Twins Talk, July 15 15 Jul 16

TWINS TALK

Versatile Vavra

Story and Photos by Gordy Jones

One of the key figures on the Twins’ coaching staff is their bench coach, the unassuming Joe Vavra. Joe always appears laid back, but he’s one of the busiest guys and best teachers around the clubhouse. He is a classic baseball guy who has done it all, dating back to his high school years when he was captain and MVP of his team during his senior year at Chippewa Falls High School. He went on to play for the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering. Maybe that’s why Joe is such a highly regarded bench coach: he assists manager Paul Molitor in engineering the core of the team. He knows the runners’ speeds, pitch counts, pitch speeds, and has all kinds of statistical knowledge of things related to the game. He assists Paul in making split-second decisions during a game.

Thirty years ago a bench coach was a rarity, although most managers had a go-to guy. In the ’90s, the position became more common, and today, I think that every team has a bench coach. The last manager that I’m aware of who didn’t have one was Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Nowadays the bench coach is one of the most important guys on the staff.  

Joe Vavra was drafted out of college by the Dodgers in 1982, and played in their minor league system for five years. He had a serious hand injury when he was spiked while playing Single-A ball. After a tough recovery, he soon made it to Triple-A where he played for several years. But in 1986, his dream of playing in the majors was shattered when he came down with a severe case of yellow fever, which ended his playing career.

After making a full recovery from the disease, Joe became a coach in the Dodgers’ farm system, and after two years was promoted to manager of their Great Falls team. He bounced around the minors and one season was even the Dodgers’ farm director.  In 1994 and ’96, Joe was named Manager of the Year for the Dodgers’ Yakima team in the Northwest League. Joe was always working with the big-leaguers at spring training, but after 10 year of various minor league coaching gigs, he was promoted to the majors, where he was the Dodger’s base running coach, among other assignments.

During a recent trip to Minnesota, promoting prostate health, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda was making a TV appearance, and he praised Joe Vavra on his coaching skills and baseball knowledge. Joe was unaware of this until I told him. He said in a surprised tone of voice, “Was he? Oh wow! I love that guy. He is such a great ambassador for baseball. All he talks about is baseball. He encourages people all of the time. You know, he was in our clubhouse trying to give us a lift. He knows what we’ve been going through and what a struggle it’s been. He was in there talking to Molly (Paul Molitor) about just staying on course, and believe in what you believe, and keep moving forward – you’re going to have some tough years.”

I asked Joe how he is surviving this tough season, and he answered, “Our record is what it is, and we’re trying to win, of course. But we won’t win unless we play fundamental baseball. That’s my goal. I’m trying to make us more fundamentally intact. The wins will come if you do the right things fundamentally — if you’re in the right position out there, if you’re making the routine plays, if you’re doing the right things on the bases, the right things on the mound, and the right things at the plate. We are approaching it that way, trying to get better for the future — then the wins will come. We have to get grounded. We lost our way here, and we got caught up in all of the losses. But we are putting a good game back together – a solid game! And it helps when you get a few breaks. Someone hits the ball through and runners are moving; before you know it you’ve got a rally started. It helps the pitching, and it helps the defense. When the bats come alive, the play is elevated and everyone’s spirits rise. It’s contagious! ”

Joe has three sons, and they are all in baseball. Tanner plays for the St. Paul Saints, Terrin plays for the University of Minnesota, and Trey plays for the Twins’ Fort Myers Rookie team. What’s even more amazing is that Tanner, who before joining the Saints was in the Twins system, too, can hit a 100 mph fastball even though he has vision in only one eye. Tanner was involved in a couple of freak accidents, one while fishing with his dad. But he is not bitter, he is always positive and will even make jokes about it. He’s a good clubhouse guy, too.

Last year, Trey had ankle surgery and missed most of the season. The Twins wanted him to play some winter ball to help get back into the groove. The winter ball that they found for him was in Melbourne, Australia, and it just so happened that the team Down Under was in need of a manager. The Vavras ended up taking a working-vacation in Australia last winter because Joe signed on as manager, and Tanner joined the team, too. Joe’s wife, Lesa, joined them, and Terrin went down during his college break. The season went from October through early January. Joe said, “Baseball is a little complicated down there, but it was a good family experience.”

Several years ago, when Joe was the Twins’ hitting coach, he told me: “If I can help others to succeed, I’m happy. I’ve always considered whatever my job is, as the best job in the world. When I take that kind of passion towards my work, I never have a bad day.”