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Beetles baseball: Vavra has an eye toward the future

Beetles' second baseman Tanner Vavra (middle) was all smiles as his teammates greeted him near the dugout after his seventh-inning home run gave Alexandria a 9-6 lead on Sunday. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken.)

Alexandria Beetles' second baseman Tanner Vavra has never let the fact that he is blind in his right eye affect the vision he had for himself on a baseball field.

Vavra, son of Minnesota Twins' hitting coach Joe Vavra, was a three-sport athlete in high school. He went on to star in the junior college ranks at Madison Area Technical College for two years before signing to play Division I baseball at Valparaiso.

Now in his second summer with the Beetles, Vavra is proving himself as one of the top hitters in the Northwoods League through the first month. All of this has been accomplished without full use of the body's most important sense in baseball.

"I don't remember what it's like to see with two eyes," Vavra said. "It's a blessing in disguise I like to say because I don't know what to compare it to, so to speak. I guess I've never known anything different, so I can't say that it affects me at all."

Vavra was 3 years old when his family was taking advantage of a day off for his father, then a manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, by fly fishing near Mount Rainier outside of Yakima, Washington. Joe was in the middle of a cast when Tanner broke from his father's side to follow his mom, Lesa, who was on her way to get lunch from their vehicle.

The hook from the fly found Tanner's right eye as Joe followed through with the cast. Tanner went through four surgeries and was eventually able to regain much of his vision by wearing an eye patch over his good eye to make his right eye stronger.

Vavra was 10 years old when he was poked in the same eye during a game at a birthday party. This time it detached the retina. Four more surgeries followed but doctors couldn't save any vision in the eye.

As a 10-year-old, Vavra just knew that he loved playing baseball. It was hard for him to register exactly what being blind in one eye might mean for him on the field going forward.

"I think it was something that my parents, grandparents worried about more because they had to listen to the doctors and what they said I couldn't be doing," he said. "But they never let me think that...they just really encouraged me and never let me feel sorry for myself because of that. They told me to just let it make me a stronger person."

That's exactly what Vavra has done ever since. He was one of the top players for a Valparaiso team that went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1968 this past spring. Vavra started 59 games for the Crusaders, hitting .332 with 52 runs scored and an on-base percentage of .425.

He hasn't skipped a beat since joining the Beetles' lineup on June 6. Vavra was third in the Northwoods League with a .390 batting average through Sunday. He had two home runs, 14 runs scored and 17 RBIs in his 17 games played.

"He's just an unbelievable kid," Beetles manager Drew Saberhagen said. "A lot of kids think of it as summer ball. Tanner thinks of it as a chance to win a championship ring. That's why he was signed to a fulltime contract last year, and that's why he was one of the first guys I called this year to see if he wanted to come back."

Vavra's value to this team was on full display in a 12-11 win over St. Cloud on Sunday evening. He tied the game at two apiece in the fourth inning by beating out an RBI single to short. Three innings later, he came to the plate with his team leading 8-6 before sending a 1-0 fastball over the left-centerfield fence. That started Alexandria's third four-run inning of the night.

Vavra finished 2-for-4 with a walk, a hit-by-pitch, two runs scored and three RBIs on Sunday. It was the fourth straight game he finished with multiple hits and the ninth time he had done so this season. In those last four games, he was 9-for-19 with seven runs scored and eight RBIs.

"It all goes back to approach and your mechanics," he said. "I'm putting myself in a good spot to see the ball just because of where my head's at, and my timing is right, right now. I'm just going to ride things out while they're hot and hope they'll stay there for a little while."

Vavra wanted to prove to himself that he belonged with a lot of other Division I athletes in the Northwoods league last summer. He did that by hitting .284 in 162 at-bats during his first stint with the Beetles.

This season, he says he has improved by taking on a better approach at the plate. An admittedly aggressive hitter, Vavra has focused on seeing more pitches and taking advantage of his pitch when it comes.

"I just feel confident," he said. "I'm seeing the ball well. I just have to ride the hot streak. There will be days where I go 0-for-4, 0-for-5 and there will be days like [Sunday] where I have a good day. You just hope for more good days than bad days in baseball. That keeps you afloat."

Vavra seemingly had every reason to wonder if there would be more bad days than good days on the field. But he never used what he didn't have as an excuse. Instead, he's used what he did have to turn himself into the kind of player he always wanted to become.

MorkenEric Morken Eric Morken started as a sports reporter for the Echo Press on July 9, 2007. He is a graduate of Augustana College in Sioux Falls where he majored in journalism and minored in history and communications. In his spare time, Morken enjoys hunting and fishing or just being in the outdoors. He is also an avid Minnesota sports fan. Follow Sports Reporter Eric Morken on Twitter at @echo_sports. Read Eric's sports blog, More with Morken at Areavoices.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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