A Hart-Throb in Milwaukee

A lot of modern-day players get criticized for not being fans of the game, having little-to-no appreciation for baseball’s history.
Corey Hart isn’t one of them.

The slugging Milwaukee Brewers All-Star right fielder grew up a huge Atlanta Braves fan, and his numerous Hank Aaron paintings and autographs are just the tip of the iceberg in an extensive collection of sports memorabilia.

“I actually grew up closer to Cincinnati,” said Hart, a native of Bowling Green, Ky. “But my dad was a huge Braves fan, so that’s all I watched growing up was the Braves. I’ve got a lot of Hank Aaron stuff. He was one of the best players ever. I’ve got three or four nice paintings of Hank Aaron that he signed.”

Of course, there’s a definite connection because Hart patrols Milwaukee’s right field just like Hammerin’ Hank did at one time, at old County Stadium.

“I love Milwaukee,” Hart said. “I love the ballpark (Miller Park). It’s one of the best ballparks in the league. I have a lot of friends outside of the team that my family loves, and I’ve been with the organization 10 years. I’ve grown up with these guys.”

During the recent offseason, Hart was working extra hard to get ready for the start of the season under new skipper, Ron Roenicke, who replaced Ken Macha as the Brewers’ bench general. However, the offseason was also a time for Hart to relax, enjoy and work on his collectibles.

“I’m a big hobby guy,” he said. “I’ve probably 13-15 signed jerseys. I’ve got plenty of baseball cards. A Babe Ruth card, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris. I get the ones that are graded out.”

His list of autographed jerseys includes Pete Rose, Michael Jordan when he was with the White Sox, Ernie Banks, Trevor Hoffman, Peyton Manning, Jerry Rice, A-Rod and Manny Perez.

“I don’t have a Hank Aaron jersey but I’ve got those paintings,” Hart said.

Items are displayed in a special room in the Hart household.

“My wife designed my whole room for me,” he said. “There’s a pool table and the walls are covered with all my stuff. I have a lot of sports action figures, too, and I’ve got a lot of good football stuff. I’ve got a Colts helmet signed by the whole team. That’s my team.”

He’s always on the lookout for unique items.

“It’s cool to get things from some of the older guys,” Hart said. “You look for them. Some of those things are super expensive. But when I find something cool, I get it. I just got a Barry Bonds jersey not too long ago and had it framed up.”

His collecting interests go beyond baseball, as well.

“I’ve also got a ton of comic books, and I’m a big movie fan, too,” he said. “I’m a big Dark Knight fan. I just got two really cool Heath Ledger/Dark Knight posters signed by him. Every time I find something cool I’m definitely not shy about getting it.”

A change of fortune
Hart can dive into collectibles a bit more comfortably after signing a three-year, $26.5 million contract extension during the summer of 2010 that will keep him with the Brewers through 2013. At the start of last season, however, his future with the club wasn’t certain. After getting off to a slow start and with veteran Jim Edmonds on the roster, manager Ken Macha benched Hart, which proved to be a valuable wake-up call.

“I wanted to prove to them that I could be the guy,” he said. “I didn’t let up. I went out there every day and tried to turn it around. I think I did. That was a big reason they signed me, because they saw how hard I worked and how determined I was to stay in Milwaukee. I was determined to try to make it happen. They saw that, my team saw that. I was able to get that done.”

On Sept. 30, 2010, at the Mets’ Citifield in New York, Hart picked up his 100th RBI of the season – one of three Brewers along with Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee to top the 100-RBI plateau last year. For Hart, it was the first time reaching that milestone, and he wound up with 102 RBI for the season to go with 31 homers, a .283 average and a starting All-Star Game berth – making it the finest campaign of his still blossoming career.
Hart was left off the All-Star Game ballot, but he got the players’ write-in vote and started in place of injured Braves rookie Jason Heyward.

“I’ve had good years, but to come through what I did last year made it more memorable than any year I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was challenging, but it was definitely fun. Early on in my career I got complacent. I was just happy to be in the big leagues. I always worked hard, but I don’t think I worked the right way and concentrated enough. When I got benched early last season, I was determined to prove these guys wrong.”

Hart credits Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum for working with him every day to eliminate lower body movement that got in the way of his plate coverage.

Now, he’s looking forward to 2011 and helping the Brewers get back to the playoffs. So far, he’s only been there once, in 2008. Unfortunately, Milwaukee was quickly eliminated by the eventual World Champion Phillies in the National League Division Series.

There’s no doubt the Brewers have one of the most potent offensive lineups in all of baseball, and just need more pitching depth to become a bona fide contender. The team addressed those needs in the offseason with trades for Zack Greinke (Kansas City) and Shaun Marcum  (Toronto).

“Obviously, we wanted to score more runs last year,” Hart said. “But a lot of good things happened here. A lot of times we’ve pitched, we’ve hit. Then there would be a stretch where our pitching was unbelievable, but we didn’t hit at all. We’ve just got to be able to play together on the same page. We know we have a good team.”

Hart started the 2011 season on the disabled list with an oblique strain and is now working his way back after missing the first month of the season.
Roenicke has promised to make the Brewers a more exciting ball club on the basepaths. He made that clear when he was introduced to the media during a Miller Park press conference last year.

“At times, you’re going to say, ‘Why are you running so much? Why are you getting thrown out trying to take extra bases?’ ” Roenicke said. “It’s going to happen, but that’s the style I like to play. I’ve seen it win a lot of ballgames over the years. We’re going to be aggressive from third base scoring, we’re going to be aggressive from first to third and, at times, we’re going to get thrown out. But over the course of the season, I guarantee we will score a lot more runs being aggressive.

“Plus, (I like) what it does for the players,” he said. “The players, when you let them be aggressive, they have more confidence. That’s what this game is all about — confidence.”

That’s music to Hart’s ears because he was somewhat critical of Macha’s station-to-station style, waiting for the home run to break games open. Hart even told Milwaukee’s NBC TV affiliate “We were scared” to run during Macha’s tenure with the team.

Hart stole 23 bases in both 2007 and ’08, but had just 17 swipes the next two years combined in only 30 total attempts. For a big man, at 6’6”, his speed and power are valuable assets that Roenicke wants to take full advantage of.

“The focus is not on me, it’s on the players,” Roenicke told the media. “It’s getting them to perform to whatever abilities they have. Once we get there, it’s about getting to September and have those games mean something.”

With a handsome new contract and his place in Milwaukee secure, Hart can focus on doing his part to put the Brewers in the postseason. Having Hart locked up for three more years gives general manager Doug Melvin peace of mind, too. Last year there was considerable speculation his star right fielder might be dealt to a contender.

“Now, Corey doesn’t have to go through this again,” Melvin told MLB.com. “Corey has worked hard. We’ve never had to worry about that. He’s always been a good worker.”

Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.

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