In a room full of great players, J.J. Hardy is the best. Hands down. He doesn't hesitate when asked about it. The Orioles' shortstop is confident that he is the best ping pong player in the Orioles' clubhouse.
"If anyone gets me on the table, chances are I win," Hardy said. "We've got seven or eight guys in this clubhouse that are really, really good at ping pong."
And Hardy is one of the true stars, although he doesn't get nearly enough ink for his achievements. If you were to list the best baseball players on this Orioles roster, you may not mention Hardy's name until way down on the list. After Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Jim Johnson and Matt Wieters.
Fair or unfair, it's just fine with the 30-year-old.
"Keep overlooking me. I'd rather all those guys get the attention, and me, [I] just kind of fly under the radar."
But how can a guy often go unnoticed in his own clubhouse yet lead his position in All-Star voting?
Seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? But that's what happens when you play all your games for a virtual All-Star team and don't look for or demand attention.
Make no mistake, Hardy is the cream of the crop when it comes to American League shortstops -- Gold Glove defense and on pace for 30 home runs and 85 RBIs.
About that RBI total, Hardy said, "It's easy. Hitting seventh in this lineup behind all those guys, it seems there's always someone on base."
In Hardy's nine-year career, he's had the opportunity to play with some of the brightest young stars in the game. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in Milwaukee. Joe Mauer in Minnesota. And now he has a front-row seat to witness Machado and Davis turn into mega-stars.
His observations on Davis offer us a unique look at the game's leading home run hitter, a humble and thoughtful man of faith.
"He's funny, loud, loose," Hardy said. "When we're out there playing ping pong, he's in the weight room, just getting huge. I thought he had an unbelievable year last year, and I feel like his numbers are almost what he did last year already. I think everyone on our team is watching him."
The same can be said of Machado. Fans and players watch in awe as this 20-year-old prodigy becomes a face of MLB.
"I'm in awe, too. Its really, really fun watching him play third base," Hardy said. "Makes my job a lot easier. I get to play more up the middle, because he has so much range, but his arm and the plays he makes ... and how he makes then look so easy -- It's been a lot of fun to watch. His arm is ridiculous."
But Machado's ping pong skills are still a work in progress. Hardy says Machado is the most improved since Spring Training. However, if the youngster is to replace the veteran as the Orioles' table tennis king, he'll have to do it on his own.
"I don't play much anymore," Hardy said. "I'm too tired and focused on baseball."
The metamorphosis of Yadier Molina continues. He's long been a premier backstop who was worth his weight in gold just for his game-calling and defensive skills. Today, he's a frontrunner for the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
As Molina transforms into an offensive force and solidifies his place on the short list of best players in the game, it calls to mind another Cardinals great. An eventual Hall of Famer who took even longer to mature from defensive whiz into an all-around great.
It wasn't until Ozzie Smith's eighth year in the league before he hit higher than .260 and posted an on-base percentage higher than .350.
Smith already had secured five Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances when he entered his age-30 season. That year, 1985, "The Wizard" began a stretch of seven straight seasons with at least 50 RBIs. In that era, 50-plus ribbies for an NL shortstop ranked among the best.
But Smith and Molina share more than just the "late-bloomer" label.
They were/are elite contact hitters consistently ranking among the game's best in strikeouts. Both are also World Series champions.
Their postseason bond runs deeper than that. Decades apart, each hit a game-winning home run in an NL Championship Series. Molina's beat the Mets in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Smith's long ball defeated the Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1985 NLCS (go crazy folks, go crazy).
Decades from now, these two Cardinals greats will likely have Cooperstown in common, as well.
Matt Yallof is the co-host of The Rundown on MLB Network from 2-4 p.m. ET. Follow him on twitter @mattyallofmlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less