CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Designated hitter Travis Hafner has come home.
“It’s a little strange,” Hafner said 3 hours before the Yankees took on the Indians in the home opener at Progressive Field Monday afternoon. “You’re used to being over there for the last 10 years but it’s great to be back here for opening day.”
Hafner, who signed a 1-year $2 million contract that included an additional $4 million in incentives with the Yankees this offseason, was relaxed and all smiles sitting in the visitors dugout and fielding questions.
“We’re enjoying it,” Hafner said. “It’s something different and I think it’s going to be a great experience for us.”
While happy to be with New York and taking on the challenges and expectations that come with playing for the Yankees, Hafner spoke fondly of the 10 seasons with the Indians and the friends that he made.
“The relationships you make over the years, you make so many friends,” Hafner said. “The people have been so great here that its great to see all of those guys again.”
10 years is a long time to spend in 1 city – especially in today’s modern baseball world of free agency and he was hard pressed to pick just 1 single moment, game or memory that stood out to him.
“The second half of that 2007 season,” Hafner said. “Going down the stretch and winning the division, playing in front of sellouts because the fans were into it and being in the playoffs.
“That was just a great experience.”
Hafner is not quite sure of the reception he’ll receive from the sellout crowd when he steps to the plate for the first time Monday. He is well aware that Cleveland fans don’t always have the warmest of greetings for former stars that return.
“The fans have always treated me great,” Hafner said. “But at the same time I play for the Yankees now so we’ll see.
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Hafner still has his dry sense of humor and laughed when asked if he thought fans would throw the ball back if he hit one to the old Pronkville section located in the second deck in right field.
“I don’t know, I’d be happy to hit one there first,” Hafner said. “After that I wouldn’t care.”
Cleveland paid Hafner a $2.25 million buyout allowing him to become a free agent this offseason instead of picking up a $13 million option on him for 2013.
“You go into it not really knowing what to expect,” Hafner said. “You didn’t hear much until January then it started to pick up a bit. The once I found out that the Yankees had interest; it’s a really good fit for me so it worked out well.”
The reason the Indians let him walk was simple – he was beset with a multitude of injuries after signing a 4-year, $57 million extension in the summer of 2007.
Hafner said that he spoke with Indians general manager Chris Antonetti during the offseason but was never really sold that he’d be back with the Indians.
“There was so much roster turnover and not every roster can have a full time DH,” Hafner said. “There was some interest on both sides but I’m not exactly sure how it would play out, if there would be space or whatever. Then the opportunity with the Yankees came up and I talked to a lot of people and it seemed like a great fit for me with the ballpark and franchise.”
With free agency looming in 2008, the Indians wanted to get Hafner locked up after he was coming off his most productive campaign in 2006 that saw him hit hit 42 homers and drive in 117 but he was never the same.
Shoulder surgery derailed his 2008 season and the rehab and recovery bothered him for the next 2 years. In 2011 he strained an oblique muscle and injured his foot. Then in 2012, his final season as an Indian, Hafner underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus and missed 40 games thanks to a bulging disc in his back.
He hit 200 homers as an Indian but only 59 of them came during his final 5 seasons.
Hafner said he lost 15 pounds in spring training to take pressure off his back and knees to help him get through the season healthy.
As for his former team, Hafner is impressed with the offseason rebuilding job done by Antonetti with the additions of 15 new players including Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds.
“I think it was important for them to do [that],” Hafner said. “They were able to get a buzz going in the town again and generate interest in the team and I think it was important. I think they made some good decisions.”