The Orioles' new shortstop, with the movie star looks and the West Coast ease, hasn't been hard to find the past four weeks. On most mornings, he turns his chair around at his corner locker and faces a roomful of new teammates.
He interacts with fellow infielders, accepts challenges at the pingpong table and takes in the culture in his third big league clubhouse in as many years.
This is J.J. Hardy in his element. This is also in stark contrast with the person he became seven years ago when a shoulder injury jeopardized a promising career before it had really even started.
"I kind of went into depression, and I never left my house for a long time," Hardy said of his injury-shortened 2004 season. "I'd order pizza — that's how I'd get my food. I sat in a dark, dark house, my shoulder was broken, and I just kind of was depressed. I couldn't stand seeing all my friends, all my baseball buddies out there playing, and I'm thinking, 'Woe is me.' Everyone else was out there having fun."
Back then, his own doubts and fears were exceeded only by those of his older brother and best friend, Logan, who was going through far worse after returning from the war in Iraq.
"For me, it was just a bad, bad year," he said. "My brother was the biggest part of that whole turnaround."
Hardy's baseball career — from two superb seasons in Milwaukee to various injuries to two trades in little more than a year to his likely spot as the Orioles' sixth different Opening Day shortstop since 2002 — has been a roller coaster, the 28-year-old readily acknowledges.
He hit .277 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs in 151 games — and made the All-Star team — for the Brewers in 2007 and followed that with a .283 average, 24 homers and 74 RBIs in 146 games the following year. In either of the two seasons since, he hasn't played more than 115 games, hit more than 11 homers or driven in more than 47 runs.
However, he is healthy again after a painful wrist injury sapped his power last season and limited him to a career-low 101 games for the Minnesota Twins, who traded him and infielder Brendan Harris to the Orioles in December for two minor league pitchers. Buoyed by hitting coach Jim Presley's aggressive approach, Hardy has swung one of the Orioles' most effective bats this spring, and he has been sturdy defensively.
His perspective and motivation also remain sound and can be traced back to 2004, when Logan, battling the emotional horrors of war and the distress of a broken marriage, moved into his Phoenix-area home and the two brothers battled and beat depression together.
"It can be an inspirational story to anybody, but the fact that I'm as close to him as I am, it's even more so for me," Hardy said. "It's one of the things that can open your eyes to anything. When things are bad, you can always turn things around and look at what you got."
Following different paths
Logan and James Jerry Hardy are 17 months apart, and like most brothers close in age, they competed in everything. However, their relationship was more sibling revelry than rivalry.
If there was a ball involved — pingpong, tennis, soccer, baseball — they played it. Success was practically a birthright, given their genes. Their father, Mark, had a brief stint on the professional tennis tour and is a teaching pro in Tucson, Ariz. Their mother, Susie, was one of the top-ranked amateur golfers in the United States before carpal tunnel syndrome forced her to give up the game.
"They were so close growing up, always friends," Mark Hardy said. "They would compete like you would not believe, but when it was over, it was done. There were never hard feelings."
J.J. Hardy decided to focus on baseball and became a star pitcher and shortstop at Tucson's Sabino High. Logan excelled in a variety of sports. He was a scratch golfer and also one of the top tennis, volleyball and baseball players at the school.
While J.J. was drafted in the second round by the Brewers in 2001 and opted to sign rather than accept a baseball scholarship to Arizona, Logan decided to enlist in the Army to provide for his wife and infant son.
"I took Air Force ROTC in high school, and I couldn't stand people telling me what to do," said Logan Hardy, who turned 30 last week. "But I had no other option, so I took it."
Hardy was a communications specialist with the U.S. Army's 75th Field Artillery Brigade, one of the first to reach Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He remembers crossing the border March 20, 2003, with a clear mission: Find Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
"Every city we went into, we got ambushed," Hardy said. "I saw lots of dead Iraqis, lots of injured Americans. It was a lot to go through, and it took a toll on me. It got to the point where I didn't care anymore and I was volunteering for everything. I'd volunteer to go out and clear the buildings. We'd go into Saddam's palaces and stuff like that."
The daily struggle for survival was compounded by problems at home as his marriage was collapsing during his six-month deployment. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he received an honorable medical discharge from the Army late in 2003 and moved in with his parents in Tucson.
But so much had changed. The young man who had always been the life of the party spent 20 hours a day in his room. He didn't want to see anybody, nor could he handle the thought of having a 9-to-5 job. He barely even spoke to his younger brother, the person he trusted most.
"I couldn't really cope with real life," Hardy said. "It was a totally different world for me. I didn't have a job, I didn't talk to friends, I didn't talk to anybody. It was pretty much [the] nightmares. I couldn't sleep. Over there, you got used to sleeping an hour and a half at a time before you got ambushed. When I got back, I'd lay in my own bed. I was used to sleeping on the cot. I was up every hour, just looking around."
J.J. Hardy was concerned about his brother but stayed focused on what was becoming an important year for him. One of the Brewers' top prospects and their heir apparent at shortstop, he started the 2004 season at Triple-A Indianapolis. If all went well, he could make his big league debut that year as a 21-year-old.
He was off to a decent start, hitting .277 with four homers and 20 RBIs in 26 games, when on May 9, at the home of what was then the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Ottawa, Hardy took the most painful swing of his career.
"I took a swing at an inside pitch, and my shoulder came out of my socket, dislocated and flung around my body," said Hardy, whose left labrum tore from both the front and the back. "I knew right away I was going to have surgery. I didn't know what it was going to be like to come back from it."
Nearly seven years after it took place, neither brother remembers who picked up the phone first or even first floated the suggestion. To Logan, "it was the best idea ever" to pack up some of his belongings and make the 90-minute drive from Tucson to Tempe to move in with his younger brother. One would rehabilitate his shoulder while the other rehabilitated his mind.
"Between the two of them, J is going, 'My career is over,' and Logan is going, 'My life is over.' He was so not right after coming back from the war," Mark Hardy said. "He's a great guy, a fun kid, and there was nothing left of his personality after he got back from Iraq. You didn't know how it was going to go, but we trusted both of them when they were together. The two of them together was a whole lot more comfortable than either of them apart."
For the first couple of weeks, a period J.J. Hardy describes as "a miserable time," the new housemates talked about very little of any substance. Hardy spent mornings at the Brewers' spring training facility nearby, working to get his shoulder back in shape. In the afternoons, they debated what ball they wanted to whip around the house and what they wanted on their pizza. The serious topics would have to wait as the days trickled by.
They kept the shades down, the lights off — "It was dark in there for months at a time," Hardy recalled — and phone calls were mostly ignored. Their idea of getting out of the house was taking a couple of steps out the door and into J.J. Hardy's new Jacuzzi. But that's also where the tension and the uncertainty began to thaw.
Talking it out
"We'd go out there in the morning, and we'd go out there in the evening. It started off really slow, with him not wanting to talk much, but gradually, more would come out," J.J. Hardy said. "It started with his problems with his family. He'd open up more and more and talk about when he was over in Iraq, the way he felt like he just didn't care anymore, volunteering for missions that he just didn't need to be a part of. Basically, he felt like he was bulletproof, and if he wasn't, who cares? That was his mindset.
"When he started talking about that stuff, I couldn't talk about me. I was just sitting there wondering, 'Why the hell am I depressed?' He had just come back from the war, had a 1- or 2-year-old boy and was getting divorced. It was, at times, very, very emotional, and at times it was just eye-opening. When he started opening up like that, it really, really helped me, and I feel like it helped him. He was able to get it off his chest."
Logan Hardy rediscovered his sense of humor and regained his old routine. J.J. Hardy's shoulder, after extensive rehab, was getting better. They started going out for meals and meeting friends. Months later, Hardy was healthy enough to report to big league spring training and win the job as the Brewers' Opening Day shortstop in 2005. Logan Hardy got a job at an auto glass company and moved out of his brother's place about a year and a half after moving in. The two, however, became roommates again this offseason.
"People would tell me about different psychiatrists to take him to. The best person to send him to was J," Mark Hardy said. "The only person he could talk to was his brother. No one in the world could have gotten him through that like J did. At the same time, J looked around and thought, 'My problems are pretty small.'"
The J.J. Hardy whom Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts has gotten to know over the past four weeks is always smiling, looking to engage in conversation or beat another teammate as the clubhouse's reigning pingpong champ. Roberts had heard about what a great guy his new double-play partner was from friends around the league, and Hardy has certainly been as advertised.
"Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get on the field with him as much as I'd like, but being locker mates, I get to talk to him probably as much as anybody. I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know he was going to be that outgoing," said Roberts, who has been limited by injuries this spring. "I think he's in a good place right now. I think he's enjoying being here. I think he feels like he has a real fresh start."
That feeling resonated with Hardy after his first batting practice this spring. He was approached by Presley, who asked the shortstop about his approach at the plate. For the past couple of seasons, Hardy acknowledged, he had changed his approach, looking to stay on top of the ball and go the other way more. Presley, the former Florida Marlins hitting coach who remembered seeing Hardy at his best from the other dugout, urged him to "get back to what you used to do."
Presley has encouraged Hardy to try to pull the ball more and drive the ball in the gaps rather than being content to direct the ball the opposite way. Presley feels that with Hardy's swing and a more aggressive approach, he could be a guy who hits 15 to 17 home runs and drives in 70 runs in the eighth or ninth spot.
"That's exactly what I wanted to hear," said Hardy, who still feels he's capable of having an offensive season like the ones he had for Milwaukee in 2007 and 2008. "I'm very confident. I feel like had I not done it before, it would be a little bit different trying to come in and do something that I haven't done. As long as I stay healthy, I really believe that's what I'm capable of and that's what I'm going to do."
Hardy started at shortstop Thursday against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, going 1-for-4 with an RBI single to lower his spring average to .333. In the crowd at McKechnie Field was Logan Hardy, who had arrived in Sarasota on a red-eye flight from the West Coast on Thursday morning.
Like old times, in the days leading up to the visit, the two talked about going fishing and playing pingpong. To Logan Hardy, on this day, that meant sitting in the stands and watching his younger brother play baseball, the sun shining gloriously and the dark days behind them.
"I knew what I was going through, I was going to get over eventually. I just kind of leaned on him, and he leaned on me. We both realized we were going to get through it. We just did it together," Hardy said. "He's my little brother in a way, but we've been best friends growing up our entire life."