J.J. was an indifferent student, more inclined to apply his mind to sports. Even as a kid, he had to understand why he was doing something rather than blindly following instructions. "He analyzes things in terms of right and wrong," Mark says. "This works. This doesn't. Is this going to work in this situation?"
He says part of the reason his son has enjoyed Baltimore is his faith that Showalter makes all decisions based on sound logic.
The Brewers drafted Hardy in the second round out of Tucson's Sabino High School. Like many minor leaguers, he faced a shock when he struggled to hit .240 in rookie ball after coasting to .450 averages in high school. In his case, that shock inspired a deeper curiosity about every aspect of baseball.
Any philosophy a coach espoused, he turned over in his mind. Any habit a veteran displayed, he observed.
"I think it started in the minor leagues," he says of his approach. "Paying attention to the guys in your division, when you've seen them bat enough times, you see where they hit the ball and what their swing might do. I started playing right-handed hitters maybe a little more to pull, playing left-handed hitters a little more up the middle, making it to where the plays were more routine instead of having to run as far as I could to get a ball."
He practiced making the routine play over and over and over. Through pre-pitch positioning, he believed he could be in the right spot to field a grounder head on that other guys might try to backhand. Often, he based his positioning on some bit of data, gleaned from pregame study of extensive computer files available in every major league clubhouse.
His labors paid off, says former Orioles second baseman Rich Dauer, who was Hardy's infield coach when he came up with the Brewers at age 22. The first day Dauer saw Hardy, he thought, "Mark Belanger!"
Like the Orioles' great shortstop of the 1970s, Hardy never seemed to have to dive. He always seemed to get the runner by a step with a perfect overhand throw. Dauer saw how astutely the young Hardy applied information from pregame talks to game situations.
"Some guys, even after a few years, I'd have to tell them where to go on every pitch," Dauer says. "But he was one of the best guys I ever had at picking up what he was told and taking it to the next level on his own."
Veteran Brewers third baseman Jeff Cirillo befriended Hardy, impressed that the rookie maintained his defensive consistency despite a wretched batting slump. "That can break a young player," says Cirillo, now a scout with the Los Angeles Angels. "But it tells you a lot that they thought enough of his character to never send him down, even when he was hitting .180."
Cirillo remembers Hardy as the most self-possessed in a group of young stars that included Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. He says he would point to Hardy as a model for young infielders: "Absolutely. Watch his pre-game set-up. Watch his routine. When there's a ground ball, I'll always take my chances with J.J."
"You learn from things"
For all his precocity, Hardy's path was not easy. He fought through severe depression when a shoulder injury cost him the 2004 season. And despite becoming a popular All-Star for the Brewers, he was shipped to the Minnesota Twins when young shortstop Alcides Escobar came up behind him. Injuries undermined his one season with the Twins, who traded him to the Orioles for a pair of bullpen prospects.
He was actually the Orioles' second choice on the shortstop market, after slap-hitting Jason Bartlett. The club wanted anything resembling steady production at shortstop and regarded Hardy as perhaps a one-year patch. He responded with 30 home runs and a presence on and off the field that transcended Showalter's most optimistic hopes.
"He's one of those teammates you want to please," the Orioles manager says. "He takes a lot of pride in the infield's defense, not just his. Guys want to please him."
Hardy signed a three-year extension with the Orioles despite knowing that Manny Machado might come up to displace him as Escobar had done in Milwaukee. Hardy earned respect around the league with his handling of both situations, befriending the younger infielders and offering them guidance.
"I'm not going to be a guy who's going to be quiet and look at him, thinking 'This is the guy who could kick me out of Baltimore,'" Hardy says of Machado. "He's a friend, and anything I can do to help him get better, I'm going to do. That's just the way I've always gone about it."
Instead of replacing Hardy, Machado has adapted to third base, and the pair has created one of the sport's most dynamic defensive partnerships.
Offense is always less of a given for Hardy, who batted .238 last year despite playing the best defense of his career. He freely admits that he has two brains as a player. If the fielding one is cool and cerebral, the offensive one is more about naked aggression.
"There's guys that think a lot, and it makes them really good," he says of his offensive approach. "And then there's guys who think too much and it starts playing games in their minds. For me, yeah, I think I'm best when I'm not overthinking everything."