Sykeston is a small town fastened to a wheat field in North Dakota. It's about 14 miles west of Carrington, which is nine miles west of Melville, which is 34 miles west of Jamestown, which is 98 miles west of Fargo. Most of the businesses along Main Avenue have long been shuttered -- the Wagner Meat Shop, Kurus Barbershop, Old Doc Eummer's dentist office. The only one that's still thriving is the Wild Mustang saloon, home to the biggest Travis Hafner fan club west of the Mississippi.
Whenever the Cleveland Indians play, Sykestonians belly up to the bar to watch their hometown hero on satellite TV. "We usually get around 15 spectators," says Maurine Hawks, the Wild Mustang's owner and barkeep. "That's a lot considering the entire population of Sykeston is 75." On Bingo Night, the game screeches to a halt every time the Tribe's designated hitter steps to the plate. "All eyes are on Pronk," says Hawks, invoking Hafner's primeval-sounding nickname, which he got when he broke into the majors and now prefers to Travis.
The Wild Mustang is a kind of Temple of Pronk. Showcased in a glass case near the door are a Pronk bobblehead doll, Pronk baseball cards, a Pronk jersey, a Pronk key chain and a box of Pronk bars, the chocolate confection sold only in C-Town. "He's our Pronk," Hawks explains. "He came from a little town in nowhere and followed his dream to somewhere."
Of the 15 Flickertail State natives to reach the big leagues, none have been as formidable, and few as unlikely, as the 29-year-old Hafner. (Another lefthanded basher, Roger Maris, was raised in Fargo but born in Hibbing, Minn.) "Until he got to college, Pronk had never attended a school that offered baseball," marvels Indians rightfielder Casey Blake. "He took a very peculiar path to the Show."
Since becoming Cleveland's full-time DH in 2004, the Texas Rangers' castoff has averaged 34 homers and 111 RBIs; he has slugged no less than .583 in any of those seasons, and his lowest on-base percentage is .408. Last year he became the first player to hit five grand slams before the All-Star break, and his 1.098 OPS led the American League. When a fractured ring finger ended his season on Sept. 1, he had 42 dingers and ranked first or second in the American League in three offensive categories. "Pronk is one of the top three hitters in the game," says Indians manager Eric Wedge, who declines to name the other two. "If not for that hand injury, he might have been the best of 2006".
The 6'3", 240-pound slugger widely considered to be baseball's strongest is a mild, diffident fellow who laughs easily and often. "He's shy and very short with words," says his garrulous bride, Amy, whom he married in November. "After he met my parents, I asked Dad, 'Do you like him?' My father said, 'He seems really nice, but can he talk?'"
Mostly, Hafner lets his bat do the talking. At Jacobs Field, his 33-ounce Sam chatters along to the fanfare of the German industrial metal band Rammstein. "I have no idea what those guys are singing, but their music gets me pretty pumped up," he says. "The lyrics could be about anything -- that's kind of the beauty of it."
Rammstein translates to "battering ram" -- which doesn't begin to describe Hafner's ability to break games open. "He can hit the ball out of Yellowstone," says Bob McClure, the Royals pitching coach. "He has Reggie Jackson-type power with better plate discipline." White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper reaches back to the Stone Age to find Pronk's antecedent. "He reminds me of Barney Rubble in a uniform, and I mean that in a complimentary way," says Cooper, who adds, "I'm not going to talk about what we'll try and do against him differently this year in detail, but soft stuff seems to have positive results. If I have my say, this guy will no longer have a chance to beat us. We'll pass and go onto the next guy. Use our get-out-of-jail-free card with him."
Some DHs would rather play in the field. "It keeps my mind from wandering," says Jason Giambi, the sometime first baseman of the Yankees. But Hafner, who has played first in only 11 intraleague games since 2004, embraces the limitations of DH'ing. Between at bats Hafner watches game tapes in the clubhouse, rides a stationary bike in the weight room and swats balls off a tee in a cage beneath the stands. "Just one drawback to DH'ing," he says. "It's hard to work on your tan."
A creature of simple appetites, Pronk is. "Every morning he has Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies or Lucky Charms," says Amy. "He once had Lucky Charms 30 days in a row. That might have been overdoing it." When Amy met him, he also had a three-meal rotation: steak, spaghetti and hot dish. A Dakotas delicacy, hot dish consists of noodles, ground beef and Campbell's tomato soup. Tomatoes figure prominently in his diet -- about the only food on which he doesn't dump ketchup is ketchup. "Travis puts it on everything," Amy says. "Steak, chicken, eggs, corn, you name it."
His attire is equally uncomplicated. "He's easy to buy gifts for," Amy says. "All he ever wants are jeans and wrestling T-shirts." Hafner owns 50 pro wrestling T-shirts, all black. Amy's favorite from the Hafner Collection reads, i'm not very smart, but i can lift heavy things. "Pronk enjoys his dumb image," says Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "It makes pitchers underestimate him."
Which is not to suggest that Pronk is as thick as a brontosaurus burger. Far from it. He was valedictorian of his high school. Of course, the class had only eight students. "I had a 3.99 GPA," Hafner says. He adds, sheepishly, "In my junior year I got an A-minus in world history. Some foreign countries I wasn't much interested in."
He became Pronk in 2001, during his first spring training with the Rangers. At the time, Hafner answered to Project (because he was so green) and Donkey (because he circled the bases with the clumsy canter of a jackass). One day teammate Bill Selby yelled, "Hey, Project. What's up, you big donkey?"
Hafner bristled: "You can't call me both!"
So Selby tried fusing the two handles. "Donkject didn't sound quite right," Hafner says. "But Pronkey...."
