CLEVELAND – There is a rather sizeable hole in the armpit of Travis Hafner's T-shirt that reads "The Animal" across the front. He's got a shaved head, an angular jaw and the kind of glower that were you to ask him about his favorite sandwich, you'd half-expect him to answer, "Knuckle."
Everything about Hafner, the Cleveland Indians' prolific designated hitter, seems to scream brute, from his WWE fixation – the aforementioned Animal, by the way, is the wrestler Batista – to the manner in which his left-handed swing punishes opposing pitchers. And then comes the answer to a rather benign question about what else Hafner enjoys.
"Chess," he says.
"Seriously," Hafner said. "I guess it can be like baseball. It's a cat-and-mouse game, one person trying to read the other. The pitcher tries to set you up just like someone will try to trap you. And in both cases, I try to make it so I'm never guessing."
Based on his production, that's apparent. Hafner is putting up gaudy numbers again – .310 with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs – and this year he's doing it with a keener eye on him. After Hafner's fifth-place finish in last year's American League MVP voting – which received about as much fanfare as the person who placed fifth in the annual KiteFest in Hafner's birthplace of Jamestown, N.D., about 60 miles from his hometown of Sykeston – he's difficult to ignore.
There he is, second in the major leagues in runs, behind Pujols. And third in on-base plus slugging, behind Pujols and Thome. And sixth in RBI and walks. And 12th in home runs.
"He's on the very short list of best hitters in the game," Indians third baseman Aaron Boone said. "We've seen him get on these rolls before. And when he does, look out."
Last week, the Indians looked on in awe. Playoff contenders until the last day of 2005, Cleveland had lost six straight and 20 of 31 following a 6-1 start. And the Indians entered the ninth inning at Jacobs Field trailing woebegone Kansas City until Hafner blistered a two-home home run to right field and snapped the streak.
The next day, in the third inning, Hafner broke a scoreless tie with a grand slam in the third inning. And the Indians have kept winning, taking five of six from the Royals and Pittsburgh – not a Guinness Book-worthy feat, by any means, but still important with surging Detroit and defending-champion Chicago in the AL Central – to climb back to .500.
"I had never hit a walk-off before," Hafner said. "Considering we'd lost six in a row, we needed it. We want to get our record back over .500 before we can think about getting back in this thing."
Much of that chance rests on Hafner, a 31st-round draft choice by Texas in 1996. It was at Triple-A Oklahoma City that Hafner learned to play chess. When batting practice ended, he retired to the clubhouse, where they had a five-board setup, and played until someone pulled him onto the field.
"I can't get any better at it, and I can't master it," Hafner said. "But there's something about it that's pretty addicting, and I just can't stop."
Sounds, again, like his approach to hitting. With Mark Teixeira set to take over at first base in 2003, the Rangers traded Hafner to Cleveland for catcher Einar Diaz and pitcher Ryan Drese, and he platooned in 2003 before earning a full-time job in 2004. The next season he switched full-time to designated hitter, and despite taking a Mark Buehrle pitch to the face and missing time, Hafner set a career high with 33 home runs.
"You don't stay the same," Hafner said. "You get better or worse. A lot of it is experience and learning pitchers and knowing what to look for.
"Either you get better or you won't play. And I'm better against left-handed pitching."
Considerably better. The walk-off homer and grand slam against Kansas City came against left-handers, as have four others this season. Hafner has more RBI against lefties, and his OPS against lefties and righties is almost equal. Last year, his OPS against right-handers was nearly 200 points better, and in 2004, the difference was 400 points.
"He's like most good left-handed hitters: Eventually, they work their way into hitting left-handed pitchers," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "It takes some time to do that, and it took him time."
Now Wedge has no reason to yank Hafner in the late innings, every motivation to let him carve a legacy in Cleveland. The Indians have him under contract through the 2008 season. He's already got his own candy bar, the Pronk Crunch Bar, named thusly because of Hafner's moniker, which is a combination of "project" and "donkey."
But all he really wants is clubhouse bragging rights over Lee and Byrd.
"Chess," Hafner said, "is just a challenge."
Hitting? Easy as pawn to e4.