J.J. Hardy

Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy (left) and his brother Logan play ping pong last spring. (Derick E. Hingle, US PRESSWIRE / June 15, 2012)

[This is the first in a series of stories getting to know a variety of local athletes and coaches away from the game.]

This is how seriousJ.J. Hardyis about the game: the first thing you see when you walk into his Chandler, Ariz., home is a gleaming pingpong table.

"It's a room most people would use as a sitting room," the Orioles shortstop says. "Put some nice furniture in there. Maybe a piano or something like that."

Not Hardy.

Hardy wanted to make a statement. So he filled the room with a sleek, $2,500 Killerspin pingpong table, blue with silver trim.

It shimmers under the overhead lights like some kind of futuristic altar. And it tells everyone who walks through the heavy wooden front door with the stained-glass window overhead: we won't be shooting eight-ball today. Or playing poker.

There's the game we're going to play. Right there.

It's on that table where Hardy, the undisputed pingpong champion of the Orioles clubhouse, hones his game in the off-season.

During spring training in Sarasota, Fla., he takes on teammates like Nick Markakis and Jake Arrieta, as well as Brady Anderson, special assistant to O's general manager Dan Duquette.

"He's the best," Arrieta says. "Very consistent."

But in Chandler, Hardy plays big-time jock buddies like Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who live in the area.

As with Hardy's Orioles teammates, marathon games and major trash-talking take place.

"Urlacher, he talked more (trash) than anyone," Hardy says with a smile. "He said: 'Listen, I'm gonna get my paddle shipped out here from Florida. And then I'm going to work your skinny (butt.)'"

Did he do it? Did he win?

"Nope," Hardy says. "He's so big and strong, and I'm thinking pingpong wouldn't be his sport. But it was really, really impressive how good he was."

Still, Hardy whips them all. He beats Urlacher and Pedroia and Jason Duffner, the PGA Tour pro, too. He beats anyone on the Orioles who dares pick up a paddle against him.

He's never played in a tournament or against a table-tennis pro — in fact, he's not even snobby enough to call it "table tennis."

All he does is seek out other top-flight athletes — mostly major league ballplayers — for games. And the only one who's ever beaten him was Hernan Iribarren, a Venezuelan infielder Hardy played when they were both in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

"He was good," Hardy says simply. "We were about 50-50."