SARASOTA, Fla. —
March 19, 2011
The Orioles' new shortstop, with the movie star looks and the West Coast ease, hasn't been hard to find the past four weeks. On most mornings, he turns his chair around at his corner locker and faces a roomful of new teammates.
He interacts with fellow infielders, accepts challenges at the pingpong table and takes in the culture in his third big league clubhouse in as many years.This is J.J. Hardy in his element. This is also in stark contrast with the person he became seven years ago when a shoulder injury jeopardized a promising career before it had really even started.
"I kind of went into depression, and I never left my house for a long time," Hardy said of his injury-shortened 2004 season. "I'd order pizza - that's how I'd get my food. I sat in a dark, dark house, my shoulder was broken, and I just kind of was depressed. I couldn't stand seeing all my friends, all my baseball buddies out there playing, and I'm thinking, 'Woe is me.' Everyone else was out there having fun."
Back then, his own doubts and fears were exceeded only by those of his older brother and best friend, Logan, who was going through far worse after returning from the war in Iraq.
"For me, it was just a bad, bad year," he said. "My brother was the biggest part of that whole turnaround."
Hardy's baseball career - from two superb seasons in Milwaukee to various injuries to two trades in little more than a year to his likely spot as the Orioles' sixth different Opening Day shortstop since 2002 - has been a roller coaster, the 28-year-old readily acknowledges.
He hit .277 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs in 151 games - and made the All-Star team - for the Brewers in 2007 and followed that with a .283 average, 24 homers and 74 RBIs in 146 games the following year. In either of the two seasons since, he hasn't played more than 115 games, hit more than 11 homers or driven in more than 47 runs.
However, he is healthy again after a painful wrist injury sapped his power last season and limited him to a career-low 101 games for the Minnesota Twins, who traded him and infielder Brendan Harris to the Orioles in December for two minor league pitchers. Buoyed by hitting coach Jim Presley's aggressive approach, Hardy has swung one of the Orioles' most effective bats this spring, and he has been sturdy defensively.
His perspective and motivation also remain sound and can be traced back to 2004, when Logan, battling the emotional horrors of war and the distress of a broken marriage, moved into his Phoenix-area home and the two brothers battled and beat depression together.
"It can be an inspirational story to anybody, but the fact that I'm as close to him as I am, it's even more so for me," Hardy said. "It's one of the things that can open your eyes to anything. When things are bad, you can always turn things around and look at what you got."
Following different paths
Logan and James Jerry Hardy are 17 months apart, and like most brothers close in age, they competed in everything. However, their relationship was more sibling revelry than rivalry.
If there was a ball involved - pingpong, tennis, soccer, baseball - they played it. Success was practically a birthright, given their genes. Their father, Mark, had a brief stint on the professional tennis tour and is a teaching pro in Tucson, Ariz. Their mother, Susie, was one of the top-ranked amateur golfers in the United States before carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to give up the game.
"They were so close growing up, always friends," Mark Hardy said. "They would compete like you would not believe, but when it was over, it was done. There were never hard feelings."
J.J. Hardy decided to focus on baseball and became a star pitcher and shortstop at Tucson's Sabino High. Logan excelled in a variety of sports. He was a scratch golfer and also one of the top tennis, volleyball and baseball players at the school.
While J.J. was drafted in the second round by the Brewers in 2001 and opted to sign rather than accept a baseball scholarship to Arizona, Logan decided to enlist in the Army to provide for his wife and infant son.
"I took Air Force ROTC in high school, and I couldn't stand people telling me what to do," said Logan Hardy, who turned 30 last week. "But I had no other option, so I took it."
Hardy was a communications specialist with the U.S. Army's 75th Field Artillery Brigade, one of the first to reach Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He remembers crossing the border March 20, 2003, with a clear mission: Find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
"Every city we went into, we got ambushed," Hardy said. "I saw lots of dead Iraqis, lots of injured Americans. It was a lot to go through, and it took a toll on me. It got to the point where I didn't care anymore and I was volunteering for everything. I'd volunteer to go out and clear the buildings. We'd go into Saddam's palaces and stuff like that."