BALTIMORE -- To evaluate what shortstop J.J. Hardy has done for the Baltimore Orioles, you have to go beyond the box scores. You have to look past Hardy's sure glove, his place in the club's all-time rankings -- which has him second in homers among shortstops and third in RBIs and games played -- and take an even closer look.
He is the captain of the infield, the inquisitive mind that pipes up in team meetings and makes even the ultra-prepared Orioles manager Buck Showalter wonder if he's missed something. He is giving Showalter his thoughts on the Gold Glove candidates' seasons, telling Most Valuable Oriole Jonathan Schoop a few years back to focus more on playing every day than on individual stats. He is showing then-rookie third baseman Manny Machado to make tough plays look easy, and to never let his defense go into a slump.
And in Sunday's 9-4 win against the Rays, Hardy found himself in an unusual position: the center of attention. The understated shortstop, a key cog in the Orioles' three postseason appearances since 2012, homered and received numerous standing ovations in what is expected to be the final home game of his seven-year career in Baltimore.
"[It] definitely caught me off guard and I had to fight some emotions," Hardy, acquired in a trade with the Twins prior to the 2011 season, said of the reaction at Camden Yards. "I'm thinking, 'Why are they doing this now? Going to have to play a whole game after this.' So when the fans started getting loud I thought that was cool. Just seemed like it took a long time [for the ovation], and it was very well appreciated."
The emotions ran high in the Orioles' clubhouse as Schoop and Machado spent pregame stretching interlocked with Hardy in right field. When the O's shortstop stepped to the plate in the first inning, fans scrambled to their feet as soon as public address announcer Ryan Wagner belted out his famous "J….J…Hardy" welcome. Members of both dugouts joined in the applause from the railing.
Hardy stood in awe for a moment, with Rays starter Chris Archer hanging back behind the mound to let the O's shortstop have his moment. Hardy waved to the crowd in thanks, bringing the applause to an even greater decibel before he stepped in and grounded out.
"You think of J.J., you think about the word 'efficient'. Trustworthy. Impactful to his teammates. We're very lucky to have had him pass our way," Showalter said. "We'll see what the future brings. He played a big part in the culture, I think. Talking to Jonathan and Manny and [Tim Beckham] and Chris [Davis]. The great compliment, Brady [Anderson] and I were talking about him, that he's probably the only guy I've ever seen that reminds you of Cal [Ripken, Jr.] at shortstop defensively. They were able to get the balls with their brains as well as their hands."
The noise reached a new level in the fourth inning as Hardy uncorked a full-count homer off of Archer. It marked just the fourth home run of the year for Hardy, who was relunctantly pushed by Machado out of the dugout for a curtain call.
"I definitely didn't expect that to happen today," said Hardy, who also singled in the sixth. "I was just going to go out there and try not to embarrass myself. Turned out to be a pretty good day."
Signed to a three-year contract extension in 2014 with an option for '18 that won't vest due to a wrist fracture that sidelined him for nearly three months, Hardy is unsure of the future. But he does believe, no matter what, that he'll always be an Oriole.
"I feel like there's probably still a percentage, a small chance, that I could come back. Definitely, I feel like I'm an Oriole for life. These seven years have been ... I couldn't have asked for more," Hardy said. "I'm really appreciative of Buck writing my name in the lineup as much as he did, the Angelos family for signing me to two extensions, all my teammates. I'm a person that really cares about what people think about me. To see the way that they reacted today was really special."