J.J. Hardy definitely wasn't expecting the reception he received when he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat Sunday in the Orioles' regular-season home finale at Camden Yards.
Over the past seven seasons, Hardy manned the shortstop position in a way that was truly blue-collar Baltimorean. He didn't seek the spotlight, but his steady play and leadership stood out — setting an example for younger players to follow — even as he's battled through injuries that have limited his playing time in recent years.
So Hardy wasn't prepared for the standing ovation he received from the announced 23,424 fans, as well as both dugouts, before his first at-bat in the Orioles' 9-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in what was likely his final home game in an Orioles uniform.
As the applause continued, Rays right-hander Chris Archer stepped off the mound and Hardy stepped out of the box and raised his hand in acknowledgment.
"Definitely caught me off guard and I had to fight some emotions," Hardy said. "I'm thinking, 'Why are they doing this now? I'm going to have to play a whole game after this.' So when the fans started getting loud, I thought that was cool. And then seeing guys come out of the dugout, it just seemed like it took a long time and it was very well appreciated."
"We kind of snuck that in behind J.J.'s back because I know what he would have said if he had known it was coming," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
The Orioles have put their future at shortstop in recent trade acquisition Tim Beckham, meaning the club is unlikely to pick up Hardy's $14 million club option for next season, especially after Hardy missed nearly three months because of injury. Hardy's future in the game is unclear, but he has expressed the desire to play beyond this season in a regular role.
In an Orioles season that most fans will want to forget quickly, Hardy then had a movie-script moment to remember, ending his second at-bat with a two-run home run off Archer, bringing the fans out of their seats again, this time undeterred until Hardy reluctantly stepped out of the dugout — pushed by teammate Manny Machado to the top step for a curtain call.
"I don't think it surprises anybody," Showalter said. "J.J. has delivered a lot of things the team has needed over the course of his time here. We'll see what the future brings. He's one of those guys, everybody says you don't how good he is until he's gone, I think everybody here knows how good he is. He's got some good baseball ahead of him."
Showalter was likely to give Hardy the start Sunday, a decision made easier with Beckham ailing from a hamstring injury running to first base Saturday. Before Sunday's game, the Orioles clubhouse sent notice to the Rays that they planned to pay tribute to Hardy before his first at-bat of the game.
"They actually called over and gave us a heads-up just so I wouldn't be thrown off, but prior to that, I knew," Archer said. "He's a very admirable player and it sucks, it's unfortunate, that he hit the home run off me, but to put that little stamp on his last home game in front of these fans who love him and chant his name every time he comes up, I'm sure it was awesome for him."
Hardy added a single in the sixth and scored two runs. His final at-bat — which brought the fans who remained to their feet again, chanting 'J.J. Hardy' and 'Let's Go, Hardy' — ended with the veteran beating out a double-play ball to shortstop.
"It was a cool day for J.J.," said right-hander Chris Tillman, who was the Orioles' emergency 11th-hour starter after Dylan Bundy injured his hamstring during pregame preparations. "That was pretty cool to be a part of. He's been probably the best teammate I've had here. I can't say enough good things about him. He's had a good career."
After the game's final out, Hardy shared an embrace with second baseman Jonathan Schoop — one of the players he helps groom — at the second base bag before other teammates gathered around him. Showalter welcomed him to the dugout with a handshake and a hug.
"You think of J.J., you think about the word efficient, trustworthy, impactful to his teammates," Showalter said. "We're very lucky to have had him pass our way. We'll see what the future brings."
Hardy reflected last week in New York on his Orioles career and said he felt pride in his role in the team's resurgence. He is one of a handful of players who played on the last of the franchise's 14 -straight losing clubs in 2011 and was a part of the team's three playoff runs in six years before this season. Even through this losing season, the Orioles were 35-31 with Hardy as the starting shortstop.
"He played a big part in the culture, I think," Showalter said. "The great compliment, [vice president of baseball operations] Brady [Anderson] and I were talking about him, that he's probably the only guy I've ever seen that reminds you of Cal at shortstop defensively. They were able to get the balls with their brains as well as their hands."
Hardy can't help but wonder what could have been had he not been hit by a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Lance Lynn on June 18. At that point, he had a .556 OPS with just three homers in 68 games. A typically slow starter, the injury — the second time Hardy's season has been sidetracked by a freak injury after a foul tip that injured his left foot forced him to miss significant time last season — took away Hardy's opportunity to rebound from a rocky start at the plate this season. As of now, Hardy plans to play next season.
"Honestly, I'm going to see what my options are if I have any at all, and then we'll kind of go from there," Hardy said. "As of right now, I still feel like I can play, and we'll just have to see what happens."
After the game, Hardy left the possibility for a return — however unlikely as it might seem — open.
“We’re talking about it like 100 percent I’m not coming back here,” Hardy said. “I know they’re not going to pick up my option, but I feel like there’s probably still a percentage small change that I could come back.
“Definitely, I feel like I’m an Oriole. I’ll be an Oriole for life. These seven years have been, I couldn't have asked for more and I’m really appreciative of Buck for writing my name in the lineup as much as he did, the Angelos family for signing me to two extensions. All my teammates, I’m a person who really cares what people think about me. And to see the way they reacted to me was pretty special. … Today is a day that I’ll always remember, for sure.”