Heading in to the 2014 season, expectations were limited with regard to the Cedar Rapids Kernels. The team’s fortunes would likely turn on the performance of a staff of young, highly heralded pitching prospects. The offense, meanwhile, could very well struggle to score enough runs to keep the Minnesota Twins’ Midwest League affiliate competitive.
That hasn’t exactly been the way things have played out, so far, but as the Kernels near the end of July, they’re in contention for a playoff spot in the MWL’s Western Division and both their hitting and pitching has been starting to gel.
Infielder Tanner Vavra is just one of the Cedar Rapids players contributing with his bat and glove.
Vavra’s story can’t be told without mentioning that he’s blind in his right eye, the result of a fishing accident at age three and a subsequent injury suffered playing football several years later. For many kids, perhaps most, that would have been the end of playing baseball. Others might have fought through the challenge and played high school ball, but professionally?
Vavra, however, went on to play college ball at Valparaiso University and did well enough to be drafted by the Twins in the 30th round of the 2013 amateur player draft. His ability to play baseball at a professional level with vision in just one eye inevitably comes up during interviews. That could give a player a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Vavra said questions about his eyesight don’t bother him much anymore.
“It’s kind of come and gone. That used to be the biggest concern.” said Vavra. “People doubted me. It irritated me for a while and it’s still a little chip, but I’m just trying to get rid of the whole, ‘you’re here because of your dad,’ type deal.”
Vavra is the son of Minnesota Twins base coach Joe Vavra, so he comes by his baseball talent naturally, but the relationship can also lead some to question whether Vavra earned his spot in the Twins organization.
“I haven’t gotten anything like that from the players, they’ve all been great. I haven’t heard that once. It’s from bloggers and those people that somehow send a letter to your house and tell you that you don’t belong. That’s my chip right now. The eye thing is always going to be there, but that’s my new chip.”
While it’s understandable that Vavra would be sensitive to suggestions that he hasn’t earned his place in pro ball, having a father in the game has its benefits.
“This offseason, I got to work with him for 5-6 months,” Vavra said. “That’s incredible. Going from usually working with him for three or four weeks over Christmas break to five months. It was definitely helpful.”
Tanner also got to spend a little extra quality time with his father more recently.
“We had the off-day on the All-Star Game, so I actually was able to go up and see the All-Star Game,” Vavra explained. “And then rode back (to Cedar Rapids) with him, so I got to spend some time in the car with him.”
Joe saw Tanner play for the Kernels on the day after the big league All-Star Game and then drove back to the Twin Cities to rejoin the Twins the next day.
“He doesn’t get to see me play a whole lot, especially in person. The last time was probably two summers ago. With their schedule and our schedule, it will be the last time, probably, in a real game until either he’s done with baseball or I would make it to the big leagues,” said the infielder. “So, it’s special. He got to see me a little bit in spring training, although he tried to keep his distance, watch from a distance. But you know, when it’s a family game like it is, you want to make dad proud and you want to kind of stand out to him and let him know that he did a pretty good job.”
Vavra’s year got off to a hot start. He hit .344 for the Kernels in the month of April, but enters the final week of July with a .239 average. The 25-year-old infielder isn’t happy with the way his season has progressed since that hot April start, however.
“It’s been very disappointing for me because I don’t feel like I’ve been helping the team as much as I should or as I’m capable of,” Vavra said. “I just hit a wall and I didn’t know how to knock that one down for a while and I’m slowly trying to save a season, personally. But most importantly, try to help the team win when I am in the line up.”
While Vavra hasn’t been able to maintain his lofty early-season batting average, he has continued to be among the Kernels’ more reliable clutch hitters, posting a .304 batting average with runners in scoring position on the season.
“It’s one of those things where my RBI total isn’t as high as it probably could be,” Vavra said over the weekend. “But I do feel like, for the most part when I’ve had opportunities at the plate, I’ve been hitting well with runners in scoring position. I don’t try to put extra pressure on myself or anything. I try to do the exact opposite, try to make it easier on myself – tell myself I have to put (the ball) in play.”
“He’s a guy that really obviously has been around the game his whole life, with his dad being a professional baseball guy,” said Kernels manager Jake Mauer of his second baseman, earlier this year. “He’s got a lot of baseball instincts. He knows himself as a player. He knows what he needs to do and he plays to his strengths.”
Last month, the Vavra family added another name to their roll of professional ballplayers when the Twins drafted Tanner’s brother, Trey, in the 33rd round of the draft.
“Yeah, I’m just glad that he gets to keep playing,” said Tanner, of his brother. “He definitely has earned it. We’ll hopefully get to spend a few spring trainings together and get to be teammates again. Right now, we want to just play good baseball.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.