By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Jun 10, 2007 at 5:13 AM

In college basketball, they’re called program players; guys that spend four years at a school, give their heart and soul to a program, lead it to great accomplishments, and end up ranking among the best players in the school’s history.

Given the nomadic and gypsy-like nature of professional baseball, such players are a rarity, but the Brewers may have one of those types in J.J. Hardy.

The 24-year-old shortstop is having the best season of his young career. Despite a recent slump that has seen his batting average dip from .341 on May 8 to .286 heading into the weekend, Hardy has emerged as a leader of this resurgent, yet at times frustrating Brewers squad.

He was the first of a highly-touted group of prospects expected to reverse the franchise’s fortunes to make his debut; becoming just the sixth rookie in team history to make his debut on Opening Day. He struggled for most of that season, batting just .187 before the all-star break with one home run and 18 RBI.

At the time, many were calling for Ned Yost to bench the promising youngster, but the manager saw the big picture and kept Hardy firmly entrenched in the starting lineup and predicted that he would someday be a prototypical No. 2 hitter.

While most of the baseball world was watching the 2005 all-star festivities in Detroit, Hardy was clearing his head on a fishing trip. Whatever he did, it worked. Hardy went on a .308 clip in the second half.

After Hardy's second season was cut short due to injury, Bill Hall’s play at shortstop led many to wonder if the team should reconsider the roles for both players. Hardy was understandably worried. But when Hall was moved to centerfield, Hardy realized the job was his.

Based on his performance so far, it could be his for a long, long time.

It’s premature -- and incredibly unfair -- to compare Hardy to another Brewers shortstop who currently has a plaque in Cooperstown. But as Robin Yount was the catalyst to the Brewers’ 1982 pennant run, Hardy is showing signs of being the same for the 2007 Brewers.

He’s won games with his bat, and he’s saved games with his glove (just eight errors in 227 chances with eight double plays). He’s among the league leaders in RBI and hits, and his 16 home runs trail just teammate Prince Fielder’s National League-leading 22 so far in 2007.

Others in baseball have taken notice; Hardy currently ranks second among National League second basemen in all-star ballots cast by fans. He's almost assured of taking part in the Mid-Summer Classic at AT&T Park in San Francisco next month.

Like most of his young teammates, Hardy is a quiet sort in the clubhouse. Never mind that he’s filled the role formerly held by Scott Podsednik as unofficial favorite player of young Milwaukee women, or that he will soon appear in an episode of "The Young and The Restless;" Hardy is about playing baseball and winning games.

It’s the way he was brought up. His father was a professional tennis player and his mother a golf pro. As a youngster -- and even today -- he worked out with that former Brewer who’s now enshrined in the Hall of Fame; Robin Yount.

Hardy has the ability, the pedigree, the experience, and the professionalism to be one of the great players in Brewers’ history. Nothing in baseball is guaranteed, but for now, Milwaukee has something special in Hardy.

He may never win a batting crown, and he may never be named Most Valuable Player. But as long as he’s wearing a Brewers uniform, Yost will have a player that is going to do all the little things right.

Superstars make headlines, but its players like Hardy that win championships.