ever be drafted into Major League Baseball — although 1991 MHS grad Rob Smith and 2006 MHS grad Cole Kraft did spend some time in other professional baseball leagues. Trent Petrie was selected in the 45th round of the 1989 draft (1149 overall) by the Atlanta Braves.
“I actually had talked to the Red Sox the most out of any team,” Tanner said. “I was kind of thinking that they might call and then, luckily, the Twins did.”
The method in which Tanner found out about his baseball future was pretty low-key.
“I was texted by one of the scouts, and he told me congratulations,” Tanner said. “I went and checked the computer and saw my name up there.”
Although Joe was aware that Tanner was on the team’s radar, he didn’t know his oldest (of three) son had been drafted until Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire pounded him in the chest in the sixth inning of the Twins’ game against the Washington Nationals and told him on Saturday.
“He’s earned it,” said Joe. “He’s worked hard for it. He kept his nose to the grindstone and stayed out of trouble and did the right things. He’s become a pretty good leader and is representing the community real well.”
Against all odds
After losing sight in his right eye in a fishing accident at age 3, Tanner went on to earn prestigious honors in one of the most challenging sports for someone with a vision impairment. His senior season at Menomonie High school, Tanner led his 2008 baseball team past a disappointing 4-8 Big Rivers Conference season to defeat Chippewa Falls, 12-3, for a sectional runner up finish — and earned third-team all-state recognition in the process.
The next year, he had to take a medical redshirt after injuring his throwing arm while playing for the Madison College WolfPack. Upon his return, Tanner led the WolfPack to two straight National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Junior College World Series appearances, including a 2011 third-place finish. With his strong play, Tanner was named a 2011 NJCAA third team all-American and earned a 90-percent scholarship to NCAA Division I’s Valparaiso University.
In his first season with the Crusaders, Tanner was named to the Horizon League’s first team and all-newcomer team. This season, he led the entire Horizon League in runs scored (43) and hits (73) while carrying a .330 batting average and .410 on-base percentage, earning him second-team recognition. He also helped Valparaiso to its first League title and first NCAA Division 1 tournament win in 47 years. (He recorded four hits and three runs in a 5-4 regional win over Florida.)
Tanner’s high school coach, Mike King, said, “He’s gone after what he’s wanted. It’s been a dream of his to play Major League Baseball. Now he’s going to get that opportunity.”
Under his own power
That opportunity starts on Thursday when Tanner heads to Fort Myers, Fla., to the Twins training facility. There he will either join of the organization’s rookie clubs or possibly move up to one of the A clubs. Either way, it’s the the opening he’s been looking for — one that has been becoming increasingly difficult to find as the draft has been cut over the years from more than 90 rounds to just 40.
“Every place that he’s played, he’s kind of done it on his own,” Joe said. “Even with all my connections in baseball, we chose as a family to go the route to not necessarily use those connections. ... Go the right way and earn your spot. Keep yourself clean. Work hard; concentrate on your grades, and somebody will take notice. ... If you’re good enough, then you’re going to get chosen.”
The plan worked and Tanner knows what hard work and dedication is all about because of it. Although he’s now in the same organization he’s seen first hand for the last seven years, it’s still not likely Tanner will be working side-by-side with his father any time soon.
“I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me before I get to play for him,” Tanner said.
Even so, he continues to amaze his peers, silence his critics and serve as a role model.
“People can’t even fathom the thought of being able to connect with a baseball squarely with one eye,” Joe said. “You can pitch that way. “It’s a real tough way to go, but he’s living proof that it can be done.”
Coach King points out the positive message Tanner sends out. “I’m proud of him ... and excited to watch where it goes from here,” he said. “If you want something bad enough, it doesn’t matter the hand you’re dealt.
“He’s beaten the odds,” King said. “To everybody that’s told him he’ll never be able to do this: Look at him now. Good for him. He’s a great citizen. He’s a great person.”
With all of his self-made success, Tanner still isn’t forgetting those who helped get him this far as he thanks his family, coaches and everyone else who has helped him along the way.
“It’s pretty special,” said Tanner. “ It’s been the goal from day one. ... Hopefully I can keep up the good work and have a little bit of success.”
His father hopes so, too. “He’s got a pretty good network of people out that he’s influenced or has been influenced by,” Joe said.
“(Tanner is) very driven,” said King. “He’s going to give it whatever it takes. He’s even going to go beyond whatever it takes. He has a dream, and I don’t think he’s going to settle until that dream is reached and he’s exhausted every avenue for it. That’s a mark of good character.”
Tanner is viewing it as another fresh start, something he’s been making a successful career out of.
“I just go back to square one and start over that way. I’m lowest on the totem pole now.”
Tanner Vavra profile
Position: 2nd base
Bat and throw: Right
What others have to say about Tanner
“Even right out of high school, Tanner had a lot of confidence and great knowledge for playing the game. ... He continues to improve his game year after year. All of us from the eagles which him best of luck and will be tracking him in the years to come. ... He was a great teammate.” ---- Menomonie Eagles manager Luke Welch
“Everyone at Menomonie High School is very proud of Tanner's accomplishment. He is an inspiration to all of our student athletes.” ---- Menomonie High School Athletic Director Bart Boettcher
“Tanner is a play who has had to prove himself at every level and now he get the chance to prove himself at the professional level.” ---- Valparaiso Coach Tracy Woodson