Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

Rendon is quiet, potent and set for a huge influence on Nationals future

BY TODD DYBAS | OCT. 2, 2018

NATIONALS PARK — Kevin Long clicked along, full of words and excitement to throw into a stiff West Palm Beach wind at the Nationals’ spring training facility in February. The first-year Nationals hitting coach rattled off launch angle breakdowns, analysis of past players and assessments of folks on his new team. Asked about Anthony Rendon, Long stopped. His plan for Rendon was to leave him alone. The end.

For years now, this has been Rendon’s preference when interacting with most people. Reporters, in particular. Light-hearted is his common emotional stance in the clubhouse. Straight-faced is his appearance on the field. Potent is his status at the plate. He just sees no reason to talk about any of it.

Long’s decision to allow Rendon space to operate was based in skill. Rendon finished the season with team’s best OPS among players who surpassed 500 at-bats. He led the league in doubles despite playing just 136 games. He owns two top-6 finishes in MVP voting, which could not concern him less, yet no All-Star appearances, which carries the same flatline level of concern. He’s arguably the Nationals best all-around player.

Rendon is also going into the final season of his contract. The Nationals presumably will offer him an extension this offseason, which as presumably will be swatted away with a chuckle by Rendon’s agent, Scott Boras. Rendon’s contract status also enters the organization’s Bryce Harper calculation from both spectrums: his future cost may inhibit their ability to pay both Harper and him. His talent is one of the reasons the Nationals could move on without Harper.

All of that is far from his purview. Rendon is aware of his contract situation, joking in the spring that he dropped out of college which is why he lets Boras handle such things. This is typical Rendon. Publicly, he passes off an extended, thoughtful answer in favor of a quip. Reality suggests he is among the smartest people in the clubhouse after excelling in high school academics enough to meet rigorous entrance standards at Rice. Only 16 percent of traditional applicants get in. Another clue comes when he finally lets his guard down, laughing in the back of the Nationals’ clubhouse while signing a piece of memorabilia for someone else. Rendon fake groaned, as he does when asked to chat about baseball, then stopped and opened up in the season’s final week.

***

Rendon looks strange in the batter’s box. He appears to have stopped when about to sit down. His stance is open, his hands rotate in a small, old world-churning type circle. It works. It has always worked since being a high school star, hitting a home run more often than striking out his sophomore season at Rice, or during consecutive seasons with at least a .900 OPS.

No one tried to change Rendon’s open, somewhat curious stance during his ascension. Maybe they all thought the same as Long. No reason to alter what works.

“I’ve always been open,” Rendon told The Sports Capitol. “My whole life. Sometimes I’ll get more closed, I’ll get even. It’s more just comfortability for me. That’s where I feel comfortable, then I was always told it doesn’t matter where you stand as long as you get in a position to get ready to hit the ball. Remember Tony Batista? He was wide open, but he came down to here [pulls a leg in] every single time. I think it’s just all feel.”

The stance is Rendon’s start for his right eye. It’s his dominant one, and he needs to put it in position to see the ball as soon and clearly as possible. Which is why he adds a twist when preparing in the box. Once semi-reclined and before his hands circulate, Rendon will rotate his upper body to his left. This is part muscle memory process, part stretch. He will close when the pitch comes, but also wants that upper body pivot to be back toward the middle. It aligns his belt buckle and eyesight, which is part of the reason his spray chart is so balanced.

“If I don’t turn all the way, I don’t see the majority of it or I don’t see it as well, so I’m open,” Rendon said. “Kind of like make sure my head’s facing the pitcher, not like watching out of the corner of my eye.”

Longtime Rice coach Wayne Graham was among those who did not try to change Rendon. Though, he did deliver corrections or information in a gruff manner other players could find off-putting. Despite the laid-back nature of his personality, Rendon preferred it. Screw up? Here’s what needs to be fixed.

“It was amazing,” Rendon said. “I have nothing but great things to say about him. For me, personally, that’s what I wanted in a coach. I wanted someone gritty, someone straight to the point, someone to tell me what I’m doing wrong straight to my face. Not beat around the bush and be like, ‘Hey, it’s OK, you’ll get them next time.’ Next time do this. …Not every player’s like that. I want someone just to tell me straight up. ‘Hey, this is what you’re doing wrong, blah, blah, blah,’ so we can fix it. I love his coaching.”

Therein is another hint at the contradiction between Rendon’s surface and day-to-day reality. Nothing in his outward temperament or behind-the-scenes giggling suggests his preferred coaching style belong to an 82-year-old born in Yoakum, Texas.

***

Rendon sat with Ian Desmond and Tal Alter, executive director of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, late in the 2015 season in a back room just off the clubhouse. Desmond figured he was unlikely to be back. That meant someone needed to take over his role as the team’s lead player liaison with the academy.

Desmond had the idea in his pocket well before his contract expired. He invited Rendon to help him on Fridays during homestands when a select group of kids from the academy visited Nationals Park. They were “Ian’s All-Stars” at the time. Rendon had a simple mission: Hang out with the kids, be a good influence and see what happens. Steadily, he became more engrossed. Once Desmond left in free agency, the group was turned over to Rendon, producing Anthony’s All-Stars.

“So I knew I wanted to give back somehow,” Rendon told The Sports Capitol. “So, I guess that’s my way and definitely try to help kids along the way try to accomplish their dreams or give them someone to look up to. There’s a lot of things I could say, but it’s kind of like to be a big brother, not a big brother for them, I don’t want to take anything away from their brother, just kind of be like another figure for them to look up to.”

Late July of this year brought him another mentorship opportunity when his first child, Emma, was born. Rendon quickly learned the life lessons of attempting to work and sleep with a newborn around. He saw how fast things move, how entertaining it could be, how nothing else matters.

“It’s definitely been the last step of relinquishing all your selfishness,” Rendon said. “That’s what I think … They told me once you get married, you’re going to be a little less selfish because you have your partner. Then once you have a kid, you relinquish all selfishness. I think that’s true.

“It’s definitely been tough at times because of the sleep patterns and the attention you have to give newborns constantly. But it’s been fun at the same time. I didn’t really understand it when people would say you watch them grow every day and they’re different. I was like, ah, that’s BS. You see them every day, so it’s hard to tell. Kind of like I can’t see myself losing weight because you see yourself every day. Now I can finally see it. Oh, dang. She’s locking eyes on something more or some little thing or she’s grabbing me more often. So, it’s been fun. It’s kind of crazy to think she’s depending on you to keep her alive to that extent. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s fun. I love it.”

***

Rendon is hungry. He stopped on his way to the clubhouse dining area when capitulating to an interview request. It was a rare time when he spoke candidly and on a topic other than his beloved Houston Rockets. He saunters toward the food, makes time to brush Michael A. Taylor on the way by, then feigns panic when a Nationals staffer comes looking for him.

He’s 28 now. An enormous pay day awaits. Only modest room for baseball improvement exists. It’s easy to envision Rendon with a batting crown in the next year or two. He could drive in 100 runs. He could win a Gold Glove at third. He’ll hit in the middle of a talent-laden Nationals lineup as the “glue” that holds it all together, according to manager Davey Martinez.

Searching for the spotlight remains a non-starter. Perhaps his tolerance for the tedium of dealing with the press is growing. Rendon was outspoken once the entire season during a postgame group session with reporters. That was after he was ejected from a game. There, again, was another flicker of who is actually behind the No. 6. It just doesn’t come out much, which is the way he wants it.

Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.

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