Starting today, The Glenn Burke Memorial Courage Award will be an annual award presented to a person who has made a significant impact on the game of baseball or has overcome adversity to succeed on the field. And it’s with great honor and pleasure that The Hall of Very Good™ announces Tanner Vavra as the inaugural recipient of The Glenn Burke Memorial Courage Award.
At the age of three, Vavra was struck in the eye with a fishing hook during a family vacation. Years later, in another freak accident, he was poked in that very same eye while playing with friends. He would never again see out of his right eye…but he’d never let that stop him from achieving his dream to be a professional baseball player.
Today, the 25-year-old is a former junior college All-American and the starting second baseman for the Cedar Rapids Kernels of the Midwest League.
HOVG: Your story is pretty remarkable. You were drafted in the 30th round in 2013 by the Minnesota Twins…probably as a favor of sorts to your father, who is a member of the Twins coaching staff. Now, a lot of guys taken that late don’t see action on any level, much less guys who are blind in one eye. What do you attribute your success to?
VAVRA: I really don’t know how remarkable my story is. I’ve had to deal with an issue or two that most people feel are impossible to over come, especially in baseball. Everything I read about and was told about on hitting, was that you have to use both eyes. People told me I couldn’t, so I focused harder and took more reps to prove them wrong. As far as being a favor draftee, I can understand common perception with regards to my dad’s job. However, I think that I have a pretty good baseball resume to this point or I wouldn’t have been signed. I know that my dad wouldn’t have wanted my chance to come as a favor and neither would I. I feel that I earned my way here. I attribute all of my success to my family, to my coaches, to all the hard work I’ve put in and staying focused. I’m proud of my personal accomplishments, but the teams’ successes along the way have been the most rewarding. Winning seems to get everyone a little more exposure and scouts come out to evaluate and find out about why you’re winning. There were more than a dozen scouts from professional organizations asking questions and talking to me about playing on after college. That was the first goal, to get attention and get noticed without them knowing anything about your background. I had a several professional teams talk to me about being drafted and I feel I had worked hard enough to see what could happen at the next level.
HOVG: Tell me about that resume.
VAVRA: I was an All-American in junior college and led my team to the College World Series twice. I was a successful Division-I player at Valparaiso University, where we won the conference and conference tournament twice and made the NCAA tourney both years. With Alexandria in the Northwoods League, we made the playoffs my first year and I was the batting champ the following summer. I’m proud of my accomplishments on and off the field, both individually and team wise.
HOVG: I know you played a number of sports growing up. How did baseball become the priority? How much of a part did your dad’s past play in you focusing on just baseball?
VAVRA: Baseball has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve always been around it because of it being my dad’s profession. When I graduated high school and had to decide between hockey and baseball, it was tough. But I couldn’t leave baseball, I had been around the game too long to walk away.
HOVG: Was there ever a “Plan B”? I mean…what if this whole baseball thing didn’t work out?
VAVRA: I guess so. That’s why I went to school, worked hard and earned my college degree. Just in case. After I signed to play pro ball, that degree got put on the shelf. It’ll always be there for a “Plan B” though. But I’m here to play baseball now and that’s all that matters.
HOVG: I saw an interview you did a couple of years ago, where you talked about some of the teasing you’ve been faced with during your years on the diamond. How were you able to block out the heckling and go out there and perform at such a high level?
VAVRA: I just put on the blinders and put in a lot of work. All athletes have to deal with rowdy fans and hecklers…they were just yelling at me for a different reason.
HOVG: Lastly, what words of encouragement would you have for someone who feels as though (either in life in general or in sports) the cards are stacked against them?
VAVRA: To believe in yourself and what God has blessed you with. With faith, hard work, and dedication anything can happen.
The Hall of Very Good™ Class of 2014 is presented by Out of the Park Developments, the creators of the wildly popular baseball simulation game Out of the Park Baseball. Out of the Park Developments has made a generous donation to The Hall.