Hafner on road back to Pronkville
Shoulder issue behind him, DH seeks to find his old self
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The city of Pronkville can't be found on a map, though it's probably easier to encounter than Travis Hafner's tiny hometown, Sykeston, N.D."Pronkville" is the nickname of the right-field mezzanine section at the Indians' home in Progressive Field. It's a marketing gimmick, sure. But three years after it was dedicated to the man known as Pronk, it now stands as the symbolic standard by which Hafner is judged. In Hafner's halcyon days of 2006, when he smacked 42 homers, drove in 117 runs, led the American League with a 1.097 OPS and had not only the mezzanine but also a candy bar named in his honor, he used to effortlessly pelt and populate that section with baseballs. And he did so not only because of his raw, farm-boy strength, but because of his keen eye and sharp mechanics. "He was a guy who never gave an at-bat away," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "He had a unique ability to get down 0-2 and work his way back to 3-2. And he never varied from his approach. Even when his swing wasn't at his best, his approach was good." That approach began to waver a bit in a 2007 season that, in spite of the 100 RBIs Hafner turned in, was labeled by many as a disappointment. And it was virtually nonexistent in a dismal 2008 that saw Hafner miss three months with right shoulder weakness. With the shoulder surgically repaired and a new season under way, Hafner is venturing back out on the road to Pronkville. "Everything feels pretty good," Hafner said. "I feel like I'll be able to start the year and be in a good spot." But because of the worrisome way in which his body betrayed him and the precious time and timing lost because of injury, no one knows for certain if Hafner's journey will reach its ultimate destination. Shoulder struggles This much the Indians can say: Hafner is healthy. They thought they could say that in the middle of the '07 season, when they signed him to a four-year, $57 million contract extension through 2012. Hafner was given what are considered to be thorough physical examinations, not just by the Indians but by doctors representing the company that insured the deal. And though Hafner's performance in the first half of that season wasn't up to his usual standards, there was no reason to believe his body would break down. Of course, such deals are insured for a reason. Athletes' bodies offer no absolutes, and, during Spring Training last year, Hafner first experienced the shoulder problem that would essentially cost him a season. At the time, the Indians didn't feel they had reason to be overly concerned. "We didn't think it would affect him how it did from a physical or fundamental standpoint," head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff said. "Every thrower is going to have some expected pathology in their throwing shoulder. Every power hitter is going to have some expected pathology in their lead shoulder. I think it's fair to say that with the existing pathology, we didn't think it would affect him how it did." The Indians broke camp, hoping for a rebound season from Pronk, but he never broke out. In April he batted .210, with a .642 OPS, in 26 games. He was scratched from a game in Minnesota in the middle of the month and given a cortisone injection. But the Indians publicly brushed it off as only the most minor of problems. Hafner was dropped to a lower-pressure position in the lineup, to no avail. In 20 games in May, he batted .228 with a homer and six RBIs in 57 at-bats. He was striking out at an abnormal clip -- 44 against 33 walks in his first 187 plate appearances of the season. When Hafner was out of the lineup four times in a 10-game stretch in late May, the puzzling picture began to clear. He was hurting. And by May 30, he was on the disabled list. Resistance to rehab The word surgery probably would have appeased the population. It's a word, after all, that points toward progress and seems to stand as a logical solution to a medical situation. Obviously, no one rooted for Hafner to be in a physical state that required surgical intervention. But at least if his shoulder required surgery, that would help explain the joint weakness that made even the most mundane tasks -- lifting a fork or a toothbrush, for example -- a challenge for him. "That was the most vexatious part of the whole process," Soloff said. "On MRI, on physical examination, on multiple physicians' examinations [by the Indians' doctors and renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews], there was no clear-cut indication for surgery." So Hafner and the Indians opted to go the rehab route. The thinking was that a slow, steady progression in weight work, combined with a rehab and treatment program, would strengthen the shoulder in a matter of weeks. But three weeks into the plan, Hafner's strength hadn't improved. Six weeks in, the Indians said that Hafner had half the strength in his right shoulder that he had in his left. And as all this was going on, Hafner dealt with the death of his father, Terry, who succumbed to cancer in late July. It wasn't until late summer that Hafner's shoulder really responded to the rehab program, and even then he maxed out at 75 percent strength in that shoulder. Still, that was a magic number, of sorts. "In a normal population, you can function with symptoms of a 25 percent deficit or less," Soloff said. "That's usually the threshold we've seen in our throwing athletes. Obviously, Haf's not a thrower. So we were thinking that if it was going to be functional enough for him to throw, from a strength standpoint, then he should be asymptomatic hitting, as well." For a little while, they were right. Hafner began a Minor League rehab assignment in late August. And by early September, he was back with the