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Pronk Of the Plains
Franz Lidz
January 29, 2007
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
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January 29, 2007

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

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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.

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