Hart has something to prove
Brewers right fielder wants to erase memories of last September
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Corey Hart is firmly established as the Brewers' right fielder, with an All-Star Game on his record and his first seven-figure contract in the bank. But he's taking Spring Training more seriously than ever.
It showed this week, when Hart went 4-for-7 with a home run and two RBIs, stole three bases and reached safely six times in his first three Cactus League games.
"A lot of guys are in here to get settled and make sure they're ready for April," said Hart, who was off Sunday but will be back in action Monday when the Brewers play the Padres. "But because I ended last year as bad as I did, I want to come out here and try to get going a lot quicker, just to prove to the staff and the fans and everybody that I still can play, that it was a fluke. I had a bad month."
That month was September, when Hart became the poster boy for the Brewers' late-season slump. He batted just .173 (17-for-98), slugged .245 and mustered 10 RBIs without hitting a home run. It was his least productive month since May 2007, when Hart batted .320 but contributed no homers and only four RBIs as a part-time player.
It was a dramatic drop-off from his season to that point. Voted by fans to the final vacancy on the National League All-Star team, Hart went to bed on Aug. 31 with a .286 batting average and a .500 slugging percentage to go with 20 home runs and 81 RBIs.
Why did things seem to change overnight?
"It was a lot of things," Hart said. "Basically, my body was just tired. I think I also put a lot of pressure on myself after making the All-Star team to kind of live up to that.
"I had never really been in the spotlight, and I didn't handle it that well."
Hart, Milwaukee's 11th-round Draft pick in 2000, had for years played fourth or fifth fiddle to the rest of the Brewers' core hitters. J.J. Hardy (second round, 2001), Prince Fielder (first round, 2002), Rickie Weeks (first round, 2003) and Ryan Braun (first round, 2005) all began their professional careers amid more hype than Hart, even though, as general manager Doug Melvin is fond of pointing out, Hart always seemed to end up with all of the awards on his mantle.
His Major League coming-out party was September 2006, when Hart collected a team-best 20 RBIs. He was in the big leagues for good in 2007, when Hart became the fifth 20-20 man -- 20 homers, 20 stolen bases -- in franchise history and also strung together a 22-game hitting streak.
Then came 2008, when Hart's production seemed to rise with the Brewers' expectations. His popularity was evidenced in July, when fans voted him to the All-Star Game via MLB.com's Final Vote.
After his woeful September, did Hart get the sense that front-office officials and coaches were doubting him?
"No, no, no," he said. "But if anyone does have [doubts], I want to take them away."
Hart inked a one-year, $3.25 million contract on Feb. 27 to avoid an arbitration hearing and began this spring season 11 days later on a hot streak. He hit the first Spring Training pitch he saw for a single to left field, then hit a long opposite field home run later in a 3-3 tie against the A's in Milwaukee's Cactus League opener Wednesday.
If Hart is approaching the spring with a bit more intensity this year, his best friend on the team hasn't noticed.
"He's the same Corey, if you ask me," Hardy said. "His first at-bat, first pitch, line drive past the third baseman. So he hasn't really changed anything. He's back to his old ways."
Hardy says this with a laugh. He knows that Brewers fans got on Hart last season for his unwillingness to take a pitch. He finished the year with 109 strikeouts and only 29 walks.
Hart heard the catcalls. They prompted him during a September series in Philadelphia, while the Brewers were off to a brutal 3-12 start to September, to say that players felt more comfortable on the road than at Miller Park.
"It's not a lack of hustle or effort," he said then. "A guy makes an error, a guy strikes out and you hear your home town booing you. It makes you ready to get out of there and go somewhere else for a while."
That did not go over well. Hart regrets the statement today.
"That was said out of frustration," Hart said. "Things weren't going well and obviously our fans wanted us so badly to win. ... They were nervous, we were nervous. There were a lot of things then that weren't going right. I know fans didn't like [what he said]. I'm sure there were plenty of blogs getting all over me.
"A little bit of it was misconstrued. I love our fans. When things go bad, it's their right to get on you. Now I want to prove to everybody that [the end of] last year, that wasn't me."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.