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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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PLAYER MLV
Albert Pujols, Cardinals 79.8
Ryan Howard, Phillies 76.4
Miguel Cabrera, Marlins 69.3
Travis Hafner, Indians 68.6
Lance Berkman, Astros 64.3

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" (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 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."

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