Tucson a special place to Hardy

Tucson a special place to Hardy

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Compared to the newer, bigger ballparks that dot the Cactus League, 71-year-old Hi Corbett Field doesn't look like much. But it's hallowed ground to the Hardy family.

Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy played here a half-dozen times in junior high and high school tournaments before he was drafted by Milwaukee in 2001. His dad, Mark Hardy, never played at Hi Corbett but remembered going there with his dad, a good ballplayer in his own right, when it was the spring home of the Cleveland Indians.

"I grew up in Tucson, and this is where all the pros played," said Mark Hardy, who led a group of about 15 relatives to see J.J. and the Brewers face the host Rockies on Saturday. "I dreamed of playing here when I was a kid. Seeing 'J' play here is probably bigger for me than seeing him at Yankee Stadium."

James Jerry Hardy is known as "J" to his parents, Mark and Susie, and nearly was named Jerry Jeter (after a great-grandfather) when he was born in 1982. Mark Hardy was a promising pitcher in his youth but somewhere along the line switched to tennis, and ranked in the world's top 300 professional players at one point. He's a teaching pro today. Susie Hardy was the most talented athlete in the family until J.J. came along, rising in the amateur golf ranks before an injury derailed her promising career.

Hardy's older brother, Logan, was a solid pitcher as well, but J.J. stood out, not only in baseball but in other sports. His grandfather, James, was the first to see that J.J. had a chance to play his way out of Tucson.

J.J. was 9 at the time.

"From the time he was a little kid, he just saw everything differently," Mark Hardy said. "As a tennis pro, I can see talent, and I am paid to see talent in kids. I think J's talent is knowing his place in space. You'll never see a third baseman lining him up. He has a sense of where everything is going to be going on.

"You could see that early on. When he was playing soccer when he was 6, the other kids would be bunched together, but 'J' would wait over to the side. All of a sudden the ball would pop out and he would be gone.

"Later I would say, 'How did you know it was going to be there?' He said he didn't know. He just always had a sense."

That's not to say everything has come easy. In his fourth season in the Brewers' Minor League chain, Hardy was already in Triple-A, hitting .277 with four homers through 26 games with the Indianapolis Indians when injury struck. He tried to check his swing on a pitch and dislocated his left shoulder, tore his labrum and killed his season. He underwent surgery and lived for a while with mom and dad in Tucson, rarely leaving his bedroom.

"It's like, you're touching your goal, and all of a sudden it's gone," Mark Hardy said. "He just sat in the house for weeks at a time in a dark room."

A month after J.J. was hurt, Logan Hardy returned from serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army and mired in his own funk. J.J. and Logan moved up to J.J.'s place in Tempe, about 100 miles north of the family home, where they bunkered down.

"Logan was pretty well suffering from post-traumatic stress [disorder]," Mark Hardy said. "They closed the shades and would sit in the house, sit in the Jacuzzi. Go inside and call out for dinner. Nobody saw them for the longest time.

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"Then they gradually started coming out. I think they both recovered together. They both came out of it perfectly. Without each other, I don't know how that would have worked. I think 'J' saw that what Logan went through was a lot tougher than what he was going through. I believe that helped him a lot."

Hardy was still hurting physically the following spring, but he was penciled in as the Brewers' Opening Day shortstop anyway. He was batting below .200 deep into July, and Brewers manager Ned Yost faced increasing pressure from above to ship Hardy back to the Minors.

Yost stuck with his young shortstop, who rebounded to bat .308 after the All-Star break and finished with a .247 average. He headed into 2006 with a renewed confidence but then suffered another May injury, tearing up his ankle sliding into Phillies catcher Sal Fasano. Hardy later abandoned an attempt to rehab the injury and went under the knife for the second time in two years.

Given his long injury history, no one saw Hardy's 2007 season coming. He was the team's player of the month for April, and was leading the Majors in home runs into May. The Hardys were watching back in Tucson.

"We were just laughing," Mark Hardy said. "We would be sitting there in the living room watching the game and it was like, 'He just hit another one!' I had seen him go through streaks like that in Little League, Pony ball, where every third swing of the bat he would hit a home run. But in high school he wasn't that kind of hitter, so it was a shock to us to see him hit that many.

"All of a sudden, there we were sitting in the stands at the All-Star Game. It was a fun year."

Hardy was one of four Brewers on the National League All-Star squad, and despite a bit of a second-half swoon, he finished with a .277 average, 26 home runs and 80 RBIs. He has said that the good times were actually more unnerving than the bad, which did not surprise Yost.

"Until you understand who you are, you just keep waiting for the goodness to end," Yost said, "instead of understanding that it doesn't end. You realize that the highs aren't so great and the lows aren't so low. You just play, keep it leveled out."

Just as important to his statistical breakthrough was the fact Hardy played in 151 games.

He's on track again this spring, though his preparations hit a snag in late January when Hardy threw out his back during a workout. It happened just as Hardy and the Brewers were working on contract terms, but he went through a battery of extra tests and was deemed healthy. He bought a Swedish foam bed and says it has made a difference.

"There's nothing in the back of my head like last year, when I was coming off an injury," Hardy said. "I've felt pretty comfortable here for a couple of years now. I think it's going to be a good year."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.