"I would have taken less," Hart insisted Wednesday before the Brewers and Mariners played at the Peoria Sports Complex. "But I wasn't going to -- I still wanted it to be kind of close. In the long run, it wasn't really close at all."
Hart, coming off a season lost entirely to double knee surgery, signed a one-year contract with the Mariners that guarantees $6 million and offers $7 million more in incentives.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin could only offer $4 million guaranteed, with $2.5 million in incentives that could push Hart just above what he was guaranteed in Seattle.
"I even talked to Doug, and he basically said, 'I couldn't turn that down, so why would you be expected to?'" Hart said. "They understood there was a huge gap. It was one of those things where I would have liked to stay if it was close, but in the long run it wasn't that close, and they weren't pushing like these guys were. There were a lot of things that could have gone different, I guess, but they didn't, and I'm glad to be here."
What could have gone differently? Hart suggested that the Brewers could have made a much stronger emotional push to keep him. Melvin made it clear that he wanted Hart back, and manager Ron Roenicke, third-base coach Ed Sedar and hitting coach Johnny Narron all called to urge Hart to consider returning.
He did not feel the same love from Brewers teammates.
"I'm sure when we see each other there will be a lot of hugs. But that's about it," Hart said. "I think I was expecting more players to reach out and try to keep me. A lot of the coaches reached out. But these guys [the Mariners] were overwhelming. We had a few other teams that were right there, too. I thought Milwaukee would have made it harder, but at the end of it, it wasn't a tough decision."
Later he reiterated, "If someone like Braunie [Ryan Braun] or Rickie [Weeks] or Luc [Jonathan Lucroy] would have reached out, it would have made it a lot harder."
None of those three veteran Brewers were on the team's traveling party Wednesday to respond to Hart's sentiment.
Hart himself was also absent when the Brewers and Mariners squared off for the second time this spring. He played in Seattle's night game Tuesday, and spent Wednesday afternoon piling up at-bats in a Minor League game.
He joked that he was hoping to gain some confidence after hitting .129 (4-for-31) with three singles and a double in his first 11 exhibition games in a Mariners uniform. The good news, Hart said, is that his knees feel healthy after microfracture surgery last season. His right knee operation was in January, and the left knee needed a similar procedure in July.
In Seattle, he has been reunited with GM Jack Zduriencik, who as Brewers amateur scouting director made Hart Milwaukee's 11th-round Draft pick in 2000. A Miller Park crowd starved for something to cheer about gave Hart a standing ovation after he struck out in his first Major League at-bat in 2004. In 2008, Hart made the first of his two appearances on the National League All-Star team. In 2010, he set career highs with 31 home runs and 102 RBIs. In 2012, he came to the rescue by moving from right field to first base.
By the time his injury-plagued 2013 came along, Hart was the organization's longest-tenured player. But while there was mutual interest in bringing Hart back for 2014, the finances didn't fit. The Brewers were quietly mounting a bid for free-agent starting pitcher Matt Garza, who eventually signed for four years and $50 million, and could not afford to spend big on Hart, an obvious injury risk, despite the team's glaring hole at first base.
In the end, the Brewers filled that vacancy by signing Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to Minor League contracts. They are competing this spring with Juan Francisco for the job.
"I get it. I completely get it," Hart said. "They've got a high payroll, anyway, and you never know if I was going to be healthy enough to play out in the field all the time. It's a gamble to pay me what other teams were paying me, being a question mark. I can DH here, so hopefully if something goes wrong I can still go out there and hit. But so far, it's been good, so I'll play the field as long as I can hold out."
The handful of Brewers fans who have visited Peoria this spring have been "nice," Hart said.
"It's good to see Brewers fans, because half of my wardrobe is Milwaukee stuff," Hart said. "Hopefully they do understand that it's not solely financial. A lot of things pushed me here; financial was obviously one of them. I got such a good feeling here. These guys kept calling me and pushing. It made it an easy pick.
"Hopefully my tenure is not done in Milwaukee, because I had a great time there, and hopefully I find my way back there eventually."