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Hafner Ovation an Honor of What Could Have Been in Cleveland

Hafner Ovation an Honor of What Could Have Been in Cleveland

| On 10, Apr 2013

The ovation Travis Hafner received when he was introduced as a Yankee before Monday’s home opener was as well-deserved as any.

For 10 seasons, Hafner was a fixture in the Indians lineup as the power-hitting designated hitter. Unfortunately, as was the case for many Indians after 2007, injuries plagued “Pronk” and reduced his effectiveness.

Hafner, 35, was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1996, but didn’t make his Major League Baseball debut until 2002. The Indians decided to trade for him after the season, acquiring him for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese.

It was one of the most lopsided trades of the last 15 years.

The Indians only saw Hafner for 91 games in 2003, but there were glimpses of his power and potential. It all came together for Hafner in 2004, when he hit .311 with 28 home runs and 109 RBI in his first full season.

The next two years, Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He was a rare breed of power hitter who could also hit for a high average. His memorable 2006 season saw him hit 42 home runs with six of those being grand slams.

During the 2007 All Star break, Hafner and the Indians agreed to an extension that would keep him in an Indians uniform through the 2012 season. This move alone was grounds to give Hafner an ovation when he returned.

It was a time when the Indians had players with manageable contracts, but they were coming to an end. Players like Hafner, Grady Sizemore, CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez were all nearing the ends of their contracts. Fans were horrified. They had seen this play out before: star players leave Cleveland to either chase the dollars or go to a big market (or both).

Unlike 1997 Albert Belle, 2001 Manny Ramirez and 2003 Jim Thome, Hafner decided to plant his roots in Cleveland long-term. He could’ve easily tested the free agent market without any regrets. He could’ve been courted by the Red Sox or Yankees, but he decided to stick with the team that loved him. With the way players began chasing the dollars, it almost seemed like a rebellious act on his part.

Indians fans loved it.

It was a nice change for Indians fans. Here was a guy who chose to reward the fans’ loyalty by returning it right back.

Sadly, all Indians fans will remember is the $12 million per season the team paid him for stint after stint on the disabled list.

From 2008 until the end of his tenure in Cleveland, Hafner would only play 429 games. Suddenly, the “Pronk Bars” Malley’s introduced in 2006 were gone forever. Hafner was seen as a $12 million mistake.

However, it seemed toward the end of his time in Cleveland that the fans began appreciating Hafner again. He was seen as one of the last nostalgic links to that special 2007 team that had been almost entirely purged by the end of the 2012 season.

On Oct. 2, Hafner had one last magical moment with the Tribe. Down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Hafner came on to pinch hit and ended up drilling a game-tying home run off of Jake Peavy. The next night, Hafner came up in the ninth inning of a 9-0 deficit.

What happened next was the most appropriate things to be done for one of the best Indians hitters of the last decade. Whatever was remaining of the crowd of 18,093 stood up on its feet and gave their beloved slugger an ovation. Hafner – not often seen as an emotional guy – stepped out of the batter’s box and doffed his cap to the city that had a love-hate relationship with him since 2008. In the end, though, the good memories outweighed the bad ones, and despite the pop-out, Hafner still left Cleveland a hero in the eyes of those at the park that night.

So in the end, Hafner became the Yankee everyone expected him to become, just not when everyone expected him to. The ovation he received when he was introduced Monday was a special moment. Once again, the rarely emotional Hafner doffed his cap and saluted the crowd.

The bond that Hafner and the city of Cleveland had is, was and always will be a special one. Monday’s opener was the beginning of that realization.

Photo: Mark Duncan/Associated Press