Pronkey begat El Pronko, which begat Pronk. "I'm to the point where I like it better than Travis," he says. "Everyone calls me Pronk." Well, not everyone. "The truth is, I hardly ever call him Pronk," says his mother, Bev. "I prefer the Pronkinator."
Pronk's parents live on a 3,500-acre spread off Highway 52. Hafner doesn't know the street address. "Just look for the second house on the right after the rest stop," he says, helpfully. "The one with the Quonset hut and the tractors and the black cement bears on the front lawn."
Hafner honed his batting stroke by whacking rocks in the backyard. "I'd tell him to aim for the field," says his father, Terry, "not the grain bins." Terry was born in Sykeston, like his father and father's father. Bev is an immigrant. "She's from Cathay," says Travis. Not China, mind you, but a town seven miles north of Sykeston.
When Travis was growing up, his mom ran Bev's Beauty Shop out of the farmhouse basement. She trimmed her younger son's locks until he left home. "I've shaved my head ever since," says Travis, exulting in the fact that he's never had to pay for a haircut.
Terry raised wheat, barley, flax, corn, sunflowers and pinto beans. Travis hated farmwork. "I'd always get stuck with the jobs my dad and my brother, Troy, didn't want." Sports, though, he loved. He excelled at the discus and the triple jump, and played power forward on the Sykeston High basketball team. His hoops coach, Jon Bertsch, vividly recalls the practice in which Travis's windmill dunk shattered a glass backboard. "Travis had tremendous raw strength," Bertsch says. "[Another time], he grabbed the rim, pulled himself up and jammed the ball into the net."
Since the school in Sykeston had no baseball program, Hafner played American Legion ball during the summer. The country-strong catcher was so dominant that after graduation he tried out with the Atlanta Braves in Bismarck. The Braves were impressed -- slightly. They dangled a $1,000 signing bonus. Though Hafner turned it down, he took a scout's advice to sandpaper his skills at a college in the Midwest.
Despite his mother's misgivings -- "I didn't want him to leave for the big city," cracks Bev -- Hafner enrolled at Cowley County Community College in the bustling metropolis of Arkansas City, Kans. (pop. 11,581). Hafner left Sykeston with good manners, powers of intense concentration and a complete ignorance of the game's finer points. When a coach offered to take him out for some fungoes, Hafner replied, "That's great. I'm ready. Uh ... what's a fungo?" Told to advance a runner from second by hitting to the right side, he exclaimed, "Like, cool!"
The best counsel of all came from Terry, who drove down with Bev for an important game. Straining to wow his folks, Travis took the collar. "Pretend you're in the backyard hitting rocks," said Dad afterward. Hafner did and flourished. As a freshman he hit three consecutive homers in a game. As a sophomore he was the Juco World Series MVP, pasting a three-run shot in the championship game.
The Rangers picked him in the 31st round of the 1996 draft. After struggling early -- "In rookie ball I was told if I didn't improve, I'd be released" -- he tore up the Florida State League (batting .346) in 2000 and the Pacific Coast League (.342) in '02. Still, he languished in the Texas bushes behind a conga line of power-hitting first basemen, from Rafael Palmeiro to Mark Teixeira. Happily for Hafner, he was traded to Cleveland during the winter of 2002. When the Indians elected to allow the fearsome Jim Thome to walk as a free agent the following spring, Pronk got his chance. The rest is current events. During the 2005 season he signed a three-year, $7 million deal.
The one rap on Hafner is that he's an injury magnet. He was sidelined for a total of 82 games with a broken toe (2000), wrist surgery ('01), another broken toe ('03), elbow inflammation ('04) and a concussion caused by getting beaned in the face ('05). The worst break of all may have been the one he suffered last September in Arlington. With the bases full and Pronk at the plate, an errant C.J. Wilson fastball pulped his right hand. The hit by pitch gave him 110 RBIs, a franchise record for a DH. "I thought my career as a hand model was over," he says. When initial X-rays indicated the hand wasn't broken, Hafner was ecstatic. Alas, further tests revealed a hairline fracture.
Hafner's hand is now as healthy as the sales of Pronk bars. Before home games he bestows them on position players like a priest dispensing communion wafers. "I thought the Pronk bar was pretty cool until I found out the same Cleveland candy company used to make an Albert Belle bar," says Blake. "I haven't eaten one since." The only other ballplayer Blake knows who has sworn off Pronks is former Cleveland second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals last July. "Ronnie had a pregame Pronk and went 0 for 4," Blake reports. "Unfortunately, Pronk bars don't make you hit like Pronk."
Eric Wedge calls Travis Hafner one of the three best hitters in baseball. Is the Indians' manager just pumping up his own guy or does he have a case? Since becoming a regular in 2004, Hafner has hit .308 with a .611 slugging percentage and a .418 on-base percentage. The last two figures rank fourth and fifth, respectively, among players with at least 1,100 plate appearances over that period. What's more, only Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols have higher On Base Plus Slugging marks than Hafner's during those three seasons.
Baseball Propsectus uses a metric called Marginal Lineup Value to estimate the number of runs a player would have added to a lineup of league-average hitters. The statistic measures offensive performance, using batting average, OBP and slugging percentage as the primary variables; plate appearances are also factored in.
Note that Hafner has been slightly more productive over the three seasons than perennial MVP candidate David Ortiz, even though the Boston DH has played 54 more games and averaged 116.6 more plate appearances. Bottom line: Hafner may not be baseball's best hitter -- that's clearly Albert Pujols -- but he belongs in the discussion about the top three. -- Joe Sheehan
Issue date: January 29, 2007