Pronk feeling goodTipping the scale at a robust 9 pounds, 6 ounces when he arrived in October, Blake Lee Hafner is the apple of his daddy’s eye. Sitting in front of his locker after a morning round of batting practice, Travis Hafner, the Cleveland Indians’ easygoing, hard-swinging designated hitter, beams when asked about his newborn son, who has already taken to grabbing objects left-handed — like his father.
GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — Tipping the scale at a robust 9 pounds, 6 ounces when he arrived in October, Blake Lee Hafner is the apple of his daddy’s eye.
Sitting in front of his locker after a morning round of batting practice, Travis Hafner, the Cleveland Indians’ easygoing, hard-swinging designated hitter, beams when asked about his newborn son, who has already taken to grabbing objects left-handed — like his father.
“He’s got my body,” Hafner said with a chuckle. “We’re not sure who he looks like yet. We’ll see.”
The Indians are finally seeing the Hafner of old.
For the first time in two years, Hafner is looking like himself again. Now almost 18 months removed from shoulder surgery, the man nicknamed “Pronk” — part project, part donkey — by teammates years ago, is driving the ball and turning on pitches the way he once did.
He’s healthy again, 100 percent healthy, and it shows.
In the past week, Hafner has hit a pair of homers — one a tape-measure shot to center field — that has given the Indians hope he can anchor the middle of Cleveland’s lineup the way he did in 2006, when he hit a career-high 42 homers with 117 RBIs.
Hafner’s powerful lefty swing, affected the past three seasons by shoulder pain, doubt and a sagging confidence, has returned.
“It’s starting to get close to where it was,” said Hafner, who has studied nuances of his swing on video. “You can notice a pretty big difference in my swing in ‘08 and ‘09. But this year, I’ve been able to do some things and hopefully get back to where I was.”
A few days ago, Hafner was in the batting cage on Field 1 behind the Indians’ training complex ripping line drives to all three fields, when he turned on a pitch and sent it soaring through the arid Arizona air and over the right-field fence. Gone and then some.
“Pronkville,” new Indians manager Manny Acta shouted, referring to the right-field mezzanine section at Cleveland’s Progressive Field named in Pronk’s honor.
Hafner hasn’t visited there much recently.
Last season, he batted .272 with 16 homers and 49 RBIs in 94 games. He had opened the season feeling fine, but wound up on the disabled list in late April with shoulder soreness and didn’t return until June. The statistics aside, what was more troubling was Hafner appeared lost at the plate.
He was fooled by pitches. Outside strikes became weak flys to left. Pitches down the middle were popped up. When he tried to pull anything inside, Hafner topped routine groundouts to second. After a strikeout, he would bow his head and walk back to the Indians’ dugout searching for answers that remained elusive.
Theories abounded to what was wrong with him. One was that Hafner stopped doing steroids. He has long maintained he never did performance enhancers, but the decline in his power output puzzled some Cleveland fans, who wondered why the cash-strapped club gave him a four-year, $57 million contract extension in 2007.
Hafner isn’t making excuses.
“I didn’t swing the bat the way I wanted to,” he said. “I just didn’t see the ball the same as I used to. I swung at bad pitches. Hitting is all about consistency.”
Hafner was unable to get into a rhythm last season. He would play three days and then rest a fourth, a routine that protected his shoulder but prevented him from working through his issues at the plate. His frustration grew.
“It’s what I had to deal with, so you just try to accept that and make the most it,” he said. “I was just trying to keep my swing as simple as I could so it doesn’t need a whole lot of work.”
New Indians hitting coach Jon Nunnally has been helping Hafner find his stroke.
Nunnally was attuned to Hafner’s swing before coming to Cleveland. He played against the Indians’ DH in the minor leagues and can remember him spraying baseballs around parks in Oklahoma City and Omaha. Nunnally has been working on Pronk’s mechanics — and his psyche.
“I wanted to get something into his head,” Nunnally said. “I told him, ‘Hey, this isn’t ‘06 and ‘07 anymore. This is ‘10 now and we have to move on a little bit and do the things we know we’re capable of doing.’ I told him that I understand the feel that he’s looking for. We’ll get to the feel.”
Hafner benefited from a more consistent winter program.
He lifted weights and hit daily in a batting cage built in his home. The Indians put no restrictions on him this spring, allowing Hafner to get as many plate appearances as possible before breaking camp.
Hafner won’t promise a number, but feels 30 homers is within his range.
“I feel like if I can play a good amount of games, I can get back to being a 30-home-run guy,” he said.
Despite his struggles the past few seasons, Hafner hasn’t changed. He remains affable and approachable, quick to poke fun at a teammate or himself.
“It all started with a boy and his dream,” he cracked as he sat down for an interview.
Life is good. He’s healthy and happy. Hafner and his wife, Amy, are loving parenthood.
“He just brings so much happiness to our lives,” Hafner said. “He’s easy. He loves to eat and sleep. Like me.”