In the years I’ve covered the Orioles, there are a few players who’ve really made a lasting impression. Shortstop J.J. Hardy is right at the top of the list – for the media, for his teammates, for the fans.
Hardy, 35, is as understated as they come. For the past seven seasons, he’s been the glue for some good Orioles’ teams, providing a steady influence in a chaotic atmosphere.
Hardy’s never been a great quote. He’s a bit shy until you get to know him and, despite his made-for-TV good looks, he’s never been at ease in front of a camera. Yet his locker is a constant stopping point for media, players and staff, including manager Buck Showalter. Because Hardy is easily engaged and has an insatiable curiosity. It’s during those informal sessions that Hardy has shared some great stories with me – some that have been printed before and some that haven’t.
This upcoming weekend series at Tampa Bay is most likely the last time Hardy will be an Oriole. The club holds a $14 million option for 2018 (with a $2 million buyout), and given his injury-shortened 2017, advancing age and the emergence of shortstop Tim Beckham, it is likely that the sides part ways. The fans, assuming this, thanked Hardy with several standing ovations Sunday, the club’s home finale in which Hardy homered to help give the Orioles a win.
On Monday in Baltimore, Hardy will meet his father, Mark, and the two will drive back to Arizona, taking a few days together before they get home. It’s exactly what they did after Hardy’s rookie year in 2005 with the Milwaukee Brewers. Hardy thought the road trip would be great father-son bonding time, plus it will give him some time to talk aloud about his future with one of his closest confidants.
That’s Hardy. Always the sensitive, introspective type.
So, when I asked him to sit down with me last week and discuss a bevy of subjects – his career, his future, his relationship with Baltimore, his family, his bout with depression, his courtship of his wife, even his love for hunting despite his deep care for animals — Hardy obliged.
I don’t think either one of us knew what we were getting into as we sat for 30 minutes in the home dugout hours before a game at Camden Yards.
He talked, laughed and shed some tears.
And, afterward, I decided to make this a Q&A instead of writing a story with his quotes included. I wanted you to get a glimpse of J.J. Hardy unplugged. Something the Baltimore media have had access to for years. It’s a long piece, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
DC: “Let’s start with the obvious. What are your thoughts on this potentially being the end for you in an Orioles’ uniform?”
JJH: “I feel like it could be; it could be the end here. I might not come back. But there is still a small chance. It’s not like they are going to pick up my option. But I have a feeling they might want me back for a lot cheaper, maybe a different role. But the fact that it could be my last few days here, I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of good memories, seven really good years.
“This organization has invested in me, two different extensions. We have gone to the postseason three different times since I’ve been here. Buck’s wrote my name in the lineup pretty much every single day. And I wouldn’t be who I am without him doing that and having the confidence in me. It’s just been a good ride. I don’t know if it will be the end here. But it’s been fun.”
DC: “What do you want next? What’s an ideal situation for you next year?”
JJH: “That I can’t answer completely. Oct. 1 is our last game. I’ll fly back (to Baltimore) and I’m flying my Dad out here (from Arizona) and then we’re going to drive back home, probably take three or four days to get back to Arizona. And I’m sure I’ll talk to him a lot about it. I’ll think about it a lot, re-evaluate, I think, probably after the whole baseball season is over, the World Series. See what some options are. I really have to wait and see.
“I’m not going to make up my mind now. When I signed this last extension, my agent was pretty sure I could get four years and maybe even five. And I told him, that to stay in Baltimore, I’d do three years and we could do an option for the fourth year. And if I stay healthy, then I’ll probably be having fun and they’ll want to pick up the option. And if I’m not healthy, then I’m probably not going to be having fun and they won’t pick up the option. I think that’s exactly what’s happened over these last three years. I’ve been injured every year and it’s been frustrating. Some fun, but a lot of frustration. Now we’re gonna see what’s going to have to happen.”
DC: “Given the injuries, is there part of you that says, ‘It’s been a great career. It’s time?’”
JJH: “I don’t think I can go there yet. The thing about these last two years is that my body has actually felt better than it has in probably the previous 10 years. The only issues were that I broke my foot, fouled a ball off my foot, and I got hit by a pitch. So broken bones have gotten me to miss almost three months this year and two months last year. But that had nothing to do with how my body felt. Those were just freak things. First broken bones I’ve ever broken in my life. That makes it kind of hard. I don’t want to say that my body hasn’t held up.”
