Commentary

In Hafner, Indians have 'the silent assassin'

Originally Published: March 13, 2008
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- One of the most imposing figures in the batter's box is one of the game's most mysterious personalities. Players around the league often ask the Cleveland slugger's teammates what he's really like, and most don't have much of an answer because Travis Hafner lets very few people into his world.

To discover what makes Hafner tick, you'd have to be sitting a row in front of him on the Indians' charter plane, like David Dellucci does. You'd have to hear the giggling emanating from the seat behind. You'd have to see it when Hafner, Dellucci and four other teammates engage in an intense game of Grand Theft Auto and try to kill one another off; Hafner's lone goal is to annihilate Dellucci, his best friend on the team.

[+] EnlargeTravis Hafner
Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty ImagesTravis Hafner drove in 100 runs, but batted just .266 last season.
"He doesn't care about anyone else than me," Dellucci says. "He loves to get into the biggest vehicle -- that's usually an 18-wheeler, or a mail truck -- and blindside me out of nowhere and start giggling.

"He'll exploit your weakness; he's the silent assassin."

At times in the past, the same could be said for Hafner in the batter's box. He set career highs with 42 homers and 117 RBIs in 2006. But last season was one he prefers not to relive: His .266 average and 24 home runs weren't up to par, even though he drove in 100 runs for the fourth straight year.

"I think most guys would take 100 RBIs and 24 homers," teammate C.C. Sabathia says.

Hafner, affectionately known as "Pronk," wasn't the Pronk of old; a guy who'd seemingly hit a grand slam every other plate appearance in '06 (tying Don Mattingly's MLB record with six) and posted an American League-leading 1.097 OPS that same season. Dellucci calls Hafner the "anchor" of the Indians' lineup.

"He has the ability to where, when he's going good, it changes the complexion of our lineup," Dellucci adds.

But when Hafner got to the postseason last year, his struggles were magnified when he hit .186 with 15 strikeouts and an on-base percentage of .207 against the Yankees and Red Sox. He says he struggled mostly with hitting too many balls on the ground, and he didn't hit to all fields. (Many teams successfully employed the shift against him.)

After his team fell one win short of reaching the World Series, Hafner went to Costa Rica. He and his wife, Amy, enjoyed a week off in the northwestern part of the country. Then Hafner came back to Cleveland, where he lives year-round, and started working out, one of his favorite hobbies.

"I think no matter what happens during the season," Hafner says, "you need to get away for a week and get away from baseball and just relax. I think you always reflect on it a little bit, but for the most part when the season is over, you put that behind you.

"You can't [think about it] because it will drive you nuts."

Since arriving at spring training, Hafner estimates he's been asked about last season at least 60 times, and he has defense-mechanism answers; saying he's moved on, he's looking ahead to next year, he can't dwell on it. But Dellucci says he knows it weighs on Hafner, because the slugger is incredibly intense with his preparation and dedication to the job.

The Century Mark

Players who have had 100-plus RBIs in each of the last four seasons:

Bobby Abreu
Miguel Cabrera
Vladimir Guerrero
Travis Hafner
David Ortiz
Albert Pujols
Alex Rodriguez
Mark Teixeira
"He knows that he had an off year before anyone ever wrote a story or talked about it," Dellucci says. "He's in a very difficult situation and he's handled it extremely well. Haf is a guy who shows no emotion. You know the comments about his season last year [are] weighing heavily [on him], but it's not showing."

Instead, Hafner -- a huge wrestling fan and current scholar of the video game Rock Band -- shows his dry sense of humor. Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says Hafner's text-messaging skills are the best in the big leagues, and the 30-year-old designated hitter's wit is incredibly sharp.

"He cares about as much as any player we've been around," Shapiro says. "I think he kind of fosters this image of being a big, dumb guy, when, in reality, he's a highly intelligent person that is a tremendous listener. It can almost be disarming, how good a listener he is."

So, too, can his antics. When asked to describe his humor, Hafner tells a story.

One morning last week, the Indians were presented with a sheet of paper that asked for donations to the MLB Alumni fund. The largest sum of money donated meant you would be a "Hall of Fame" donor. A grand slam was next on the list, with a single symbolizing the least amount. Hafner says he grabbed first baseman Casey Blake's sheet in advance, drew a box next to the list that read "broken-bat, infield pop-up to the pitcher" and coined it $5. Hafner checked the box, either a dig at Casey's hitting skills or his charity, or both.

"I like to have fun," Hafner says, amused as he tells the story. "I like to play jokes on people all the time."

Yet opposing players and even his own teammates don't always get that impression. Jason Michaels, a fellow Grand Theft Auto player, says people ask him all the time what Hafner is like. Michaels laughs when asked to describe his personality, and is able to use simple adjectives: quiet, reserved, funny.

"I don't think people see him the way his teammates see him," Michaels says, "You can go up and talk to him about anything. There's no ego with him. He's very intense, but he's approachable."

He knows that he had an off year before anyone ever wrote a story or talked about it. He's in a very difficult situation and he's handled it extremely well. Haf is a guy who shows no emotion. You know the comments about his season last year [are] weighing heavily [on him], but it's not showing.

-- Indians OF David Dellucci, on teammate Travis Hafner

That may change, though, if you happen to see him at a screening of "No Country for Old Men." Hafner looks just like Javier Bardem, who won an Oscar for playing a cold, calculated killer. Hafner's monotone voice is nearly identical to Bardem's, minus the Spanish accent. His large, muscular physique is also akin to Bardem's, and their faces are eerily similar.

Dellucci went to see the movie with Hafner, and says Hafner was so excited he made Dellucci miss the first 10 minutes to get the popcorn. When Dellucci got into the theater, Hafner was on the edge of his seat, transfixed by watching himself.

"What'd I miss?" Dellucci asked.

"Oh, I just got out of some handcuffs and killed a guy," Hafner responded.

Hearing Hafner speak in the first person almost made Dellucci run.

"He may be the only guy in the world who was pulling for the psychopath killer," Dellucci says. "I don't know if he was able to judge the difference between that character and himself."

Dellucci's mission is to get a bowl-cut wig and have Hafner wear it on road trips. Ask Hafner about this, and he plays it down, typical for a man who wants people to know little about him.

"I'm fairly quiet unless it's around people I know real well," Hafner says. "Then I'm real talkative, but I'm never going to scream loud or anything like that."

A silent assassin indeed.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.