Strange as it may seem, because no one looks as free and easy on the field as he does, Anthony Rendon is trapped. His talent is impossible to ignore. His fame is growing. But his desire to remain anonymous will not wane.
So in compiling an MVP-caliber season — a .300, 25-homer, 100-RBI milestone gem — Rendon inadvertently signed himself into what is, for him, a painful social contract. Numbers like his attract national attention. National attention comes with questions. Questions are best handled with answers, and often introspective ones. By producing like he has, Rendon has accidentally transformed himself into a public personality, and he is wrestling with what that means.
“I’m not a fan of [attention]. But I’m coming to the realization that if I’m gonna have success at my job, it’s probably going to happen,” Rendon said. “You have to put personal stuff aside and use it for a greater good.”
On the last day of the regular season, Rendon stood on the field, on camera, receiving his award for the Nationals player of the year, as voted on by D.C. media. His smile looked forced, his face taut in a pose he’d rather not have been making.
But a few minutes later, when the cameras had gone, he stood next to one of the kids from the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. He looked entirely at ease, laughing as if with old friends. Rendon might be feeling more compelled to use his platform for good, but that does not mean he is comfortable with that platform at all — or that he ever will be.
“Sometimes I even say to him, if you don’t want to talk about yourself, talk about the Academy,” said Tal Alter, the organization’s director. “But that part, the attention part, just isn’t who he is.”
For some players, the transition to public figure is easy, if not welcome. They answer a few questions, toss in a few jokes, smile here and there and get it all over with. The formula for being well-liked, but still largely unknown to those who wish to know you, is not complicated.
But for Rendon, that formula requires more of a facade than he can muster, more discussion of his own achievements than he would prefer.
Just last week he tried to flee the clubhouse as cameras huddled around him after a particularly good game. Trea Turner — with whom Rendon spends much of his time in the clubhouse before games, chatting and joking — hollered that Rendon wouldn’t actually just leave like that, teasing his “favorite player.” Rendon ended up coming back, but made his answers so short that the whole thing was over in less than a minute anyway.
“He’s almost playing the bad guy in a joking way,” said Michael A. Taylor, one of his closer clubhouse confidants. “But all the attention is well-deserved so I think it’s something he’s going to have to get used to at some point. It’s only going to get worse, in his case.”
Over the years, Nationals media relations officials have prodded Rendon to be more open to building a public persona. This season, he’s given a few more interviews, shared a little more here and there. But no one forces a Major League Baseball player to answer questions — and perhaps no one should expect them to. Being friendly and forthcoming has no bearing on one’s batting average.
In years past, Rendon barricaded himself against the media with a fortress of clubhouse chairs and a barrage of angry taunts. He doesn’t do that as often anymore. He has been more willing to talk than he used to be, though that’s a relative term.
“Maybe just trying to give people — not hope, because I’m not struggling obviously — but just let them know that there are bigger things going on. I think a lot of people look at athletes in general and think they have everything figured out. They made it to the big leagues,” Rendon said. “ … We’re battling and going through the same stuff everyone else is going through, but just in a different way. Maybe it can be comforting knowing that we have to battle through some of the same stuff.’
Nothing about Rendon — “the smooth cat that plays third base and hits .300,” as pitcher Joe Ross put it — suggests he is ever battling much at all. His struggles are not at third base or in the batter’s box. He makes more money than most people his age. He is engaged now. But Rendon is struggling in his own way, wrestling himself daily, because the big league lifestyle sometimes troubles him.
“Everything’s given to us. We don’t even wash our own clothes. We don’t cook our own food. That’s probably the toughest thing. I feel I’ve grown to become a lot more selfish lately,” Rendon said. “ … Then I go home and when I’m on the road I’m not staying at a Ritz or anything. If I stay at a nice Marriott, I’m like, ‘Dang, this sucks. I’m turning into a diva.’ It’s definitely challenging just to be here and not get that mind-set.”
He counteracts that mind-set with what he describes as a deep commitment to his faith, an increasingly important part of his life — one that has presented some struggles of its own, even as he has leaned on it.
“I’m a firm believer in Jesus, that he died for our sins. That’s something I want to stand for. I want to share that to the world. That’s what we’re called to do,” said Rendon, who spoke to fans at this year’s Faith Day, but has not spoken publicly often about his beliefs in his Nationals career.
“The word tells us that trials will come ahead and we’ll be ridiculed more for our faith,” Rendon said. “So if you’re going to go in as a believer thinking that everything is going to be smooth, you’re probably not in the right mind-set. It’s going to be tough at times, and has been for me personally.”
Rendon said teammates such as Taylor, Matt Wieters and Daniel Murphy have helped him stay on the path his faith has drawn for him. He thinks a strong community is the best way to remain true to his faith — that and “trying to stay in the word,” which keeps him grounded.
Oddly enough, Taylor said the most impressive thing about Rendon as a hitter is the way he stays grounded in his stance, the way he never seems to be jumping at the ball, or trying too hard — the way he makes it all seem so simple. Taylor said he, himself, struggles to stay steady like that, to keep his feet still and his head in position to identify what’s coming and react appropriately. For hitters, Taylor said, staying grounded is not as easy as Rendon makes it look. Maybe there’s a metaphor there somewhere.
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