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Monday, March 16, 2009
Hafner pushes to return to his old form

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Modern statistical analysis might pooh-pooh the value of the run batted in, but you wouldn't know it from Travis Hafner's wardrobe.

About 90 minutes before stepping into the box as Cleveland's designated hitter against Colorado, Hafner returns to the clubhouse from batting practice and peels off his uniform jersey to reveal a T-shirt with the words "Bootleg Baseball" on the front and "Money Lies in RBIs" across the back.

Travis Hafner
Travis Hafner batted .197 with five home runs and 24 RBIs in 57 games last season.

The shirt was a gift from a clubbie friend a few years ago, and Hafner instantly warmed to the rhyme, the message and the institutional gray.

"It's a good color," Hafner says. "It shows the sweat, so it makes it look like you're working harder."

While perspiration is strictly a rumor here in the desert, Hafner's brand of dedication translates well to any climate. Once he graduated from a 31st-round draft pick in Texas to 42 homers and a .659 slugging percentage 10 years later in Cleveland, nobody could question his willingness to log the requisite hours in the batting cage.

But with the exception of a Mike Piazza here and a Mark Grace there, late-round feel-good stories rarely stretch to infinity. Hafner's resilience will be tested this summer in Cleveland, and his response will help determine just how far the Indians go in the American League Central.

The 2008 Indians had a split personality at the plate, ranking 16th in the majors in runs and 21st in OPS before the All-Star break and first in runs and second to Texas with an .813 OPS after the break. The team's surge was a product of Shin-Soo Choo's personal growth and strong finishes by Kelly Shoppach, Ryan Garko and Asdrubal Cabrera to offset a mediocre finish by Grady Sizemore.

The Indians acquired Mark DeRosa from the Cubs in a trade and have some promising bats in the minors, but they'll need the real Hafner and Victor Martinez to show up if they plan to win the Central.

Martinez, one of baseball's best offensive catchers, hit two homers in 73 games and underwent elbow surgery in June. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Martinez joined Earl Averill of the 1933 Indians and Morgan Ensberg of the 2004 Astros in an ignominious club last season: They're the only players in the modern era to hit 25 or more home runs one year, then fail to hit a homer in their first 200 at-bats the next season.

At least Martinez returned for 59 productive at-bats in September to ease the Indians' concerns moving forward. Hafner, in contrast, is much closer to square one.

In October, Hafner underwent a right shoulder cleanup -- otherwise known as an "arthroscopic debridement." Now he's trying to rediscover the sweet stroke that convinced the Indians, in a rare display of largesse, to sign him to a four-year, $57 million contract extension in July 2007.

Encouragement comes in bits and pieces. Hafner hit two bolts in a recent spring training game against the Angels, including a line drive that nicked Jered Weaver's ear on its way into center field.

"The ball was scared of how I looked, so it jumped out of the way," Weaver joked to reporters afterward.

After a winter of working out and watching his diet, Hafner reported to camp 10 pounds lighter. He also appeared in consecutive Cactus League games Wednesday and Thursday for the first time all spring.

But Hafner might be making his biggest statement with his demeanor. By acclamation, he seems more relaxed this spring, whether it's in the weight room, the lunch room, the batting cage or the middle of the order.

"The first things you notice are the look in his eye and the tone in his voice, how confident and how good he feels," says general manager Mark Shapiro. "Last year, he couldn't give you a strong answer on how he felt. Now he's absolutely positive he feels different."

Relaxing isn't always easy in an age when offensive players are so quickly put on the defensive. When Alex Rodriguez became the latest Texas Rangers alumnus to test positive for performance enhancers, the microscope fell on anyone and everyone who was with the club in the early 2000s.

That includes Hafner, who broke in with Texas as a rookie in 2002. When Cleveland Plain Dealer beat writer Paul Hoynes raised the issue of possible steroid use in an interview last month, Hafner replied that he's never used steroids and has "peace of mind" as a result.

Both parties moved on from the awkward dance that links players and reporters in the modern era, and Hafner was free to exhale -- until the next time somebody asks the question.

As for this season, the Indians are doing their best to ratchet down expectations. Shapiro insists that Hafner is just an important cog in the Cleveland offense, rather than the focal point. But Indians fans, rotisserie league devotees, scouts and opposing pitchers and managers might beg to differ. The memories of the "old" Travis Hafner are too fresh to ignore.

Veteran infielder Tony Graffanino, in Cleveland's camp as a non-roster invitee, is dressing in the locker next to Hafner during spring training. He remembers what it was like as a divisional opponent in Kansas City a few years ago, when Hafner's power and patience made him the focus of pregame planning.

"He was the guy in meetings where you said, 'We're not going to let him beat us,'" Graffanino says. "You didn't want to see him come up in a situation where he had a chance to drive in runs and win the game. He's a huge presence in the middle of the lineup."

Hafner's 2007 season was below his career standards, but nothing could prepare him for last year's debacle. His shoulder injury robbed him of precious bat speed, so he had to cheat and start his swing early to have a prayer of catching up with the fastball.

As a result, Hafner didn't allow pitches to travel deep into the strike zone and take advantage of his ability to drive the ball the opposite way. His over-anxiousness also resulted in an expanded strike zone and fewer walks.

"When he was having those monster years, he would never swing at a bad pitch," says Garko. "He was so short and quick through the zone. Last year, all of a sudden, his mechanics were different to compensate for the injury. His bat speed wasn't there, and he was kind of guessing."

It's tough for a guy who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 250 pounds, loves professional wrestling and goes by the nickname "Pronk" to be a non-presence, but Hafner drifted through the Cleveland clubhouse like a ghost.

Surgery is always a last resort, so the doctors told him to keep plugging away in hopes that the strength in the shoulder might return. But it never happened. After two months of rehab, visits to Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo and a sorry .122 September (5-for-41), Hafner hopped a flight to Birmingham, Ala., and a date with Dr. James Andrews.

If Hafner felt any extra burden to perform because of his big contract, he won't say. But he makes no attempt to conceal how miserable he felt.

I think Travis Hafner would care the same if he's playing for $20 or $20 million. That's who he is. He's a guy who takes it personally and wants to succeed and is driven to be the best he can be.

-- Indians general manager Mark Shapiro

"Coming to spring training, you picture yourself and your teammates winning the division and making the postseason," Hafner says. "If you love to play baseball, you want to be out there all the time. The worst part is watching your teammates and not being part of it. You feel worthless."

The Indians are known as a progressive, statistically enlightened organization, but Shapiro spends a lot of time talking about character, commitment, the "human element" and the personal qualities that made Hafner seem like such a good long-term bet.

"I think Travis Hafner would care the same if he's playing for $20 or $20 million," Shapiro says. "That's who he is. He's a guy who takes it personally and wants to succeed and is driven to be the best he can be."

In tiny Sykeston, N.D., where Hafner was a star athlete in high school, they've posted a "Home of Travis Hafner" sign at the town limits. But Hafner left the Peace Garden State behind a while ago and has embraced his new life in Cleveland.

He lives in the city year-round with his wife, Amy, and is a one-man charity factory. When Hafner isn't helping out with the Boys and Girls Clubs, he's donating his time to the Animal Protective League.

But there's a time for charity and a corresponding time to be less generous and stop giving away at-bats, and Hafner has reached the crossroads. He followed the advice on the back of the T-shirt and got his money. Now it's time to start collecting a few of those RBIs.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.