J.J. Hardy is bound to lose cell phone reception as he drives on a stretch of Montana highway. He’s headed back to his ranch, where his family has been living for almost two months. The conversation cuts out and returns, which could mimic his playing career.
Though he didn’t hook on with a team this season as a free agent, the former Orioles shortstop still hasn’t filed retirement papers with Major League Baseball. He might give it another try this winter. Or he could continue to move toward the next phase of his life, which includes the birth of his second son, Leo, earlier this summer and taking the oldest, Jay Jax, to swimming practice.
“I’m staying in shape,” he said. “I was completely burned out last year. My body hurt, and was trying to play every single day and I struggled because of it.”
Hardy took delicate steps toward the 2017 season, recurring back spasms added to a growing list of injuries and ailments that were taking a toll on him. He was limited to 114, 115 and 73 games in his final three seasons in Baltimore after winning Gold Gloves in each of the previous three and a Silver Slugger Award in 2013.
“I came into spring training and, you saw me in spring training when I couldn’t even stand up straight,” he said. “I got like seven cortisone shots and an epidural and then a week later I’m playing every single day. So, I was never really able to get my feet underneath me.
“I was a little bit burned out. I needed a break.”
Baseball provided it by shunning him, scattered interest never materializing into a firm offer. He turned 36 earlier this month, but might give it one more shot.
“I’m not closing the door to anything,” he said. “I’m not ready to retire, and right now I’m not ready to play. So I’m kind of stuck in the middle.”
Hardy spent seven years with the Orioles after former team president Andy MacPhail pulled off one of the finest deals in franchise history by sending minor league pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson to the Twins. Hardy became the leader of the infield, lauded for his consistency, dependability and, at one time, his durability. His absence this season as the defense crumbled was felt in much the same way as a hammer to a thumbnail.
Manager Buck Showalter warned anyone within earshot that Hardy wouldn’t truly be appreciated until he was gone, but the club didn’t make any attempts to negotiate a second extension. He was allowed to walk out the door after hitting a home run in his final game at Camden Yards on Sept. 24, 2017 against the Rays, earning one last standing ovation, and doubling twice at Tropicana Field in the penultimate game of the season.
“It definitely disappointed me,” Hardy said. “I don’t know that I thought they would or not, but for nothing, no contact at all was kind of like a slap in the face in a way. I felt like, when you look at the team now, I know I could help the team. But it was like, damn, I must really suck in order for them to not want me.”
The Orioles traded for Tim Beckham at the non-waiver deadline while Hardy remained on the disabled list with a fractured wrist caused by a Lance Lynn fastball. They moved third baseman Manny Machado to shortstop over the winter.
Hardy didn’t play another position and wouldn’t have been interested in a reserve role. The Orioles, it seemed, were ready to move on without him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There was no contact, so I had no idea what was going on.”
Machado didn’t push to play short until Hardy became a free agent, deferring to the respected veteran. The promise of returning Machado to his original and favored position left no room for Hardy.
“Maybe,” Hardy said. “I felt like that happened in the middle of the offseason. I have no idea what was going through their minds.”
There weren’t a lot of rumors attached to Hardy as other free agents came off the board - many having to wait until late in the offseason or after spring training camps opened.
“Quite a few teams reached out,” he said. “No teams made any offers, but there were a lot of teams that were interested.
“For me it was like, I was burned out and there were maybe a handful of situations that I would have pursued. And a couple of them started to show up a little bit, but then kind of faded out, so nothing happened.”
Hardy wasn’t tortured by the process. He was happy to let his body and mind heal, to latch onto quality time with wife Adrienne and his growing family.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I kind of described it when I would talk to family and friends, it was like I’m at a car dealership. I looked and if it was the right car that showed up, then I was willing to buy it, but I didn’t need it. So, it was kind of like, it needed to be the right situation.”
Hardy stays in contact with former teammates and has exchanged text messages with Showalter, including in the days following Leo’s birth. Showalter has told the media that Hardy seems content, that the former All-Star isn’t the type to simply play for one more paycheck.
The Orioles are on pace for the worst season in franchise history, their window to compete slamming shut on their fingers. Hardy hasn’t devoured the box scores or hung on every loss.
“I mean, a little bit. I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge, avid baseball fan and have been paying attention to anything,” he said, “but in my news app it does show me what’s going on with the Orioles.
“I think it was bound to happen after trying to win for the last seven years, doing everything we could to win right now and trading away prospects, and unfortunately we weren’t able to win at that level. But we won a lot of games the last six, seven years, more than a lot of other teams, so I think it was just bound to happen, and eventually it’s going to come to an end and you need to rebuild a little bit.”
The decision to tear down the roster and start over reached Hardy in Montana, even in the dead spots.
“When you try to win for that long and you do everything and you’re not the Yankees, who are going to just go out and buy a free agent every single year, or whoever, the Red Sox and those guys, then yeah, you’re going to have to rebuild at some point,” he said. “But we tried to win for the last seven years and this is what happens.”
It didn’t sneak up on Hardy. He knew of the possibility while the Orioles were trying to hang in the wild card race over the final month of the 2017 season. His last season in Baltimore and, quite possibly, the major leagues.
“When you have the young guys like Manny Machado, his time’s going to come to an end at some point,” Hardy said. “The same with (Jonathan) Schoop. We went out and we got veterans and we kept a lot of players around. But last year we were still playing for something in September and it’s not like you’re going to go and rebuild while you still have a chance to win.”