MILWAUKEE - Check that All-Star fan ballot again. No sign of Corey Hart.
That's the clearest indication of where the career of the lanky right fielder was headed as he left spring training. After a sour year and a half - and a miserable spring - Hart was a long, long way from All-Star caliber. He had lost his confidence and his starting role, and Brewers' brass were in a bind.
Hart decided to make changes that have turned his season around.
He's among the National League home run leaders despite saying he's not a home run hitter and he's the biggest reason the Brewers have stayed afloat in the first half of the season. Hart was hitting .288 with 19 homers and 61 RBIs through Monday and he was also riding a 20-game hitting streak. Hart has made next week's All-Star team as part of the players' vote.
Hart has come a long way from spring training, when he wasn't even sure he was going to make the Brewers after winning a $4.8 million arbitration case.
"I got out of a meeting late in the spring with the front office and those guys and they were panicking because I had a bad spring," Hart said. "But I wasn't really thinking about it, I assumed I would be the right fielder and then I realized, 'These guys don't like me right now."'
General manager Doug Melvin said he could see how Hart would believe that, but said they kept emphasizing that Hart was better than he'd shown in the spring and second half of the previous season. Melvin also said that there were no hard feelings after arbitration.
"Last year, we saw his skills decline," said Melvin, who believed the organization made its point with the meeting. "We thought he could be a better player than what he showed last year."
Hart reached the 2008 All-Star game in the final vote, then spent the second half of that year and all of 2009 in a steady decline. He hit just .252 with 17 homers and 81 RBIs in the second half of 2008 through last season.
Hart, an 11th round draft pick by Milwaukee in 2001, left the meeting and got ready for opening day, only to see the team give the start to veteran Jim Edmonds. Hart spent the first few weeks of the season checking to see if his name was even on the lineup card.
"I feel like I still should've started opening day because I had earned it in the past," he said. "I took that as that I needed to do something to show them I should be out there every day."
Hitting coach Dale Sveum thought the same thing, too, and told Hart that he shouldn't settle for being a platoon player while he split at-bats with center fielder Carlos Gomez and Edmonds got playing time. Sveum knew Hart's confidence was low.
"I tried to make him understand how good he was and to remember those times," said Sveum, who helped him get more comfortable at the plate through hours of early batting practice and cage work. "Corey's always been fun to coach because he plays by the seat of his pants. He doesn't always look pretty, but he's been a very productive major league player."
Hart has a refreshing take on his struggles and says he deserved to be booed.
"A lot of guys would be like, 'I don't want to be there anymore.' Same thing with the fans, you get booed, you don't want to be around it. But, I've always liked it here," he said. "Now, you get upset and frustrated with how you're treated sometimes, but at the same time, a lot of times the way you get treated is your fault. So, you've got to figure out things to change people's minds. I'm trying to change the Brewers' minds, the fans' minds."
The team decided against putting Hart on the All-Star fan ballot, thinking Edmonds might get hot and make a run at the midseason exhibition.
"Corey went out and proved us wrong," Melvin said. "He's had a fantastic year and it's through hard work and dedication and commitment to making changes."
Hart insists he wants to stay in Milwaukee even if there's still twinges of hurt feelings and his name comes up in trade chatter.
"You never want to be traded away because you're not playing well and they want somebody else," Hart said. "Hopefully, they continue wanting me and realize they don't want to get rid of me."