It wasn’t that he was difficult or misanthropic — only intensely private and possessed of a deep humility, instilled in him as a child in Houston, that led him to shun any suggestion that he was special because of his singular talent to square up a baseball with a wooden bat. Teachers don’t have to give interviews every day. Oil rig workers don’t have to film promotional videos. Why should he?
“You just envision me as a baseball player, and so you think I’m better than someone else?” Rendon said. “It makes no sense.”
And then, one day in the summer of 2015, he met the Academy kids.
In the end, it was those kids — the 165 or so students at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast Washington — who first drew Rendon in, then drew him out. It was their stories and their innocence that led him to answer a call he hadn’t heard before, and to recognize the power his status as a highly visible public figure afforded him.
And it is his association with those kids — first as the designated player-representative to the Academy’s board of directors since 2016, and most recently as a six-figure donor — that, here at the end of Rendon’s fifth full season in D.C., has helped alter the narrative regarding his relationship with the franchise as he enters a new chapter in his life and what could be a pivotal offseason for him.
In July, Rendon, 28, became a father for the first time, his wife, Amanda, giving birth to a daughter, Emma. And now, with Bryce Harper possibly departing via free agency this winter, Rendon could be poised to become the most important and most prominent position player on the team — the figure around whom the Nationals would construct a lineup, a roster and a culture.
Though Rendon missed three weeks early in the season with a foot injury, a massive September (.382/.472/.708 entering Wednesday) has him on track to put up some of the best numbers of his career in 2018. Since the start of 2014, when Rendon, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft out of Rice University, established himself in the majors, only five position players — Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, Josh Donaldson and Paul Goldschmidt — have been more valuable, according to FanGraphs.
And with Rendon himself approaching free agency at the end of 2019, it stands to reason that the Nationals, should they lose Harper, would quickly initiate talks with Rendon regarding a long-term extension.
Harper and Rendon share an agent, Scott Boras, who has a history of taking his clients to free agency rather than inking long-term extensions beforehand. However, another Boras client, Stephen Strasburg, is an exception, signing a seven-year, $175 million extension in 2016.
“He’s his own man,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said of Rendon. “I think in that way he’s similar to [Strasburg]. He’s very educated in the business end of it.”
Another team official, however, acknowledged it’s difficult to ascertain what Rendon is thinking. “He’s an enigma,” the official said.
But maybe Rendon likes it that way.
‘He likes being a little difficult to read’
It was the Academy kids who, in a roundabout way, led Rendon to a table in a hotel restaurant in Philadelphia one recent morning, during a late-season road trip, for one of the few lengthy interviews he has consented to. The Nationals’ communications department and YBA executive director Tal Alter convinced him that, despite his misgivings, talking about the Academy and his recent donation could spur additional donors.
“I think there’s this part of Anthony that probably doesn’t want to let on how much he cares," Alter said. "It’s not that he doesn’t say it or show it, but I think he likes being a little difficult to read. So his lack of promotion of himself is part of that. The more you invite people in, the more they’re going to form opinions of you.”
Over coffee, Rendon takes a few awkward moments to warm up, acknowledging the obvious: this wasn’t his idea.
“I love baseball. I love being on the field. I love competing,” he said. “But I’m not a fan of everything that comes with it. No offense — I’m not a fan of the interviews. I’m not a fan of people coming in the clubhouse. I’m not a fan of everyone treating you different because you play a sport. How am I different than anyone else? I’m a human being, and I have my faults, too.”
But, eventually, he becomes animated talking about the connection he has formed with the kids of the Academy.
“I really think it’s me still being a kid inside,” he says. “I’m not that far removed from thinking what they’re thinking.” Asked what he gets out of his involvement, Rendon says, “I don’t want anything out of it. ... But I think hanging out with these kids and hearing their stories and knowing I’m trying to make a difference, maybe that’s what I get out of it. I’m getting emotionally attached.
“That’s where I think I’ve matured. Recognizing that [opportunity] and using my platform — obviously, that’s been tough for me to accept. And at times like this [interview], it’s still uncomfortable. But hopefully as I grow older and mature, I get better at it.”
When the question of his own future in Washington comes up, Rendon pauses, as if unsure how much to reveal. “You definitely think about it," he says. "You want to plan for the future. But I’ve come to learn your plans don’t always come to fruition. Obviously, with my faith, too, I don’t want to seem like it’s all about me, me, me. It takes away from what I do for Him, for the Lord. I’m taking it slow, maybe?”
Asked about Boras’s influence, Rendon appears to bristle slightly. “I think that’s the stigma he gets. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re with Boras. He’s your boss.’ We’ve had this conversation before. … It’s like, ‘You work for me.’ I don’t want to be like other players [who] let him just run it.”
A question about his becoming a new father, and the influence that has on his thinking, seems to open a window into his thoughts. “I don’t want to raise a kid in baseball,” he says.
