Just because J.J. Hardy was once the best pingpong player in the majors doesn’t mean that he still is.
“When I’m playing a lot, I can be pretty good,” Hardy says. “But I haven’t played in three years.”
Actually, that’s not entirely true. This past spring training, the Orioles shortstop messed around a little with teammate Darren O'Day. But when it comes to real game action, it has been a while.
Earlier in his career, the 33-year-old veteran routinely ran the table that sits smack dab in the middle of the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. But a few years ago, he developed shoulder issues. In an effort to play through it, he decided that clowning around in the clubhouse wasn’t worth it. Not that he takes his pingpong lightly.
“I can't get on the table without getting serious,” says Hardy, whose childhood home in Tucson, Arizona, featured a pingpong table in the carport and two parents who were college athletes at the University of Arizona (dad played tennis, mom played golf). “I get on the table and everybody starts watching. My reputation precedes me.”
Or at least it did. Several spring trainings ago, after briefly putting his pingpong game on pause, Hardy returned to the table. The results weren’t pretty. “O'Day beat me. [Chris] Tillman beat me. I think Manny [Machado] beat me. It was humbling.”
So instead of laying his rep on the line when he couldn’t perform at his best, the two-time All-Star decided he was better off not performing at all. Since then, according to Hardy, recently reacquired utility man Steve Pearce and O’Day have become kings of the clubhouse. But if you think Hardy has hung up his paddle for good, a quick look inside his locker indicates otherwise.
On a shelf, hidden by a few hanging jerseys, is a fancy schmancy carrying case, about the size of a laptop computer. Black with red trim, it zips open to reveal three balls, a small bottle of cleaner and two Butterfly blades that retail for well into triple digits. “I won’t play with another paddle.”
He’s such a pingpong junkie that he has made a habit of chatting up opposing players to see who the big kahunas are in other clubhouses around the league. “You hear a lot about Clayton Kershaw.” He’s even talked to the Dodgers ace’s teammates to see how he stacks up.
If it ever happens, that is. While Hardy’s shoulder issues have driven him away from the table, Kershaw -- who has been out since late June with a herniated disc -- probably won’t be picking up a paddle anytime soon. If and when both players are whole enough to square off, Hardy isn’t about to rush into a battle royale.
“I'd like to play a little bit before I play in one like that. There’s a lot riding on it when you have a reputation of never losing."
So what if the reputation’s a little outdated.