[This is the first in a series of stories getting to know a variety of local athletes and coaches away from the game.]
This is how seriousJ.J. Hardyis about the game: the first thing you see when you walk into his Chandler, Ariz., home is a gleaming pingpong table.
"It's a room most people would use as a sitting room," the Orioles shortstop says. "Put some nice furniture in there. Maybe a piano or something like that."
Hardy wanted to make a statement. So he filled the room with a sleek, $2,500 Killerspin pingpong table, blue with silver trim.
It shimmers under the overhead lights like some kind of futuristic altar. And it tells everyone who walks through the heavy wooden front door with the stained-glass window overhead: we won't be shooting eight-ball today. Or playing poker.
There's the game we're going to play. Right there.
It's on that table where Hardy, the undisputed pingpong champion of the Orioles clubhouse, hones his game in the off-season.
During spring training in Sarasota, Fla., he takes on teammates like Nick Markakis and Jake Arrieta, as well as Brady Anderson, special assistant to O's general manager Dan Duquette.
"He's the best," Arrieta says. "Very consistent."
But in Chandler, Hardy plays big-time jock buddies like Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who live in the area.
As with Hardy's Orioles teammates, marathon games and major trash-talking take place.
"Urlacher, he talked more (trash) than anyone," Hardy says with a smile. "He said: 'Listen, I'm gonna get my paddle shipped out here from Florida. And then I'm going to work your skinny (butt.)'"
Did he do it? Did he win?
"Nope," Hardy says. "He's so big and strong, and I'm thinking pingpong wouldn't be his sport. But it was really, really impressive how good he was."
Still, Hardy whips them all. He beats Urlacher and Pedroia and Jason Duffner, the PGA Tour pro, too. He beats anyone on the Orioles who dares pick up a paddle against him.
He's never played in a tournament or against a table-tennis pro — in fact, he's not even snobby enough to call it "table tennis."
All he does is seek out other top-flight athletes — mostly major league ballplayers — for games. And the only one who's ever beaten him was Hernan Iribarren, a Venezuelan infielder Hardy played when they were both in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
"He was good," Hardy says simply. "We were about 50-50."
But maybe Iribarren beat him because of the language barrier, because Hardy couldn't talk trash to him, the way he does with everyone else.
In fact, when it comes to trash talking, Hardy is practically a PH.D. on the subject.
"I try to intimidate my opponent before we even play," he says with a smile. "So I'll ask what kind of (paddle) they use. And I'll say 'Oh, I use the Primorac 2000. It's the same one Werner Schlager uses on the tour.'"
Then he watches the blood drain from their faces.
"And they just kind of go 'Oh, no, I'm not at that level.'"
For the record, Werner Schlager is an Austrian pro once ranked No. 1 in the world. And the Butterfly Primorac 2000 is a high-performance paddle that retails for $150.
It's the paddle a rattled Arrieta went out and bought in the hope of getting better at the game after Hardy crushed him. But to add to the ignominy of his many Orioles challengers, Hardy now uses a $60 Butterfly Spatha.
Hardy and his younger brother, Logan, learned the game from their dad, Mark, a professional tennis player. There was a pingpong table in the garage of the family home in Arizona, and the boys started playing when J.J. was around 7.
To make it interesting, Mark Hardy would use cell phones, bricks and frying pans as paddles. You don't think that gets into a kid's head. I can even beat you with a frying pan! How humiliating is that?
But it made J.J. and Logan burn to get better. They practiced constantly. J.J. didn't beat the old man until four or five years ago. But it doesn't sound like the moment was something out of "The Great Santini," some epic, coming-of-age triumph for the scrappy kid over a father too proud to acknowledge the passing of the torch.
"He's still good," J.J. says of his dad, now 60. "The fact that he can still beat my brother — but he can't beat me — shows you he's still got it."
Hardy says he doesn't play much pingpong during baseball season. The 162-game schedule grinds players down and it's important to get rest. And right now he's concentrating at the plate. He entered this weekend hitting .261.
But he's always on the look-out for his next game. He takes his paddle wherever he goes. And there's no shortage of ballplayers he might scare up for a game during a rain-out or when the season ends.
"(Andy) Sonnanstine in Tampa, people say 'You have to play him,'" Hardy says, referring to the Rays' veteran right-hander. "In Toronto, (catcher) J.P. Arencibiaand (third baseman) Brett Lawrie have both asked me how my ping-pong game is going. And Clay Kershaw is dominating the Dodgers clubhouse."
Hardy smiles and shakes his head softly.
So many poor fools who think they can beat him. So much trash-talking to do.
So little time.