J.J. Hardy can't truly enjoy the game of baseball when his body is letting him down. The last two seasons haven't been much fun at all.
For all of the Orioles' 2014 season, which culminated in an American League Championship Series run and a contract extension for Hardy, he endured near-weekly back spasms when the simple act of tying his shoes sent jolts through his back so painful that he'd wonder how he could play through it.
Last season, it was a torn labrum in his left shoulder that he suffered in spring training. More often than not after he swung, he'd tell himself, "This is going to be surgery." The pain was the same as what ultimately led to shoulder surgery more than a decade earlier, but to honor his rich new contract and the club's faith in him, a limited Hardy played on.
Held side-by-side with the Hardy that the Orioles have seen glimpses of this spring, the difference between the player whose performance last year welcomed speculation about whether he had anything left in the tank and the current version is striking.
He said: "It's like stressful, thinking, 'How am I going to be able to do this when my back's spasming? How am I supposed to do this when I can't even take a swing and drive the ball?' It's not fun to play like that. At all.
"So, I've already had more fun this spring training than I did at any point last year because my body feels good. It's much more fun to go out there and play when you're not worried about all the pain you're going through."
Hardy enters the last two weeks of the Grapefruit League campaign with a .370/.414/.480 batting line with two extra-base hits in 10 games. He has hits in his last four games, and entering the team's only day off of the spring on Monday, manager Buck Showalter said Hardy's health is one of the reasons the team is encouraged.
How Hardy, 33, arrived at this point was the product of a unique off-field circumstance, one that appears to have worked. His wife, Adrienne, gave birth to baby Jay Jax in October, and Hardy didn't want to spend three or four hours each day away from the house at the only off-season training facility he's ever known as a pro.
He couldn't be a full-time dad, but he knew what was at stake. His body was at a "breaking point," he said.
"I have to get stronger," he told himself. "My body is breaking down."
So Hardy built himself a gym in his detached garage, a no-frills workout space where he'd incorporate exercises from the Orioles' strength team and movements remembered from the 2004 rehab.
It was a big change, but it was what he committed to. He worked out around Jay Jax's naps, and when working out on his own got tired, he would wait for a neighbor to get off work to break up the tedium of exercising alone.
"I guess going through what I've gone through the last couple of years, it wasn't too hard to motivate myself to do it," Hardy said.
The early diet of spring training batting practice and the occasional home game showed his regimen paid off.
"This is as good as my body has felt in a long time," Hardy said. "In a long time. It's still fairly early in spring training, and … we're not playing a whole lot of games, [the] starters, but I feel my shoulder is good. I'm not thinking about that anymore. My back feels strong, and all these things I've dealt with. You never know if tomorrow I wake up and something hurts, but as of right now, my body feels as good as it's felt in a really long time."
The result is a possible boost for an Orioles lineup that could desperately need the version of Hardy that they re-signed to a three-year, $40 million contract. In his first season with the Orioles, Hardy hit .269/.310/.491 with a career-high 30 home runs. It was the first of three years with more than 20 home runs, and over that span, he had a .732 OPS. From 2012-2014, he won three straight Gold Glove awards.
But the injuries in 2014 and 2015 sapped a lot of his offensive value. In 2015, he hit a career-worse .219/.253/.311 with eight home runs in 114 games. He's never been considered an on-base guy, but a return to the .270-.280 range, given the swing-and-miss/power combination that the Orioles have throughout the lineup, would be welcome.
Showalter believes Hardy getting back to that previous level of production would be a testament to the work he did this off-season.
"His commitment to his teammates and his team is strong," Showalter said. "You can tell he feels better about being able to be more helpful this year. But he did great things for us last year, especially defensively. I know it was frustrating for him not to be himself offensively."
Hardy firmly believes that it was injuries, not a loss of ability, that caused his offensive downturn the past two years. An American League scout, who cannot be identified because he's not permitted to speak about other team's players, said he could tell Hardy changed his approach last year to shorten his swing and compensate for a lack of power. The scout added that it could possibly be attributed to the injury.
Hardy says the All-Star shortstop the Orioles first got to know still exists when his body cooperates.
"A lot of guys are good enough in this game to be able to perform when they're not 100 percent," Hardy said. "But I've struggled with it. Whenever I've had an injury, I'm not able to do what I'm capable of. I know that, but I don't think that I ever doubted myself other than staying healthy. I did question my body, you know? Is my body ever going to feel good again? Am I going to be strong? But it was never my ability. I never questioned that."