DC: “But you’ve had to do a lot more work recently to keep your body ready to play?”
JJH: “Yeah, which I think is normal for when people get older. But if I was blowing out – knock on wood — hamstrings every month or doing something like that, I think that’s more my body failing me than getting hit by a pitch or fouling a ball off my foot. Those are kinds of freak things. But, yeah, it’s been a grind. You guys have seen me play through a lot of pain. And it’s been hard. But now I just look back and am grateful for the opportunity, like I said, that Buck has written my name in the lineup every day.”
DC: “Do you see yourself as a potential reserve infielder after a career as a starting shortstop?”
JJH: “My entire life I’ve been a starter and a shortstop. Never another position, never coming in off the bench. I don’t know. It would be a totally different role. Do I think I can still play shortstop? I’m sure I can. Had I not gotten hurt this year I think my numbers were on pace to be up at the top of the league defensively again. So, if you look at, even the last three years that I’ve been hurt, my defensive numbers are still better than a high percentage of shortstops.”
DC: “Is this game still fun for you?”
JJH: “When I’m healthy, yes. This has been frustrating. Getting hit by the pitch and breaking a bone, fouling a pitch off my foot and breaking a bone. Frustrating. But when I’m healthy, yeah.”
DC: “The argument can be made that in July 2011, your decision to sign an extension with the Orioles — while they were in the midst of their 14th straight losing season — instead of entering free agency in a year you ended up hitting 30 home runs, may have been the seminal moment in this group’s playoff run. Because it showed a dual commitment from you and the organization, and your younger teammates saw that commitment. What are your thoughts when you look back at that time?”
JJH: “So, 2011, I had blown out my oblique to start the year so I missed the first month of the season. And it was right after the All-Star Break that I signed that extension, and then continued to have a pretty strong season after that. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. Had I known that I was going to hit 30 home runs that year and go into free agency? I mean, who knows? I probably may not have done that (power output) had I not signed the contract and eased my mind.
“But I remember when I signed that contract, some of the things I said is that I saw that the organization was going in the right direction. I felt like Buck, I felt like the Angelos family, at the time it was (Andy) MacPhail, but I felt like the organization was going in the right way, the right direction, and I wanted to be a part of it. I felt what it was like in Milwaukee when we hadn’t had a winning season in 15 years, hadn’t been to the postseason, and then we kind of turned that organization around. It was a pretty good feeling. And that same thing happened here, so it was fun to be a part of.”
DC: “You’ve had years now with teammates such as Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Chris Tillman, Darren O’Day, Zach Britton, Manny Machado, Jon Schoop, Ryan Flaherty. How tough will it be if you aren’t with them in 2018?”
JJH: “That’s part of this business. You don’t dwell on it. When guys get hurt, the team moves on. This game is a lot bigger than any individual person, so if I’m not here, hell, I may not even be remembered. It’s not like people are going to be thinking about me every day. They go on, they play the game and they do what they’ve always done. I think that’s kind of the way we’re made.
“We come to work every single day with these same guys. We get to know them like brothers. But when I’m gone or when they’re gone the Orioles will still be the Orioles, and everybody will keep doing what they do. So, it’s hard to say. We’ve had some good times, for sure.”
DC: “Is there one moment that you look to and think, ‘That’s the best moment of my career?’”
JJH: “I think you always look at the postseason. Winning the Wild Card in 2012 and being the first team to do that in a long time for the Orioles was something I’ll always remember. I think 2014 was a pretty damn good year. We ran away with the division. Then the (American League Division Series) here against the Tigers. Scoring that run when Delmon (Young) hit that (go-ahead, bases loaded) double. That was a pretty good memory.
“I hit a go-ahead RBI double in the (13th) inning in New York in the postseason (Game 4, 2012 ALDS). Last year, making the Wild Card game. That’s always a good achievement, but losing was kind of tough. So, it’s hard to pick out one thing, but to win as many games as we have in the last few years, I mean, everybody wants to be on a winning ballclub. And that’s what we’ve had here. So, it has been a good ride.”
DC: “When teammates and friends talk about you, they always bring up your humility, how you’ve kept your feet on the ground through all your success. Where does that come from?”
JJH: “I feel like I was humbled pretty early on. And I’ve always remembered what that felt like. You hear from veterans to never get too high, never get too low. For me — honestly, it’s an interesting perspective and it’s gonna sound weird — but I’ve always gone about my business like I don’t belong here and I’ve got to work extra hard in order to stay. And even now that’s kind of how it’s been. Thirteen years in the big leagues, and I feel like I’ve got to work harder than everyone else just to be here. I think being humbled early on is probably the reason why I am the way I am.”
DC: “You grew up with a mother who was an outstanding amateur golfer (once ranked second behind only Nancy Lopez) before her career ended due to carpal tunnel syndrome and a father who played on the pro tennis tour (and was ranked 270th in the world) and is still teaching the game. Were sports and competition always paramount with you?”
JJH: “I’ve got an older brother, who most people know is 17 months older than me, and a younger sister that was also athletic. Growing up, that’s all we did. We didn’t have toys, we had balls. Balls, bats, rackets. Pretty much everything (sports). And that’s what we did. When we’d go outside, it wasn’t toys. It was (to) play catch or hit tennis balls or with racquet balls or even play ping pong. And then to have someone to do that with every single day when you get home from school. You just go out with your brother and play catch.
“We had a pitcher’s mound in our backyard and we’d throw to one another. We’d go to the park and have home run derbies between one another. We’d go to the tennis courts and play racquetball. We’d play tennis. That was how we played — playing sports. So, growing up around sports is probably the biggest reason why I am as competitive and athletic as I am.”
DC: “You bring up your older brother, Logan, your best friend, who you shared an extremely difficult time with 13 years ago. A U.S. Army veteran who served in Baghdad as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he came back to the U.S. suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the same time you were dealing with career-threatening, left shoulder surgery as a minor leaguer. What do you remember most about that time and the deep depression that the two of you faced together?”
JJH: “Yeah, 2004 was my Triple-A year and it was kind of, for me, maybe the year I was gonna get called up to the big leagues, and I felt like I was going to have this opportunity that I’d been dreaming of my whole life. And then I blew out my shoulder about 30 games into the season, ended up having season-ending surgery. It was a bad surgery. It was one of those that you don’t know if you’re gonna come back from it. Since I’ve been playing, there have been a few athletes that have had that same (full labrum tear) injury, and it’s basically ended their careers. Luke Scott had it. Richie Sexson, Scott Rolen, all these guys toward the end of their careers had the same type of thing and never really bounced back. For me to be thinking that I might have missed my opportunity to make it to the big leagues, I went into a pretty sad state of mind.
“At that same time, my brother was coming home from Iraq and was having a lot more problems than I was. But I was too blind and selfish to even realize anything but what was going on with me. We lived together for a couple months in Tempe; didn’t talk. Basically, sat in the house, had all the blinds closed. It was like a cave. We didn’t talk. We literally would sit there on the couch, looking at a TV that was not turned on and go about our days like that. And then one day, I think I might have said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sit out in the hot tub. You want to come out? And he said, ‘Sure.’ So, we sat out in the hot tub and I remember the first … I still get …”
DC: At this point, Hardy stopped the interview for about a minute, sat in silence in the dugout with his hands cupped in front of his face, pushing away tears and trying to collect himself.
JJH: “So, anyway, I think the first time we sat in the hot tub a few, maybe a couple, sentences came out (about Logan’s depression). He was going through a divorce and …”
DC: Again, Hardy had to stop the interview and collect himself, uttering only a self-deprecating, “Jeez.” I told him we could switch subjects if that time in his life was still too raw. But Hardy, earnest and reflective, pushed through after another minute or so.
JJH: “So, he was going through a divorce and he had a 1-year-old or 2-year-old boy and he had basically given up on life. And he was basically telling me all this stuff. And I instantly snapped out of it. I was like, ‘What the (hell) is wrong with me?’ So, I snapped out of it then. It took (Logan) a couple years (to fully get better). And I’m just fortunate to be where I am now, today, 13 years later.”
DC: “How much did that experience with what you and Logan went through shape your life and career after that?”
JJH: “I think it’s helped with my struggles. Because I can always go back to that when I’m struggling and down on myself to think that there’s a lot worse things that could be happening. I’ve gone back to that quite a bit throughout my career.”
DC: “One of the things that always struck me about you is your sensitivity in the macho world of pro sports. And your teammates and manager always say how deeply you care. You are also an avid hunter and fisherman, and you once told me about how you’ve teared up, became emotional, after you’ve shot and killed an animal that you’ve hunted. And that seems to be paradoxical. I mean, you killed it, right? So how did that occur and how did you deal with it?”
JJH: “I absolutely love being outdoors. Fishing, hunting, hiking, just being outdoors. And I’ve grown up around hunting in Arizona. Mostly rabbits, birds, little stuff with pellet guns and then gone on hunts with friends. And they’ve hunted deer and I’ve just kind of been along. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I love shooting guns, but I don’t love killing the animal. For me, that’s the hardest part of hunting. I love everything else. I take it seriously and want to make the best shot that I can so that the animal doesn’t suffer. But I absolutely love eating venison and elk meat. That’s why I do it. It basically gives me all my red meat for the year.
“But, yeah, I’ve gotten emotional when I shot an elk. I shot him right at dark and I didn’t go look for him until the morning because I didn’t want to spook him, have him run away and not find him at all. It took us a couple hours to find him that next morning. And while I was looking for him and I thought I had just killed this animal and that I wasn’t going to even get the meat to eat (and that the death had gone to waste). And I was just thinking for that three, four hours looking for him, that really sucks. I just killed this big animal (for nothing).
“And then when we found him, I did get emotional, because I just felt like that would have been a bad thing to kill a big animal like that and not even get why I do it, for the meat. I still enjoy it. I do it every year. I’ve got a place in Montana. Some people call it hunting, some people call it harvesting. I basically try to harvest a deer and an elk (each year).”
DC: “You also told me you once got emotional while waiting for one of the animals you shot to die. That you waited alongside it and that was tough for you. What was that story?”
JJH: “That was an elk. That was a different occasion. It didn’t die as quickly as I had hoped. If you think about hunting and these animals, sometimes even when they’re not hunted, they have terrible deaths, whether it is (from) coyotes or wolves. It can be bad deaths. But to sit there and watch this elk suffer, yeah, it wasn’t a good feeling. I had a buddy with me on this particular hunt. I have shot an elk by myself. Not every time (have I gotten emotional). A couple times. It was only because I had seen the elk suffer and also (the other time) because I shot and killed him and wasn’t even going to find him.”
DC: “So, a millionaire, big league shortstop crying in the middle of the woods?”
JJH: (Laughs). I don’t want to say I was completely crying like I just was talking about my brother. But I was emotional and I was sad, and it was hard. Obviously, you are taking a life, so it shouldn’t be the easiest thing if you have any feelings at all. It’s kind of hard to put together when you’re killing it. It’s your choice to kill it. But I just know I’m going to be eating it, and it’s not going to waste.”
DC: “Let’s get a little happier, but still stay deep. On Oct. 20, 2015, your son, Jay Jax, was born. Did that change you at all?”
JJH: “I don’t feel like I’ve ever been that selfish to where everything was about me. But having him, I think it has changed (me) in a way, where almost everything is for him. It’s been a lot of fun, going home, watching this kid grow. He’s a big part of what goes through my mind, if I want to continue playing, if I want to spend more time with him. He’s going to be a big factor this offseason, I think, as to what my decision is going to be.”
DC: “OK, I need to ask about my favorite J.J. Hardy story. A completely different pursuit of yours – and one that I think is hilarious, and maybe something that maybe not many of your fans know. Can you retell how you met your wife, former University of Arizona softball player Adrienne Acton, back when you were with the Milwaukee Brewers?”
JJH: “So, in 2007 we’re in the clubhouse in Milwaukee and we’re watching the women’s College World Series in softball. U of A is playing, where I’m from, Tucson, I’m a fan of the Wildcats. That’s where I was going to go to school (had he not been signed by the Brewers in 2001 out of high school). My parents both went there. And I see the Wildcats (on TV) and we’re watching the game and she was hitting ninth, I think, and was playing right field.
“And I remember she had this mask on her face, so I couldn’t really see, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that girl is really cute.’ And then she slaps this ball to the shortstop or pitcher and beats the throw, and I’m like, ‘What the …?’ I’m like, ‘How the hell did that just happen?’ She could absolutely fly. And, so, I got some of my teammates’ attention the next time she came up (to bat) and I was like, ‘Check this girl out.’ They were all like, ‘You won’t call her.’ ‘You’re from the same hometown.’ ‘She’s gotta know who you are. This is your third year in the big leagues.’ ‘She’s from Tucson, you’re from Tucson.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna call her. That’s stupid.’
“And then (then-Brewers manager) Ned Yost got involved in it. And he’s like, ‘You’re calling her.’ And so, I’m like, ‘Fine, I’ll call her.’ So, we got our media relations person to contact the athletic director of U of A to get her information so that I could call her. He emails them and the athletic director emails back and says, ‘We can’t give out our students’ information, and I don’t think her boyfriend would like it.’ So, I went a different route. I had a cousin that was going to school there and he knew some of the other softball players. And he got her number for me through her friends and I called her. We had just gotten in to Minnesota and I called her (from the hotel room). The whole team was interested. This had been like a couple weeks, so the whole team is waiting to hear what’s going on. Every day, ‘What’s the update?’
“And, so, I call her and I say, ‘Hey, it’s J.J.’ And she says, ‘Who?’ And I go, ‘J.J. Hardy.’ And she goes, ‘Who?’ And then I realized she had no idea I was calling, had no idea who I was. And I just straight panicked and hung up the phone. And I am thinking, ‘What the hell am I gonna tell my teammates?’ I think I even went out to dinner with some of the guys (that night) and just had it on my mind, but didn’t say anything. I’m just thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to tell everyone that I called, and just panicked?’
“So, I texted her a couple hours later, after dinner, and was like, ‘Hey, sorry. I thought you knew I was calling.’ Something like that. And she said, ‘No, but I’m glad you did.’ And then we texted for like a week, and then we talked on the phone for about a month. And then I flew her out to Milwaukee, and we met for the first time in Milwaukee.”
DC: “That is such a crazy story. You know that borders on stalking?”
JJH: (Laughing). “Yeah, I stalked her. Who knows? I didn’t know what was going to turn out with it. And neither did the rest of my teammates. But the fact that we’re married now (it’s all good). I think everybody that was on that team would know exactly what happened that year.”
DC: “What happened to the boyfriend?”
JJH: “I think it was the athletic director’s son or relative and they weren’t dating, but he liked her. So, I think (the AD) was trying to help out his son, because he knew he liked her. Trying to scare me away.” (Laughs again.)
DC: “You’ve led an eventful life. How do you sum up all of these things that have happened to you and in your career?”
JJH: “I like to think about if I’m either an overachiever or an underachiever. I was a second-rounder. Went to Rookie ball, was one of the youngest guys in Rookie ball. I hit (.248) with two home runs. And I felt like I was completely overmatched. The next year I skipped Low-A, went to High-A and was the youngest, maybe the second youngest kid in that league. Started to figure it out. Hit (.293) and got called up to Double-A. So, my first full season got called up to Double-A and hit (.228) in Double-A and felt like I was completely overmatched again.
“The next year, I bounced back, felt like I was a pretty decent player and, back then, I was thinking there is no freaking way to make it to the big leagues. It’s too hard. There are too many good players. So, to think 17 years later, 13 years in the big leagues, three Gold Gloves, two All-Stars, a Silver Slugger, if you’d had told me that, I would have said, ‘No way.’ I feel like I’ve completely overachieved what I was supposed to do in this game and couldn’t be more grateful.”
DC: “What about your relationship with Baltimore, where chanting along with the ‘Jay-Jay Hardy’ player announcement has become a tradition?
JJH: “This has been more than I could have ever asked for and I couldn’t be more grateful for the organization for giving me the opportunity that I’ve had here. I think no matter what happens after this year, I’ll still be an Oriole.”