When super slugger Jim Thome signed a lucrative free agent contract with
the Philadelphia Phillies prior to the 2003 season, he left behind a gaping hole in the Cleveland Indian's lineup and a massive
void at first base. Enter Travis Hafner. The Tribe thought so highly of the prospect that they sent starting catcher Einar
Diaz to the Texas Rangers in return for his rights.
Faced with the daunting task of replacing the extremely popular and productive
Thome, Hafner took a levelheaded and realistic approach. "I didn't feel any pressure," he commented. "The media talked about
it all the time during Spring Training (in 2003), but for me it wasn't a big deal. I knew I wasn't going to hit 50 home
runs like Thome did. I was trying to go out there and establish myself as a big league player and do the things I was capable
Although Hafner tried his best to downplay the hype and attention, his
teammates took notice which resulted in an unusual nickname. "In Spring Training last year a bunch of people called me 'Donkey'
and a couple of guys called me 'Project'," the first baseman explained. "So I said, 'Why don't you guys just put them together
and call me 'Pronkey' or 'Donkject'. It was 'Pronkey' for a day, and then it was turned into 'Pronk.'"
The 2003 season didn't go as planned for Hafner. A slow start was followed
by an injury and a stint at Triple A Buffalo. After returning to Cleveland on July 12, he was able to finish the season on
a high note, belting 10 home runs with 29 RBI in the final 60 games. His totals included a .254 average with 14 homeruns and
40 RBI in 91 games.
"Your first time around the big leagues, you don't know what to expect,"
Hafner said of his rookie season. "All of the pitchers are new -- it's one thing to read a scouting report that says a guy
has an above average changeup, but until you see it first hand (you don't really know). You just need the experience."
The highlight of Hafner's initial tour of the big leagues came on August
14 in Minnesota. The rookie came up to bat in the 8th inning needing a triple to become just the seventh player in team history
to hit for the cycle (single, double, triple and homerun in the same game). At 6-3 240lbs, he seemed an unlikely
candidate to complete the feat, but the baseball gods were on his side that day.
"I didn't really worry about hitting for the cycle or anything like that,"
Hafner said of the at bat. "I just hit the ball in the gap and was at second before they picked the ball up, so I knew I'd
be able to make a triple out of it."
A native of Sykeston, ND, where his parents farm wheat and sunflowers,
Hafner plays in front of nearly 100 of his friends and family each time the Indians visit Minnesota. That, coupled with
the fact that he has performed well there, (including a two homerun performance on opening day this season), has helped
the much maligned Metodome to vault to the top of Hafner's list of favorite stadiums.
"It's one of those places that I see the ball pretty good and I think we
have a pretty good rivalry with Minnesota, so I get pretty pumped up for the games," Hafner said of playing in Minnesota.
"Being from North Dakota, I have a lot of friends and family here, so I look forward to games (in the Metrodome) quite a bit."
During the 2004 season, Hafner expects to see improvement from both himself
and the team. "My goals for this year are for us to be in contention in September and have a chance to win the division title,"
he said. "On a personal level, I just want to take a good approach at the plate every at bat, be consistent, and drive in
Hafner, who turns 27 in June, may not make Indian's fans forget about Jim
Thome, but if his strong start in 2004 is any indication, he should give them a lot to cheer about for years to come.