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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

Posted: Wednesday January 24, 2007 1:58PM; Updated: Wednesday January 24, 2007 2:40PM
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Hafner got his hitting start by whacking rocks off his homemade bat.
Hafner got his hitting start by whacking rocks off his homemade bat.
Clay Patrick McBride/SI
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By Franz Lidz

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".

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