Astros outfielder Richard Hidalgo was parking his SUV in front of a friend's house in Valencia, Venezuela, last November when trouble suddenly stared him in the face. A man appeared in front of the vehicle, pulled a gun and aimed it at him. Another man appeared at the driver's side window. He, too, aimed a gun at Hidalgo.
If I get out, Hidalgo thought, I'm dead. If I stay, I'm dead.
So he slammed his foot on the accelerator and sped away in a frantic attempt to save his life. It worked. As Hidalgo drove home, thankful to be alive, he felt something dripping onto his leg. It was blood. Only then did he realize that he'd been shot in the left forearm. He headed for a hospital.
Doctors in Houston later found what they thought was evidence of nerve damage in his arm, but that has since been dismissed as temporary nerve trauma. A single bullet passed through his forearm without striking bone, ligament or artery. Hidalgo, 27, is fine, ready to begin spring training this month without limitations. "He's one lucky man, and he knows it," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker says.
With an escape like that, Hidalgo already has the inside track on National League comeback player of the year. Truth is, Houston figured Hidalgo would contend for the award even without such frightening drama. Once among the game's best young power hitters, Hidalgo suffered a swift decline over the past three seasons, in which his home runs (44, 19, 15), RBIs (122, 80, 48) and batting average (.314, .275, .235) all nosedived. He had only two homers and seven RBIs over the final three months of last year, during which a strained right hip cut his playing time and efficiency.
Hidalgo's troubles began after his breakout 2000 season when he added about 15 pounds of muscle to his 6'3", 220-pound frame, costing him flexibility and the easy snap in his swing. He retooled his workouts this winter—mostly in Florida after the shooting—to lose muscle mass.
The signing of free-agent second baseman Jeff Kent prompted Houston to move second baseman Craig Biggio to centerfield, rightfielder Lance Berkman to leftfield and leftfielder Daryle Ward to the Dodgers for a minor league pitcher in a salary dump, leaving Hidalgo the rightfield spot.
"We have three MVP-type players in the middle of our lineup," Hunsicker said. " Kent and [first baseman Jeff] Bagwell already have their MVP awards, and Berkman's day is coming. Now Richard can hit sixth or seventh. If he hits 25 to 30 homers and drives in 80 to 90 runs, which are very reasonable projections for him, our lineup looks very dangerous."
Dangerous? The word has new meaning for Hidalgo.