Mariners need Hart for the second act

By Jerry Brewer / The Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. — Don’t look to Corey Hart for a sob story. He is not the pitiful type. He is the kind of person who finds worth in adversity and joy in altered plans.

Which is good because, if he were not this way, he would be a walkin’, talkin’, lamentin’ blues song.

The 31-year-old slugger missed the entire 2013 season. He is attempting to come back from microfracture surgery — on both knees. It is only about the scariest operation an athlete can have, times two. But the jovial Hart does not need you to pull out a handkerchief for him.

“I looked at it and said, ‘OK, what can I do to make this positive?’ ” said Hart, the Seattle Mariners’ projected cleanup hitter. “It was fun. You might think I’m crazy to say that, but it was fun. I’m not talking about the rehab or not being able to play the game. But I got to live the rest of my life. I guess I could’ve moped or been depressed, but I found something better.”

Hart found extra time to spend with his family. He is a native Kentuckian who has settled into a family-first lifestyle. He and his wife, Kristina, have four children. Hart admits that, early in his career, during his years in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor-league system, he drank too much and experimented with drugs. Later, as he developed into a legit big-leaguer, a two-time All-Star, he had to learn not to overindulge in stardom. Those experiences have made him what he is now: a veteran ballplayer lauded for his character, a religious man proud of his Christianity, and a husband and father who has his priorities in order.

Instead of moping, Hart swam with his children all summer. He watched about 50 of his son’s baseball games. He went to his daughters’ talent show. He attended an event honoring his wife for her work with homeless youth.

All the while, Hart missed baseball, but he gained greater clarity of where baseball belongs in his life. It did not diminish his desire to return to form, however. Hart, whose primary residence is in the Phoenix area, would wake up at 5:45 in the morning and help get the kids off to school. Then he would go to the Fischer Institute of Physical Therapy & Performance to work through the arduous process of getting both knees healthy. And then it was family time again.

“I was just a regular dad,” Hart said. “I couldn’t be sad about that.”

With greater perspective, Hart returns to baseball, with a new team, in a new league and in a new city he had never been to before his introductory news conference in December. On a team that features ace pitcher Felix Hernandez and star second baseman Robinson Cano — another first-year Mariner — Hart is quietly the most important piece of the puzzle.

You know what Hernandez and Cano provide. They are two perennial All-Stars who are consistent and durable. But to get the best out of Cano and to make the middle of the Mariners’ lineup potent, Hart must be there for productivity and protection. There is no question about Hart’s ability. He has a career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .824, five seasons of at least 20 home runs, two 30-homer seasons and four seasons with at least 80 runs batted in. He is a bopper, and when healthy, he has shown the versatility to play multiple positions (right field, first base). He is quite athletic at 6 feet 6 and 230 pounds.

But can he stay healthy? Microfracture knee surgeries have ended or diminished plenty of sports careers. Greg Oden. Penny Hardaway. Tracy McGrady. Amar’e Stoudemire. It expedited the retirement of Seattle Seahawks legend Walter Jones. But those are basketball and football players.

The closest recent baseball comparison might be Matt Kemp, but his microfracture procedure was on his ankle in October, and he is still recovering. As a baseball player, Hart does not have to endure as much pounding on his knees, and the Mariners could make him a full-time designated hitter if they need to do so. So far, Hart is moving well and says he feels good. Still, there are no guarantees. The Mariners are being careful with him this spring.

“I’m concerned about it,” said Lloyd McClendon, the first-year Seattle manager. “I feel better about it every day as we move forward. But you have to be realistic, too. He had two major surgeries. We have to be cautious so we can have him out there for, hopefully, 150 games in some capacity — whether it’s DH, first base or right field. But to put him out there full-bore in spring training, I don’t think that’s the smart way to do it.”

A few days ago, Hart stole home, freelancing and turning Xavier Avery’s swipe of second base into a double steal that the coaching staff did not call.

“I fainted,” McClendon joked.

But Hart made it. And he did not limp back to the dugout.

“We’re on a good pace,” Hart said. “Everything is good so far. I’m not really holding back.”

The Mariners signed Hart to a one-year, $6 million contract with incentives that could earn him an eight-figure salary if he can stay healthy. It is a gamble, but Hart is doing everything necessary to be ready. He is leaner, having lost 20 pounds during rehab. He stretches like crazy now. In the mornings, he is meticulous about his training regimen, and after workouts and games, he is working to keep the knees strong.

“It was a little scary at first,” Hart said. “You look on the Internet, and there are a lot of horror stories. But I’m giving myself every opportunity not to have any setbacks.”

As much as Hart loves being a regular dad, he still has some life left in his irregular profession. And the Mariners desperately need Hart to be available for this second act.