The basepaths are still 90 feet in length. The baseball still weighs 5.25 ounces. It’s still three strikes and you’re out.
Baseball is baseball, no matter where it is played.
But Joe Vavra and his sons Tanner and Treysen can admit, it sure is nice having the sun hit you on a 90-degree day before a December game.
There aren’t many 90-degree days near the Vavra family home in Menomonie this time of year. But summer baseball weather is abundant in Australia, and that’s where Joe, a Chippewa Falls native, is spending the winter months as manager of the Melbourne Aces of the Australian Baseball League.
The Australian season is just over halfway completed after starting in late October. Joe had little time between the end of the major league season, where he serves as bench coach for the Minnesota Twins, and the beginning of the ABL season.
Taking a coaching job with the Aces meant a four-month stay on the other side of the world for Joe. But it was his family that opened the door to the opportunity.
Both Tanner, 26, and Treysen, 24, play in the Twins’ minor league system.
After Treysen’s season was cut short when he required ankle surgery in August, the Twins’ organization wanted him to play winter ball to make up for the at-bats he had lost.
Melbourne was the destination, the Aces had room for another affiliated infielder, and soon Tanner was on board.
Not long after that the Twins’ Pacific Rim scout in Melbourne suggested to Joe that he manage the team.
“I said, ‘I’ll coach. I’m not that crazy about coming over and managing.’ They agreed to that,” Joe said.
Shortly after, Joe Vavra was announced as manager, becoming the first active MLB coach to manage in the ABL.
“I kind of got backed into it,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s been a lot of fun.”
On Sunday the Aces completed a four-game series in Sydney and are off until playing in Perth this weekend. Joe’s wife, Lesa, and their youngest son, Terrin, have joined them in Australia to enjoy the holidays together in a unique and memorable setting.
They plan to hit a variety of tourist attractions and take in as much wildlife and culture as they can.
And maybe, just maybe, they’ll go to a baseball game or two.
A baseball family
Joe was a top-notch player during his days at Chi-Hi and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1982 out of UW-Stout, becoming the first and only Blue Devil to be drafted.
Injuries ended his playing career before he reached the major leagues, but he’s been as consistent as they come as a coach, having just completed his 29th season in the professional ranks. He has coached at the major-league level with the Twins since 2002.
Both Tanner and Treysen were standouts at Menomonie High School, as was Terrin, who is in his freshman year at the University of Minnesota and will play baseball for the Gophers.
Tanner and Treysen each played two seasons in junior college for the Madison College WolfPack, including one year spent together where the team finished third at the NJCAA Division II World Series.
Tanner was drafted in 2013 out of Valparaiso University and Treysen, after one season at Eastern Illinois, was drafted out of Florida Southern College the following year.
Baseball is in their blood, but circumstances with Joe’s coaching career and the boys’ varying schedules on different teams have always made it difficult for the whole family to enjoy the game together.
“When they’re back in the states, usually I’m checking the scores on one computer and looking at stats on an iPad to figure out what they’re doing,” Lesa Vavra said. “I know that Treysen and Tanner really enjoyed playing together at junior college.
“They work really well together. Joe’s right there and I know he’s got to be super proud because he’s able to watch them.”
Joe was unable to catch many of his sons’ high school games because of obligations with his career. It didn’t stop him from sharing his wealth of knowledge with his kids when he did have opportunities, but this season in Australia is the most time the three will spend together around the game.
That is unless Tanner and Treysen make their way up to the major leagues, where their dad can coach them again.
“It’s been pretty special to get to play with them,” Tanner said of being on the same team as his brother and dad. “In the back of your mind you hope it’s a little foreshadowing to down the road at the big-league level.”
But just as it is for any prospect, the road to the majors is no guarantee. And the Vavras are making sure they savor the time they do have to play ball together.
“That’s been an experience to say the least to have them and to manage them,” Joe said. “You’re never going to get that opportunity to do it again. Life’s pretty short. Taking pride in your family and getting to watch them do what they’ve grown up knowing and doing, it’s pretty special.”
