But maybe Iribarren beat him because of the language barrier, because Hardy couldn't talk trash to him, the way he does with everyone else.

In fact, when it comes to trash talking, Hardy is practically a PH.D. on the subject.

"I try to intimidate my opponent before we even play," he says with a smile. "So I'll ask what kind of (paddle) they use. And I'll say 'Oh, I use the Primorac 2000. It's the same one Werner Schlager uses on the tour.'"

Then he watches the blood drain from their faces.

"And they just kind of go 'Oh, no, I'm not at that level.'"

For the record, Werner Schlager is an Austrian pro once ranked No. 1 in the world. And the Butterfly Primorac 2000 is a high-performance paddle that retails for $150.

It's the paddle a rattled Arrieta went out and bought in the hope of getting better at the game after Hardy crushed him. But to add to the ignominy of his many Orioles challengers, Hardy now uses a $60 Butterfly Spatha.

Hardy and his younger brother, Logan, learned the game from their dad, Mark, a professional tennis player. There was a pingpong table in the garage of the family home in Arizona, and the boys started playing when J.J. was around 7.

To make it interesting, Mark Hardy would use cell phones, bricks and frying pans as paddles. You don't think that gets into a kid's head. I can even beat you with a frying pan! How humiliating is that?

But it made J.J. and Logan burn to get better. They practiced constantly. J.J. didn't beat the old man until four or five years ago. But it doesn't sound like the moment was something out of "The Great Santini," some epic, coming-of-age triumph for the scrappy kid over a father too proud to acknowledge the passing of the torch.

"He's still good," J.J. says of his dad, now 60. "The fact that he can still beat my brother — but he can't beat me — shows you he's still got it."

Hardy says he doesn't play much pingpong during baseball season. The 162-game schedule grinds players down and it's important to get rest. And right now he's concentrating at the plate. He entered this weekend hitting .261. 

But he's always on the look-out for his next game. He takes his paddle wherever he goes. And there's no shortage of ballplayers he might scare up for a game during a rain-out or when the season ends.

"(Andy) Sonnanstine in Tampa, people say 'You have to play him,'" Hardy says, referring to the Rays' veteran right-hander. "In Toronto, (catcher) J.P. Arencibiaand (third baseman) Brett Lawrie have both asked me how my ping-pong game is going. And Clay Kershaw is dominating the Dodgers clubhouse."

Hardy smiles and shakes his head softly.

So many poor fools who think they can beat him. So much trash-talking to do.

So little time.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kevincowherdsun

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