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Pronk Of the Plains

Jan. 29, 2007
Jan. 29, 2007

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Jan. 29, 2007

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Pronk Of the Plains

With a swing honed in the endless North Dakota winter, the Indians' Travis Hafner has made a name and a nickname (Project/Donkey) for himself as one of the game's top three hitters

Sykeston is asmall town fastened to a wheat field in North Dakota. It's about 14 miles westof Carrington, which is nine miles west of Melville, which is 34 miles west ofJamestown, which is 98 miles west of Fargo. Most of the businesses along MainAvenue have long been shuttered--the Wagner Meat Shop, Kurus Barbershop, OldDoc Eummer's dentist office. The only one that's still thriving is the WildMustang saloon, home to the biggest Travis Hafner fan club west of theMississippi. ¶ Whenever the Cleveland Indians play, Sykestonians belly up tothe bar to watch their hometown hero on satellite TV. "We usually getaround 15 spectators," says Maurine Hawks, the Wild Mustang's owner andbarkeep. "That's a lot considering the entire population of Sykeston is75." On Bingo Night, the game screeches to a halt every time the Tribe'sdesignated hitter steps to the plate. "All eyes are on Pronk," saysHawks, invoking Hafner's primeval-sounding nickname, which he got when he brokeinto the majors and now prefers to Travis.

This is an article from the Jan. 29, 2007 issue Original Layout

The Wild Mustangis a kind of Temple of Pronk. Showcased in a glass case near the door are aPronk bobblehead doll, Pronk baseball cards, a Pronk jersey, a Pronk key chainand 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 innowhere and followed his dream to somewhere."

Of the 15Flickertail State natives to reach the big leagues, none have been asformidable, and few as unlikely, as the 29-year-old Hafner. (Another lefthandedbasher, Roger Maris, was raised in Fargo but born in Hibbing, Minn.) "Untilhe got to college, Pronk had never attended a school that offeredbaseball," marvels Indians rightfielder Casey Blake. "He took a verypeculiar path to the Show."

Since becomingCleveland's full-time DH in 2004, the Texas Rangers' castoff has averaged 34homers 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 playerto hit five grand slams before the All-Star break, and his 1.098 OPS led theAmerican League. When a fractured ring finger ended his season on Sept. 1, hehad 42 dingers and ranked first or second in the American League in threeoffensive categories. "Pronk is one of the top three hitters in thegame," 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"(box, page 59).

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 withwords," 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, Hafnerlets his bat do the talking. At Jacobs Field, his 33-ounce Sam chatters alongto the fanfare of the German industrial metal band Rammstein. "I have noidea what those guys are singing, but their music gets me pretty pumpedup," he says. "The lyrics could be about anything--that's kind of thebeauty of it."

Rammsteintranslates to "battering ram"--which doesn't begin to describe Hafner'sability to break games open. "He can hit the ball out of Yellowstone,"says Bob McClure, the Royals pitching coach. "He has Reggie Jackson--typepower with better plate discipline." White Sox pitching coach Don Cooperreaches back to the Stone Age to find Pronk's antecedent. "He reminds me ofBarney Rubble in a uniform, and I mean that in a complimentary way," saysCooper, who adds, "I'm not going to talk about what we'll try and doagainst him differently this year in detail, but soft stuff seems to havepositive results. If I have my say, this guy will no longer have a chance tobeat us. We'll pass and go onto the next guy. Use our get-out-of-jail-free cardwith him."

Some DHs wouldrather play in the field. "It keeps my mind from wandering," says JasonGiambi, the sometime first baseman of the Yankees. But Hafner, who has playedfirst in only 11 intraleague games since 2004, embraces the limitations ofDH'ing. Between at bats Hafner watches game tapes in the clubhouse, rides astationary bike in the weight room and swats balls off a tee in a cage beneaththe stands. "Just one drawback to DH'ing," he says. "It's hard towork on your tan."

A creature ofsimple appetites, Pronk is. "Every morning he has Frosted Flakes, RiceKrispies or Lucky Charms," says Amy. "He once had Lucky Charms 30 daysin a row. That might have been overdoing it." When Amy met him, he also hada three-meal rotation: steak, spaghetti and hot dish. A Dakotas delicacy, hotdish consists of noodles, ground beef and Campbell's tomato soup. Tomatoesfigure prominently in his diet--about the only food on which he doesn't dumpketchup is ketchup. "Travis puts it on everything," Amy says."Steak, chicken, eggs, corn, you name it."

His attire isequally uncomplicated. "He's easy to buy gifts for," Amy says. "Allhe ever wants are jeans and wrestling T-shirts." Hafner owns 50 prowrestling 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 dumbimage," says Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "It makes pitchersunderestimate him."

Which is not tosuggest that Pronk is as thick as a brontosaurus burger. Far from it. He wasvaledictorian 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 junioryear I got an A-minus in world history. Some foreign countries I wasn't muchinterested in."

He became Pronkin 2001, during his first spring training with the Rangers. At the time, Hafneranswered to Project (because he was so green) and Donkey (because he circledthe bases with the clumsy canter of a jackass). One day teammate Bill Selbyyelled, "Hey, Project. What's up, you big donkey?"

Hafner bristled:"You can't call me both!"

So Selby triedfusing the two handles. "Donkject didn't sound quite right," Hafnersays. "But Pronkey...."

Pronkey begat ElPronko, which begat Pronk. "I'm to the point where I like it better thanTravis," 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 parentslive on a 3,500-acre spread off Highway 52. Hafner doesn't know the streetaddress. "Just look for the second house on the right after the reststop," he says, helpfully. "The one with the Quonset hut and thetractors and the black cement bears on the front lawn."

