In Little League and at Sabino High School, J.J. Hardy’s baseball teammates routinely called him “Hoover.” Get it? The vacuum.
“I wanted the ball hit to me,” he remembers. “I could go 4 for 4 in a game, but if I made an error, any kind of error, I considered it a bad game.”
This is what James Jerry Hardy does for a living and it is why the Baltimore Orioles pay him $7 million a year. He is the Big Vacuum.
“I can’t imagine anyone playing shortstop at a higher level,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters before the 2013 All-Star Game, in which Hardy was the American League’s starting shortstop. “I like to see the ball rolling out there to him.”
Over the last two seasons with the Orioles, the baseball has rolled, popped, lined, one-hopped, short-hopped and bad-hopped 1,424 times to J.J. Hardy. He handled 1,406 of those chances without error.
That’s a 98.7 percent rate of success. It is Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel territory. There is no higher ground for a shortstop.
By any name, Hoover Hardy, son of a Tucson tennis instructor, has become one of the most prominent shortstops in modern baseball. He won the American League Gold Glove award for shortstops in 2012 and again in 2013. He is a two-time All-Star. This year he won the Silver Slugger award, hitting 25 home runs, emblematic of the league’s top-hitting shortstop.
Given such distinction, Hardy is a clear No. 1 among the Arizona Daily Star’s Top 100 Southern Arizona sports figures of 2013.
“The thing is, I don’t know if it was my best year,” says Hardy, who splits the offseason between homes in Chandler and Montana. “I had some arm problems for a bit. It was hard just getting the ball over to first base sometimes.”
And yet Hardy played in 159 of 162 games, driving in 76 runs, emerging as a full-time star in his ninth major-league season.
“J.J.’s probably got the most accurate arm of any shortstop I’ve ever coached,” said Showalter. “He’s an alert guy, into every situation, nothing ever catches him by surprise.”
It wasn’t much different when Hardy fought for and won a starting job, at first base, as a Sabino High freshman in 1998, earning playing time for a Sabercats team coming off the 1997 state championship.
“What I remember is that J.J. was a gentleman,” said Jaime Ledesma, a former all-city outfielder at Catalina High School who has coached at Sabino and Sahuaro in recent years. “You could see that he was special.”
Tucson was a hotbed for baseball standouts during Hardy’s high school days: Shelley and Chris Duncan of Canyon del Oro would go on to become big-league sluggers; Palo Verde’s Will Smith hit a state-record 37 home runs; CDO’s Ian Kinsler, Scott Hairston and Brian Anderson would reach the major leagues; two of Hardy’s Sabino teammates, pitchers Tim Wood and Jamie Vermilyea, would play in the majors.
In the 2001 prep season, Baseball America ranked Hardy the No. 15 prospect in the nation. He was the Arizona Player of the Year and a second-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers.
He has lived up to all the expectations, hitting 158 homers, more than any Tucsonan in big-league history. His two Gold Glove awards are one shy of the three Rincon High grad Tom Pagnozzi won as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1990s.
But the best catch of Hardy’s career has nothing to do with fielding a grounder up the middle.
He married former Marana High School and UA outfielder Adrienne Acton on Dec. 7 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Hardy and Acton did not know one another in Tucson; Hardy was already in the big leagues when Acton helped Arizona win 2006 and 2007 NCAA championships.
“We were watching the College Softball World Series in the clubhouse one day in Milwaukee and my teammates noticed Adrienne is from my hometown,” Hardy remembers. “They got all over me, telling me I had to ask her out. Even my manager, Ned Yost, got involved and encouraged it.
“Pretty soon, through our PR department and the Arizona PR department, we made contact. My cousin, John Hardy, played baseball at the UA. He knew some softball players. It took some work, but now, all these years later, we’re married.”
Between now and the start of spring training, Hardy doesn’t have to look for a workout partner.
“We play catch in the backyard, throwing the ball as hard as I want, and Adrienne can handle it and throw it back almost as hard,” he said. “I’m pretty happy about the way things have worked out.”