The Aussies and the imports
Driving on the left side of the road may have taken a little getting used to, but it’s far from the only adjustment the Vavras have made in their journey.
It’s heading into the peak of the Australian summer and Treysen recalled the last game in Sydney, playing in 105-degree heat.
“December 20th and it’s 105 degrees,” he said. “It’s something else.”
What took even more getting used to was the baseball culture.
“It’s not their national pastime,” Lesa said. “The intensity level that our family is used to isn’t there. It’s second nature to us, but some of them are just learning the game.”
The ABL is funded in large part by MLB, both as an opportunity for affiliated players to have a place to play in the offseason as well as to expand baseball’s exposure on a world scale.
Teams in the league are comprised of Australian natives and players on loan from MLB, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization and Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League — all the top professional leagues in their respective countries.
It has made Joe’s job as manager an even tougher one. He has to manage a team where the players speak several different languages, are at different points in their careers and have learned the game from a variety of coaches with a variety of philosophies.
“The Aussies are really laid back and the imports are more high-strung,” Joe said. “There’s all kind of different conflicts that come up on a daily basis. Our roster changes over from week to week and I never have the same group of guys. It’s really hard to get team chemistry going from week to week.
“When it comes to style of play, you’re playing with different people each week and that’s not easy. It’s not easy to turn double plays, it’s not easy in the batting order, it’s not easy on the mound. (On) both sides of the ball it’s a little more challenging that way.”
In a small-world moment, Tanner and Treysen ran into an old teammate from the Eau Claire Cavaliers, Yoshinori Machida, a Japanese ex-pitcher who works as a translator for NPB’s Saitama Seibu Lions after a brief stint in the American independent leagues and was assigned to accompany players to Melbourne.
With so much turnover and such a wide range of talent on the roster, it has made having Tanner and Treysen on the team essential for Joe. They provide consistency for him in the lineup and for each other as fellow infielders.
“Playing together obviously is fun for them and they look forward to it each week,” Joe said. “They pull for each other big time.”
Both Tanner and Treysen represented the Aces in the ABL all-star game on Dec. 16 for the World All-Stars, who fell to Team Australia 3-2 in Melbourne.
“They really had a lot of hype about it,” Lesa Vavra said. “It was interesting, all the Aces fans really kind of threw their Aces loyalty out the window because they wanted the Australians to win.”
The Vavras are still adjusting to some of the cultural differences. But for everything that is different there’s something else that’s the same.
With Christmas in the air, carols are commonplace just as much as they are in the United States. Despite the fact that it’s summer, traditional Christmas jingles are the same in Australia as they are in the Chippewa Valley.
“It should be about the sun and the beach and all of that, not ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,’” Joe joked.
‘Our own little family vacation’
Baseball is what brought the Vavras to sunny Australia. But for this week they’re going to try and think about it as little as possible.
They are aware of the special opportunity they have with each other for this short time.
“It’s really unique,” Joe said. “Kind of our own little family vacation, so to speak. We’re playing the game and that’s a little bit taxing and it’s always on our minds, but we get to relax this week before we go to Perth.”
They plan to explore the sites on Great Ocean Road, a long, iconic stretch of highway along the southeastern coast, and continue to take in the culture wherever they can. They will be in Perth for Boxing Day, a national holiday in Australia and a number of other former British colonies the day after Christmas.
“We’re probably never going to get the opportunity again to come over here, especially with our whole family,” Treysen said. “We’re going to really take it in because not a lot of people get to do this and we are pretty thankful for the experience.”
The season continues through January. When it ends, MLB spring training begins and the Vavras go back to their “day jobs.”
A life of baseball leaves little room for family time, especially when multiplied by three ballplayers and a coach. It is what makes this holiday season a special one for their family.
“It’s the first time we’ve really gotten to be together since about last Christmas time,” Terrin Vavra said. “Just getting the opportunity to hang out with everybody and be together is what I’m most excited about. We’re going to do a lot of fun stuff.
“It’s going to be a pretty good Christmas. A different Christmas, but it should be a pretty memorable one.”