ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Travis Hafner doesn't think about his unique path to the big leagues very often. But when pressed to, he does appreciate its abnormal nature. "It is kind of cool," he said Saturday morning, before going 1-for-2 with a walk in a Grapefruit League game against the Devil Rays. "A little farm boy from small-town North Dakota makes it to the big leagues. That is cool."
The path began, famously, in tiny Sykeston, N.D., where Hafner was part of an eight-person graduating class at a high school that shut down last year due to diminished enrollment. American Legion ball afforded him the opportunity to play ball in the summer, but it hardly did much to polish his decidedly raw feel for the game. So by the time an 18-year-old Hafner showed up for his first day of baseball practice at Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kan., an ascension toward the Major League ranks certainly didn't appear to be a given. The Cowley coaches were preaching the value of hitting to the opposite field. On purpose, no less. Back in Sykeston, such a tactic was never discussed. "We were just always under the impression that if the ball went to the opposite field," he said, "you were late on it." The man now known as Pronk laughs at the memory. "I didn't have a clue what was going on," he said. "It's safe to say we didn't know much about the finer points of the game." Today, against all rational predictions, Hafner is one of the game's finest hitters. He's coming off an '06 season in which he hit .308 with 42 homers -- including a record-tying six grand slams -- and 117 RBIs before his year was cut short Sept. 1, when he was plunked in the hand with a C.J. Wilson fastball. Hafner drew 100 walks in 454 at-bats and had an on-base percentage of .439 and a slugging percentage of .659, but his most impressive stat of all might have been his .321 average off fellow left-handers, defying his career .268 mark against them. Having seen all this first-hand, Tribe general manager Mark Shapiro lumps talk of Hafner in with the likes of Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz. And the Indians have capitalized on Hafner's quirky nickname with a "Pronkville" mezzanine section named in his honor and his love of wrestling with a soon-to-be-released bobblehead depicting him wearing street clothes and hoisting a WWE championship belt. Nationally, however, it sometimes seems Hafner gets as much publicity now as he did when he was playing community college ball.
"I couldn't really care less," he said with a shrug. "I don't concern myself with that. Baseball is such a hard game that as soon as you worry about that stuff, you look up and you're 0-for-your-last-20. You just have to focus on being prepared and playing your game." Hafner, 29, is gearing a good deal of his preparation this spring toward playing first base. Saturday marked his fourth start at the position in nine spring games, and he's shown fine form. Once the season starts, the Indians will try to work Hafner in at first once a week, at most, though even that will be difficult, given a logjam at the position that includes Blake, Victor Martinez and, most likely, Ryan Garko. But whether he makes one start at first or 25, Hafner believes he'll be ready. "I put a lot of work in over there to feel comfortable during the games," he said. "I played every day over there for six years in the Minor Leagues, so I should be comfortable. I guess the toughest part is not doing it on an everyday basis. Getting out there like this just isn't quite the same as when you play it every day." An arthritic right elbow will likely prevent Pronk, who started four games in the field last season, from ever playing first on an everyday basis. Nonetheless, being relegated to a DH role hasn't damaged Hafner's pride. "I'm to the point," he said, "that I just want to win." If the Indians do win as much as they hope this season, they'll do so with Hafner as the cornerstone of their offense. When healthy, he's put up MVP-type numbers the past two seasons. A run to the playoffs just might be enough to push him to the forefront of the voting. Now, wouldn't that be an unexpected development for the little farm boy? If it happens, the once-raw Hafner said he'd have those two years of community college to thank. "I learned strategy, work ethic, baserunning, hitting approach," he said. "We ran a lot, and that was really the first place I lifted weights. Looking back, that probably helped me more than anything in my career." And it's a career whose initial path, when paused for reflection, looks all the more remarkable.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.