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Travis Hafner, the Pronk

8/6/2004:

The most recent North Dakota baseball player to reach the big leagues is Travis Hafner, who debuted with the Texas Rangers on this date two years ago. He has since made quite a splash.

Like Darin Erstad, Hafner was born in Jamestown, but Travis grew up in Sykeston, where he proved himself not only in baseball, but basketball and track as well. In fact, he earned all-region honors in basketball and finished 3rd in the state in discus and triple jump during his senior year.

Hafner’s baseball career started with Little League, then Babe Ruth and American Legion play, then a 2-year stint at Cowley County Community College in Kansas. In 1996, he was selected by Texas in the amateur draft, but he finished school first, earning Junior College All-American honors. In the Junior College, or JUCO, World Series, he hit a 3-run homer in a 4-2 win over Seminole Junior College to win the championship and was voted MVP. He went on to sign with Texas in 1997 and debuted with the Rangers in 2002, playing first base.

Meanwhile, Cleveland was dealt a blow when they lost super slugger, Jim Thome. After surveying their possibilities, they set their sites on Hafner. They had to trade their starting catcher, Einar Diaz, to Texas to get him.

Hafner had big shoes to fill, but he’s a down-to-earth guy with a levelheaded attitude. “The media talked about it all the time during spring training,” he said, “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 of.”

Hafner’s teammates started calling him “Donkey” and “Project” during spring training last year. Hafner asked them, “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.’” Sportscasters now call him “The Pronk.”

The 2003 season had some disappointments for Hafner, including an injury that kept him out of the game for a while. But, he returned on July 12, and finished the season with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in the final 60 games. His highlight came on August 14th at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. During the 8th inning, he came to the plate needing a triple to hit for the cycle – that’s getting a single, double, triple and homerun all in the same game. He did it – only the seventh player in team history to do so.

“I just hit the ball in the gap and was at second before they picked the ball up,” he said, “so I knew I’d be able to make a triple out of it.”

Fast forward to two and a half weeks ago, when Cleveland won 7 games in an 8-game series with Anaheim. In the series opener, Hafner hit 2 home runs and broke his personal record with five runs batted in. The next night, he hit 3 more homers, and with six more runs batted in, he not only broke his own record from the night before, he tied a team record that has stood since 1930.

Hafner seemed a bit embarrassed by all the attention he got after that game, saying, “Hitting three home runs, I guess it’s pretty special. It doesn’t happen very often, especially for me.”

Sounds like it doesn’t happen very often for anybody, Pronk. Those five homeruns in two days tied a Major League record.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm