Cal Ripken talks about shortstop J.J. Hardy and the Orioles' defense

What's Cal Ripken Jr.'s take on how J.J. Hardy plays shortstop? He "can't say enough good things."

When J.J. Hardy won his third consecutive American League Gold Glove Award earlier this month, he became only the second Orioles shortstop to win at least that many in a row.

Mark Belanger won eight Gold Gloves in his career with the Orioles, including six straight from 1973-1978. Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio won nine Gold Gloves in his career, but only two with the Orioles. And Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., won just two total.

So Hardy is second overall in Gold Gloves won by an Orioles shortstop despite playing here only four seasons. And the three straight give him an accomplishment that Ripken, considered the club’s greatest all-around shortstop, never reached. The Iron Man is more than OK with that. He has been a fan of Hardy for years.

“I can’t say enough good things about J.J.,” Ripken said recently. “His overall defense and his leadership -- and it doesn’t hurt that he can hit 30 homers, too.”

Ripken said he first noticed Hardy as a young player with the Milwaukee Brewers when Ripken was calling a Brewers-Philadelphia Phillies game for TBS.

“I remember watching J.J. and seeing how he played. And I’m thinking, ‘Man, this guy is always going to the right spot, he’s always doing that. He’s always thinking, always ahead,” Ripken said. “I remember going to [Brewers general manager] Doug Melvin and telling him, ‘You’ve got something special here.’ And he said. ‘Well, we’ve got another kid behind him that’s going to be special, too.’ And that was [Alcides] Escobar, now with Kansas City.”

Coincidentally, Hardy and Escobar were both dealt to the AL and have been battling for the Gold Glove, with Hardy winning each time since 2012.

The Brewers now have 24-year-old Jean Segura, who made the All-Star team in 2013, playing shortstop. They acquired Segura in a deal with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012, when they dealt away Zack Greinke.

It’s all connected. 

The Brewers traded Hardy to the Minnesota Twins in November 2009 for Carlos Gomez, partially so they could make room for Escobar. The Brewers then traded Escobar to the Royals in December 2010 as part of a package to acquire Greinke. Ten days earlier, the Twins had sent Hardy, who had dealt with injuries in 2010, to the Orioles along with infielder Brendan Harris for pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson, who are out of affiliated baseball now. It arguably is one of the best 10 trades the Orioles have ever made.

“I thought it was so great that the Orioles got him, and he is back playing the way he was playing [in Milwaukee],” Ripken said. “J.J. is a main stabilizing force. He is a quiet leader, but he is a really good player. Really understands the game, really understands all the situations in the game. I think the Orioles’ success, in many ways, can be attributed to his stability in the middle.”

Hardy, 32, is locked up at least through 2017 after signing a three-year, $40 million extension in October that includes a team option for 2018. Now that free agency is upon us, it looks like a pretty shrewd move by executive vice president Dan Duquette to sign Hardy when he did.

Several clubs are looking for a shortstop -- including three teams with the deepest of pockets, the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and New York Mets. Given the lack of shortstop options, steadiness of Hardy and money available, you have to think Hardy could have received a lot more on the open market.

But it just shows the Orioles’ commitment to rock-solid defense -- something that has helped the organization make the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. That, too, is something that excites Ripken.

“There has always been pride in the Orioles organization over the years in pitching and defense,” Ripken said. “The home runs and the RBIs and all those other kinds of stats get all the credit. But I think the Orioles always valued their pitching and defense.

"Because defense, in general, is pitching as the first line and the gloves behind you as the second. And it’s been great. Buck Showalter has emphasized that from the beginning as well.”

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