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Pronk Of the Plains (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday January 24, 2007 1:58PM; Updated: Wednesday January 24, 2007 2:40PM
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By Franz Lidz

Player Marginal Lineup Value
Albert Pujols 79.8
Ryan Howard 76.4
Miguel Cabrera 69.3
Travis Hafner 68.6
Lance Berkman 64.3
Player Marginal Lineup Value
Albert Pujols 242.5
Barry Bonds 175.2
Travis Hafner 174.7
Lance Berkman 172.0
David Ortiz 171.7
Source: Baseball Prospectus
Note: Marginal Lineup Value estimates 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.

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."

Issue date: January 29, 2007

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