While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].
Player: Travis Hafner
Career: TEX 2002, CLE 2003-12, NYY 2013
Of all the fun things about the Dream Bracket that MLB.com has been running -- the finals start Monday -- one of the best is that each simulated player is a combination of his three best seasons with the team. Babe Ruth is the sum of his 1920, ’21 and ’27 seasons; Mike Trout is the sum of his, well, his last three seasons. Seasons that aren’t in your best three aren’t counted, and it’s as if they never existed. You are the way you were at your absolute best. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the life of all humans could be judged only by their three best years?
There is perhaps no player in baseball history who benefits more from having his best three seasons looked at, and no others, than Travis Hafner. From 2004-06, Hafner, in his age 27-29 seasons, was simply one of the two best hitters in baseball. The best was either him or Albert Pujols.
It didn’t necessarily seem that way at the time, maybe because Hafner had seemingly come out of nowhere, maybe because there were more charismatic players on those Indians teams, from CC Sabathia to Grady Sizemore to Omar Vizquel to Cliff Lee to Coco Crisp, maybe because Hafner’s physical attributes and deadpan reaction to everything made him seem almost like a comical figure (with a nickname for all time, “Pronk,” to go with it). But for those three years, Hafner hit a baseball as well as anyone was hitting a baseball. Three years is not nothing. Three years is plenty.
Hafner got a late start to his baseball career, but he had a good excuse: He went to a high school that didn’t have a baseball team. To be fair, his high school, in Jamestown, N.D., didn’t have a lot of things, considering his graduating class had eight students in it. (Hafner was valedictorian.) Jamestown, N.D., is a great place to be born and live if you don’t want any baseball scouts to notice you, and no one did. So Hafner went to an open tryout for the Braves after he graduated from high school. The Braves didn’t sign him, but they did encourage him to keep playing, so he went to a community college in Kansas -- he was teammates with Junior Spivey! -- and ended up leading them to a national JUCO championship.
The Rangers drafted him in the 31st round in 1996, and, from the get-go, he tore up their Minor League system (.941 OPS at Double-A in 2001), showing power, of course, but also an impressive batting eye for someone supposedly so raw. The Rangers were stacked at the corners, though, so he was in the Minors for five full seasons (suffering various injuries along the way) before being traded to Cleveland. He was already 25 when he played his first game as a regular, in 2003, and he just hit and hit and hit.
The thing about Hafner, he was so big and so lumbering that he always seemed more unmolded and rawer than he really was. His teammates called him “The Project” when he first began in Cleveland, but because he was such a, well, goofy physical presence, they called him “Donkey,” which seems sort of mean. (But was probably more about the movie “Shrek,” all told.) Delightfully, they just merged the nicknames and made him “Pronk,” which is a nonsense word and also is perhaps the perfect way to describe Travis Hafner.
Those next three years, 2004-06, were really when we saw what Hafner could do without being sidelined by injuries, which is not the same thing as saying he was never injured. He had, in just those three years, a broken toe, elbow surgery, a broken hand and a concussion. That didn’t stop him from being an absolute monster. His slash lines for each year:
That 2006 season was the pinnacle, when he hit five grand slams before the All-Star break, when they were naming right field in Cleveland “Pronkville” (which sounds like the sort of town it’d be a little painful to live in), when he was leading the Majors in slugging, OPS and walks, and was second in homers and RBIs heading into September. Then another injury came: that broken hand, on a pitch from C.J. Wilson of the Rangers. He still had 100 or more walks, runs and RBIs. He was the center of everything that Indians team did. He was their star. Good old Pronk.
He should have been a legend. But a terrific 2005 team still fell two games short of the Wild Card, and thus none of those Indians team made the playoffs those years. And then Pronk, always injury-prone, fully succumbed. He played a career-high 152 games in ’07 but pushed through aches and pains, and his numbers fell a bit (he still had 24 homers and a .385 OBP). But as he progressed into his 30s, it all crumbled on him. He played 57 games in ’08, 94 in ’09, 118 in ’10, 94 in ’11 and 66 in ’12.
By the end, when he missed the end of a 90-plus-loss season with lower-back inflammation at the age of 35, it was clear his window had closed. He signed a one-year deal with the Yankees but could never get healthy again. It was the rotator cuff this time. After the year, he retired, nearly a decade removed from his highest brilliance.
Hafner is still beloved in Cleveland, but not enough people remember just how amazing he was. For those three years, he was a superstar. He was larger than life.
Virtual Pronk ended up hitting .298 with four homers, including one in Game 7 of the series against the Yankees that gave them a 1-0 lead. They lost that lead, and now the Yankees are in the semifinals. But Peak Pronk earned his place among the legends.