With heavy bats, a solid pitching staff, and some veteran savvy, the Milwaukee Brewers -- yeah, those Milwaukee Brewers -- have propped themselves atop the NL Central.
But if the Brewers are indeed the surprise story of this young MLB season, then it's shortstop J.J. Hardy who is jumping out of the cake, bat in had, swinging at any friggin' thing that moves.
Selected by the Brewers in the second round of the 2001 draft out of Sabino High School in Tuscon, Ariz., Hardy came into the season with a reputation for defense, a rash of injury bug bites, and not much else. Today, he's a National League MVP candidate -- batting .320 with 13 home runs and 39 RBIs -- and a budding daytime television star.
What gives? I recently caught up with Hardy to ask him about his strange journey, the perks of stardom, and if the Brewers are secretly hoping for a Brett Favre trade.
You've gone from a guy who wasn't even expected to be the Brewers' starting shortstop to an MVP candidate. What on earth have you been eating for breakfast?
[Laughs] I really don't know what's going on, to be honest. I'm just trying to put the ball in play. I don't know about the whole MVP thing though. I've been hearing that talk, but we're only a fourth of the way into the season, and we got three quarters left. I'm not sure I can keep up this pace. I'm just trying to stay productive.
No, seriously, what have you been eating for breakfast?
[Laughs] Honestly, nothing's changed. I'm still seeing the ball the same way. I guess I'm just putting better swings on the ball. Obviously, I expected better numbers than I've shown in the past, but I definitely didn't expect this. I don't think anyone did.
You've had some freakish injuries. You were set to break out in '04, then you separated your shoulder while swinging a bat. Then you had an ankle injury last season. That's some bad luck. So when did you run into a leprechaun?
You know, that's exactly what it was. I'm not a superstitious guy, but I do feel it was bad luck. People talk about how I'm injury-prone, but I'm not. Before this, my worst injury was probably a sprained ankle. Now, I'm going out and playing loose, playing hard. I feel great. I'm not playing not to get hurt.
When you were in the thick of the injuries, I'd imagine you weren't a very cool guy to hang out with.
Definitely not. I wasn't in the greatest mood. When I had my shoulder injury, I was away from the team rehabbing. I was depressed. Other than going out for rehab, I just sat in my house. It was dark. It was cold. I didn't see anyone. I didn't want to talk to anyone. It wasn't fun.
You're brother Logan got back from Iraq at about the same time you injured you shoulder. With the two of you sitting around, swapping stories, how did that help shape your perspective?
It helped a ton. We sorted through our problems together. I was depressed and unhappy with the way things were going, but he was a lot worse than I was. With all that he saw in Iraq over his six months there -- and he was also going through some marriage problems -- he helped me get my priorities straight. As bad as I thought I had it, I took a step back, hearing what he'd gone through, and realized that being hurt and missing a year in Triple-A is not the end of the world. We're not doing too bad now. He's done with the Army. He's working at an autoglass replacement company in Phoenix.
What's the most you've seen Prince Fielder eat?
Oh, man, that Prince. He eats pretty good, to be honest with you. A very healthy eater. And I mean that literally. He's good about watching what he eats.
Does Tony Gwynn Jr. watch as much video as his pops?
Yeah, he knows what he's getting into before he plays. I don't know how much Senior watched video, but Junior definitely does his homework.
The Milwaukee Brewers are in first place? That was a rhetorical question. Here's my question: Pop quiz, when was the last time the Brewers finished with a winning record?
God, I don't know, maybe 13 years ago?
Sad, but add a couple. 1992. Do you guys sense a difference in the streets of Milwaukee?
Yeah, everyone's starting to pay attention. The fans were great even when we were losing, but now they're getting ready to blow up. They're pretty excited. People recognize you. We'll be at dinner and fans will just come up to say, "Hi" and "Keep up the good work." That's happening quite a bit these days.
I'm guessing the Packers still trump you guys in the hearts and minds of the locals. So, be honest, you're secretly hoping they trade Brett Favre, right?
[Laughs] Oh, I can't get into that. That would get me into some serious trouble out here. He's the fan favorite. If he wasn't around, it'd hurt these people.
Now that you're the toast of the league, what perks are the Brewers getting these days?
Oh, it hasn't changed much. Obviously the national media is starting to pay closer attention now, but other than that, it's the same old Brewers.
Yeah, except "the same old Brewers" are turning up on daytime TV. In June, you'll join Bill Hall, Jeff Suppan, and Chris Capuano for a cameo on "Young and Restless." Which is, as you may know, a soap opera. Why'd you do it, J.J.?
[Laughs] Honestly, I don't know how that came up. We'll be in town playing the Dodgers, so I think that had something to do with it. It'll be a lot of fun. Even the guys who aren't going to be in the scene are looking forward to it. Probably just to give us crap. I'm not sure what will come of it, but it'll be fun.
Knowing your luck, you're going to bring home a Daytime Emmy and the digits belonging to some pretty soap actress.
[Laughs] I'm single, so I'll definitely keep an eye out.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.