Hafner honed hisbatting stroke by whacking rocks in the backyard. "I'd tell him to aim forthe field," says his father, Terry, "not the grain bins." Terry wasborn 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 sevenmiles north of Sykeston.

When Travis wasgrowing up, his mom ran Bev's Beauty Shop out of the farmhouse basement. Shetrimmed her younger son's locks until he left home. "I've shaved my headever since," says Travis, exulting in the fact that he's never had to payfor a haircut.

Terry raisedwheat, 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'twant." Sports, though, he loved. He excelled at the discus and the triplejump, and played power forward on the Sykeston High basketball team. His hoopscoach, Jon Bertsch, vividly recalls the practice in which Travis's windmilldunk shattered a glass backboard. "Travis had tremendous raw strength,"Bertsch says. "[Another time], he grabbed the rim, pulled himself up andjammed the ball into the net."

Since the schoolin Sykeston had no baseball program, Hafner played American Legion ball duringthe summer. The country-strong catcher was so dominant that after graduation hetried out with the Atlanta Braves in Bismarck. The Braves wereimpressed--slightly. They dangled a $1,000 signing bonus. Though Hafner turnedit down, he took a scout's advice to sandpaper his skills at a college in theMidwest.

Despite hismother's misgivings--"I didn't want him to leave for the big city,"cracks Bev--Hafner enrolled at Cowley County Community College in the bustlingmetropolis of Arkansas City, Kans. (pop. 11,581). Hafner left Sykeston withgood manners, powers of intense concentration and a complete ignorance of thegame'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?" Toldto advance a runner from second by hitting to the right side, he exclaimed,"Like, cool!"

The best counselof 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 thebackyard hitting rocks," said Dad afterward. Hafner did and flourished. Asa freshman he hit three consecutive homers in a game. As a sophomore he was theJuco World Series MVP, pasting a three-run shot in the championship game.

The Rangerspicked him in the 31st round of the 1996 draft. After struggling early--"Inrookie ball I was told if I didn't improve, I'd be released"--he tore upthe 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 ofpower-hitting first basemen, from Rafael Palmeiro to Mark Teixeira. Happily forHafner, he was traded to Cleveland during the winter of 2002. When the Indianselected to allow the fearsome Jim Thome to walk as a free agent the followingspring, Pronk got his chance. The rest is current events. During the 2005season he signed a three-year, $7 million deal.

The one rap onHafner is that he's an injury magnet. He was sidelined for a total of 82 gameswith a broken toe (2000), wrist surgery ('01), another broken toe ('03), elbowinflammation ('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 inArlington. With the bases full and Pronk at the plate, an errant C.J. Wilsonfastball pulped his right hand. The hit by pitch gave him 110 RBIs, a franchiserecord for a DH. "I thought my career as a hand model was over," hesays. When initial X-rays indicated the hand wasn't broken, Hafner wasecstatic. Alas, further tests revealed a hairline fracture.

Hafner's hand isnow as healthy as the sales of Pronk bars. Before home games he bestows them onposition players like a priest dispensing communion wafers. "I thought thePronk bar was pretty cool until I found out the same Cleveland candy companyused to make an Albert Belle bar," says Blake. "I haven't eaten onesince." The only other ballplayer Blake knows who has sworn off Pronks isformer Cleveland second baseman Ronnie Belliard, who was traded to the St.Louis Cardinals last July. "Ronnie had a pregame Pronk and went 0 for4," Blake reports. "Unfortunately, Pronk bars don't make you hit likePronk."

Almost As Good AsIt Gets

ERIC WEDGE callsTravis 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 aregular in 2004, Hafner has hit .308 with a .611 slugging percentage and a .418on-base percentage. The last two figures rank fourth and fifth, respectively,among players with at least 1,100 plate appearances over that period. What'smore, only Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols (below) have higher On Base PlusSlugging marks than Hafner's during those three seasons.

BaseballPropsectus uses a metric called Marginal Lineup Value to estimate the number ofruns a player would have added to a lineup of league-average hitters. Thestatistic measures offensive performance, using batting average, OBP andslugging percentage as the primary variables; plate appearances are alsofactored in.

[This article contains tables. Please see a hardcopy or pdf.]

2006

PLAYERMLV
Albert Pujols, Cardinals79.8
Ryan Howard, Phillies76.4
Miguel Cabrera, Marlins69.3
Travis Hafner, Indians68.6
Lance Berkman, Astros64.3


2004--06

PLAYERMLV
Albert Pujols, Cardinals242.5
Barry Bonds, Giants175.2
Travis Hafner, Indians174.7
Lance Berkman, Astros172
David Ortiz, Red Sox171.7

Note that Hafnerhas been slightly more productive over the three seasons than perennial MVPcandidate David Ortiz, even though the Boston DH has played 54 more games andaveraged 116.6 more plate appearances. Bottom line: Hafner may not bebaseball's best hitter--that's clearly Albert Pujols--but he belongs in thediscussion about the top three.

EXTRA

The Future

Get the lowdown on the next big major league starswith Bryan Smith's list of top 75 prospects.

ONLY AT SI.COM

PHOTOClay Patrick McBridePHOTOClay Patrick McBrideSPLENDID SPLINTERS Hafner got his hitting start by whacking rocks off his homemade bat.PHOTOTOM CAMMETT/WIREIMAGE.COMLUMBER PARTY Before getting injured late in the 2006 season, Hafner ranked first or second in the AL in three offensive categories.TWO PHOTOSClay Patrick McBrideFARM SYSTEM The Pronkinator's inner circle includes his new bride, Amy, and all 75 citizens from his rural hometown.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO