- - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Brian Ward, a minor league catcher, sat on a chair in front of his locker in the Orioles’ big-league spring training clubhouse. When asked to describe Baltimore shortstop J.J. Hardy, Ward spoke in a hushed tone.

“He is unreal. I can’t even explain it,” said Ward, who played at Single-A Frederick last year. “He can spin it. He can smash it.”

But Ward was not referring to Hardy’s ability to flip the ball to his second baseman for a double play or the 30 homers he smashed last year.

Instead it is Hardy’s unquestioned status as the king of the table tennis table, which sits in the middle of the spacious clubhouse, that draws praise from Ward and big-leaguers alike.

Hardy quickly became the Orioles’ best player when he joined the team before the 2011 season, and he kept that title intact this spring, even though Ward got a rare win against the Arizona native.

“Then I lost about 10 in a row,” Ward said.

It should be no surprise that Hardy, with quick reflexes and great hand-eye coordination, is a natural at nearly every sport he tries. His mother, Susan, played golf at the University of Arizona and was a top amateur. Hardy’s father, Mark, played tennis in college at Arizona, where he met his future wife, and now is the head tennis professional at a club in Tucson.

Hardy, 29, said he grew up playing many sports, including soccer, golf and tennis. He remembers going as a boy to summer youth sports camps run by his father as campers would rotate to different sports throughout the day.

“He is one of those guys who can pick up a football or a golf club and be good at it,” said Baltimore first baseman Chris Davis.

Hardy was an All-American at Sabino High in Arizona and was drafted in the second round by Milwaukee in 2001. The infielder made his big-league debut with the Brewers in 2005.

Last season, the right-handed hitter became the first Baltimore shortstop since 1991 to hit at least 30 homers in a season.

The last to do it was Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., but Hardy doesn’t want his name thrown around with Ripken or other great Orioles shortstops such as Mark Belanger or Luis Aparicio.

“Look how many years Cal played. I had one good year,” Hardy said. “I don’t know if I can compare one good year to how many good years they had. At the end of three more years, if my name is mentioned with those names it would be an honor.”

Hardy’s name was linked to Ripken’s years ago when he was in the minors with Milwaukee. He began to hold his hands farther away from his body in his batting stance, and some of his teammates gave him a hard time for trying to imitate Ripken. “I wasn’t even trying to be like Cal,” he said. “I did not even realize he did that.”

Besides the 30 homers, Hardy had 27 doubles and hit .269 with 80 RBI in 129 games last year. He made just six errors, took part in 79 double plays and led American League shortstops with a fielding percentage of .990. He bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 in which he hit .268 with six homers in 101 games for the Twins.

During last season, Hardy signed a three-year contract extension that should keep him in Baltimore through 2014.

“I think everybody in this game looks for that,” Hardy said of long-term security. “You can be traded to any team. There are so many question marks that so many of us baseball players have to deal with. I have loved my time here.

“I got traded from Milwaukee to Minnesota [in 2009] then the next season I got traded over here,” added Hardy, who was dealt by the Twins to the Orioles on Dec. 9, 2010. “I don’t like moving around from team to team. I like it here, and it is nice to know I am going to be here for three more years.”

On a team with many question marks, Hardy gives the Orioles one constant.

“I never appreciated how good of a fielder he was until I played with him,” said Davis, who came to the Orioles last July in a trade from Texas. “He is not flashy.”

Added Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds, a former University of Virginia star: “I think he should have won the Gold Glove. He makes the play every day. That is all you can ask of a shortstop.”

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