Hanson Has a Lot to be Thankful For

There is much more to baseball than playing the games. Here, we get a glimpse at the support system behind Cardinals' prospect Travis Hanson.

We know the St. Louis Cardinals, like every other organization, have approaching 200 minor league players under contract. Under the sun and lights in places like Johnson City, Tennessee and Davenport, Iowa, fans scrutinize their on-field exploits with cheers - and sometimes even jeers.


But, who are these young men living in relative obscurity, many not old enough to drink or rent a car, working miles and miles away from home for what could be the first time? Not who are they as baseball players, but as human beings.


And, at this special time of year, to whom do these players owe special thanks?


Cardinals' assistant general manager John Mozeliak puts it into context. "There is a human side to it that a lot of people don't realize… You don't really see the part where the kids are struggling to get a ride to the ballpark. The day-to-day grind that they go through is really not all that attractive… I always kind of equate it to sending a kid to college when you're in the minor leagues. Your parents have to be supportive of it."


One such player was just added to the Cardinals' 40-man roster, third baseman Travis Hanson. He grew up in Washington and attended college in Oregon. He parents moved to Arizona. In the Cardinals system, he's already played in New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Missouri.


So, who makes up Hanson's support system? I went to find out.


Earlier this month, I made arrangements to meet a special person at an Arizona Fall League contest. I ended up chatting behind the Surprise Scorpions' dugout with Karen Hanson for the entire game. The petite, dark haired woman looked like any one of a number well-dressed fans in attendance. While that was true enough, that clearly wasn't all.


You see, Karen is Travis' Mom and a whole lot more.


After having driven alone the 170 miles from Kingman, Arizona that morning, Karen arrived at Surprise Stadium only to learn that Travis was being given his first day off in some time. It didn't seem to bother her one bit. "I'll root for the other boys, then," she cheerfully explained.


Here is what Travis himself had to say about his parents. "They've always been there for me. My Dad coached me forever when I was little. Then I had to go play ball in a different part of the area. I am from a small town, so I had to go to the big city to play a better level of ball. So, he had to stop coaching me then, but they always came to my games."


Karen Hanson wishes she could see every game. But she and her husband Gary both work and her elderly mother lives with them. She can't be left alone overnight, so Travis' parents could only attend one AFL contest each week. Karen made her desires clear. "I wish they played on Sundays! 95% of Travis' games are at 1 p.m. so we can't make any during the week, only the Saturday games."


Karen provided some of their family background. "We moved here to Arizona two years ago and love it. We wish we were here in the Phoenix area, but the job was there (Kingman) for Gary. I grew up in Yakima WA and then moved to Gig Harbor, and Port Orchard in the 70's when we got married. Gary is from Tacoma. I work for a Community College in the Public Information Office, and Gary is a banker."


Driving 170 miles to see a game is nothing. Mom and his fiancé took a three-day cross-country road trip last season to deliver Travis' car to him in Florida with two overnight stops, including an eventful night in New Orleans. She had also delivered Travis' auto to Peoria the previous season, so Karen has already logged thousands of miles of dashboard time in support of her son.


Travis agrees. "My Mom has been my vehicle transport system every year. She drives my car out to me wherever I am. They're (his parents) just die-hard fans."


All this helps Hanson concentrate on playing baseball, which he has been doing quite well, thank you. Travis had been playing with Team USA, where he hit .333 in the recent Regional Olympic Qualifying tournament, following a stint in the Arizona Fall League. In addition, Hanson, 24, was recently named to the 2005 Topps/Minor League Baseball Double-A All-Star Team, which recognizes players with the best performances at each minor league level.


This is an impressive comeback from some major hardship suffered not all that long ago. During the 2004 season, a severely broken leg on a collision at second base ended Hanson's season and at least temporarily derailed his plans to play that position.


Karen explained her son's long road back. "His injury last year was devastating to us all, but he has recovered even better than before. His rehab person in Portland used to ride bikes with Lance Armstrong, and even coached an Olympic cycling team for a while. He has a gym in Portland where some of the top high school athletes and people like Travis go to work out. They do a whole body and mental approach to conditioning and really helped Travis through his rehabilitation."


On the field, as the Scorpions' opponent warmed up a new pitcher, we both noted his unorthodox motion and arm angle. Karen volunteered that Gary helped break Travis from throwing sidearm some years ago, though it still comes through now and then when Hanson makes a long throw across the diamond. It was clear his Dad has been a major influence on Hanson the ballplayer as well as the man.


Here is a prime example of the self-sufficiency and maturity Travis has developed. When I asked Karen about her and Gary's experience with advisors/agents, she really didn't offer much in return. After I pushed for more information, she explained it clearly. "Travis pretty much handled all that himself. Gary and I looked at the prospectus and that was about it. His agent also represents Dontrelle Willis." No wonder Hanson can handle living on the road!


As you would expect from a proud Mom, Karen spoke fondly of a number of the players Travis (and she) have befriended since he joined the Cardinals system. Names like Reid Gorecki, Brendan Ryan and Rich Scalamandre, Hanson's Arizona roommate flowed freely in our conversation, usually with only first names used.


But, it is not always sweetness and light. Karen recounted a dinner following a game after which Travis' roommate at the time had been released by the Cardinals. Her mothering instincts must have kicked in as the obviously disappointed player most needed someone to talk with. Turns out, the release was not only a relief for him, but also a blessing in disguise. The former player returned to Texas, where he is now happily coaching with his college team.


As we parted that sunny November day following an 11-9 Scorpions win, Karen called down to Travis as he was walking off the field and made arrangements to meet at the car so they could have dinner together. If Travis wouldn't have had Team USA practice the next day, Mom was prepared to convince him to come home for a 24-hour rest.


Mozeliak had this to say about Hanson. "For people who have been around him for awhile and have known him, I think we've all had some appreciation for him. He is a hard worker. You'll never see anyone outwork him."


One very important reason that Hanson can be such a tireless worker is because Gary, Karen and his fiancé are right behind him. As a result, Travis Hanson has as much to be thankful for off the field as he does on it. And that is a lot!


Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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