big league club. Hafner, though, "wasn't right," as Shelton put it. Not only was the shoulder not responding well to the addition of game activities to its repertoire, but his swing and timing were, understandably, out of whack after three months away from the game. And when the season ended with Hafner having batted .197 with a .628 OPS, a second visit to Andrews was arranged. This time, surgery was expected. Pronk's procedure Hafner didn't go under the knife for one specific repair, because the examinations again showed no structural damage. The arthroscopic procedure performed by Andrews was what's referred to as a "cleanout" of the joint. Andrews removed scar tissue and arthritic changes, smoothed over bony structures and removed inflamed bursal tissue. Why didn't the Indians just go the surgical route four months earlier? "Surgical intervention is a timing thing," Soloff said. "So at some point during the summer, you get to a point where if he has to have surgery, he's out for the rest of the season. So you work under the hope and the assumption that if he has to have something done, he misses the time anyway, so let's see if we can effectively rehabilitate his shoulder during the season, so that time is not missed." If nothing else, Hafner and the Indians, who don't approach surgery in a cavalier manner, now know that every avenue was explored beforehand. What Hafner also knew was that his post-surgery inactivity carried the risk of muscle loss and weight gain. He talked with Soloff and strength and conditioning coach Tim Maxey about this when the '08 season ended. "He's experienced some chronic symptoms in his low back and both of his hips," Soloff said. "We thought the version of Travis Hafner that would not experience those chronic symptoms would be about 15 to 20 pounds lighter. And he took it and ran with it." Hafner hired a personal chef to deliver low-fat meals to his house. He drastically altered his diet, eschewing the pizza and Pronk bars for healthier options. "I gave up Chipotle," Hafner said proudly. "I've eaten probably 50 things I've never eaten before. My tastes have changed. I was in a restaurant, and they brought a huge plate of pasta, and I probably ate a quarter of it and was fine." Physically, between the surgery and the weight loss, Hafner, who now has about 90-95 percent strength in his right shoulder, feels more prepared to tolerate the grind of a 162-game season. Look at him now, and he's an emaciated version of his former self. Then again, he was working off a large canvas to begin with, so he's still an imposing figure. How imposing he'll be at the plate is the mystery. The swing is the thing Hafner arrived at the Indians' Player Development Complex in Goodyear, Ariz., in late January and began swinging. For the first time in nearly a year, he was doing so without any concerns that his shoulder would flare up, but that didn't mean he could swing freely. "From the day he got [to camp] in late January to now, we've counted the number of swings he takes every day," Soloff said. "It's somewhat methodical. There's some science to it. He's pushed us all along to add more volume, and there's no question that Derek Shelton thinks, from a fundamental standpoint, he needs more repetition. But it's a fine balance, and everybody's done a great job appreciating that balance and respecting it. It's been an interesting process." Throughout the process, Hafner has shown a disposition and a level of confidence that has improved drastically since the trials of '08. "Last year, through the personal, with his father, and then the physical and fundamental, with his performance and his shoulder pathology, I think it takes you away from who you are a little bit," Soloff said. "It takes you away from how you interact with your teammates and everyone around you. He's getting back now to [his old self], and it's fun to see." As the spring exhibitions began, Hafner started taking batting practice with his teammates. He was driving the ball well, but, then again, taking BP fastballs by third-base coach Joel Skinner is a lot different than facing breaking balls from a big leaguer. In the games, the Indians saw what they considered to be better at-bats, but they didn't see much in the way of results until the final week of Cactus League play, when Hafner hit two home runs. All told, Hafner hit .241 (13-for-54) with the two homers and seven RBIs in 16 spring games. He's still trying to fix some mechanical flaws in his swing that developed last year, when he tried to compensate for the shoulder pain. "Hitting is a process," Shelton said. "We're kind of seeing his timing coming back a little bit. It's not as good as we want it yet, and it may not be as good as we want it for another month or so. But we're seeing signs of it." Signs are all well and good, but in an impatient society, fans want results. "Hitters' counts" aren't nearly as satisfying as those monster shots to the mezzanine. Hafner knows this, but the past year has taught him to temper his own expectations for what lies ahead. And even if he had expectations about repeating his '06 statistics, they'd be countered -- initially, anyway -- by the training staff's recommendation that he play only four or five days a week for the first six to eight weeks of the season. "My whole thing is just to go out and have good at-bats," said Hafner, who went 1-for-4 on Opening Day, grounding into an inning-ending double play in the fourth and singling and scoring a run in the seventh. "Baseball's a game where you can't get caught up in the results. I don't really worry about past years or things like that. That stuff's all behind me. You've got to be as good as you can be that day and keep getting better." Yes, it's a long road back to Pronkville. And Hafner's only going to get there one at-bat at a time.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.