But what, exactly, does that mean?
“My greatest memories growing up were riding my bike around the neighborhood,” he says. “Now I see — and there’s nothing wrong with it — but players bringing their kids in the clubhouse, or you hear other stories. And it’s like, these kids’ friends are 30-year-old men. Well, I loved my childhood. I remember my childhood.
“I don’t want to say, point-blank, I don’t want to raise a family in baseball. Maybe I just want to be normal. I want to go home, be a dad, take them to school. That’s more important to me than baseball.”
Asked if this means he wants to be finished playing when Emma is school age, he says, “Five more years and I’m done? No, I wouldn’t say that. ... I just don’t want to take away from their childhood — or miss it. I don’t want to miss their first steps, or them talking for the first time, or their first dance recital.
“It’s just that I want to be normal. Like, I wouldn’t mind: ‘Let’s go find a 9-to-5 job.’ But now, we’re on this schedule, from February to October I’m [gone]. We have those three months of freedom [in the offseason], which is good. So it has its perks. I don’t know. I think normalcy is on my mind. I’ve never had a spring break. We’re always playing baseball. It’s like, ‘I want to be normal.’ ”
It all goes back, Rendon says finally, to his own father, who gave up his own dreams to stay home and help raise Anthony and his brother, David — a decision that helped turn Anthony into the man and the ballplayer he is today, with a pair of top-six finishes in MVP voting, a Silver Slugger Award and earnings totaling more than $30 million, with much more on the way.
Had his father not been so selfless, Rendon says, “He would have been in the position I’m in. He would’ve never seen his family. That’s why he stayed. He wanted to be home. Maybe that’s where I get it from.”
Runs in the family
Anyone who ever sent a cue ball hurtling across a green felt table in the greater Houston metropolitan area knew who Rene Rendon was.
“I showed up there in Houston when I was 17, [and] you learned things right away,” said Jeremy Jones, the 2003 U.S. Open Nine-Ball champion. “Rene’s name was one that came up immediately, as far as players around town. Great player. Real solid. Great thinker. He wasn’t looking for the limelight. He was a real modest guy.”
There was a national billiards circuit, with televised tournaments and sizable purses, and Rene — he pronounces it “Renny” — undoubtedly could have succeeded at that level, had he chosen that path. Instead he remained a fixture of the Houston scene, winning small-stakes tournaments and earning most of his money in side deals.
“I could have gone professional, but I thought family was more important,” Rene Rendon said, “and I wanted [the boys] to do more than I did in life — go to college and maybe play pro ball.”
Rene’s home base in those days was T’s Lonesome Dove, a small saloon and pool hall out on Ridgedale Drive on the north side of town, but closed down now. The Dove sat up on stilts, and when Tropical Storm Allison devastated southeast Texas in 2001, leaving much of the area under two feet of water and swamping the Rendons' car, Rene, stranded at the Dove, stayed dry and kept making money.
“Finally,” Anthony recalled, “the boat came and rescued him.”
Young Anthony would frequently tag along to the pool hall, often carrying a box of chocolate candy bars he was selling. Inevitably, one of the sharks in the room would hand over a $20 bill but not even take a candy bar.
“That helped pay for our baseball stuff,” Anthony said.
Maybe Anthony didn’t realize it at the time, but there were lessons being gleaned in that pool hall that would mold him down the road as an athlete.
“He had an audience around him all the time. People would gather around to watch — because he was a great player,” Bridget Rendon, Anthony’s mother, said of Rene. "Anthony always wanted to watch him and be like him, but [Rene] would say, ‘This can all be taken away quicker than you got it. So don’t boast about how good you are. It could disappear.’ ”
Rene added: “I used to tell [Anthony], ‘Don’t let the emotions get to you. You can’t let your opponent see any weakness in you.’ ”
Eventually, it became apparent Anthony was destined for greatness in another endeavor. When he was 3, and watching baseball on television with his father, he shocked Rene by going outside, picking up a stick and swatting rocks and pine cones all over the yard. That same day, Rene went to a sporting goods store and bought a bat, glove and balls. By 5, when Anthony was playing T-ball, another parent pulled the Rendons aside and said, “Someday, we’re going to see Anthony playing at the Astrodome.”
Though he had the time and interest, Rene made the conscious, reasoned decision not to coach any of his boys’ youth teams — because he didn’t want their path to learning the game and earning playing time to be any easier than anyone else’s.
Rene said, “I told them, ‘You’re going to earn what you get.’ ”
A big kid
One recent rainy afternoon at Nationals Park, Rendon sat at the dais in the interview room, a microphone in front of his face and an audience seated before him. Normally he would have done anything to avoid such a scenario, but his audience happened to be about 15 kids from the Academy. They were supposed to have viewed batting practice that day from behind the cage, but because of the rain, they had to settle for a Q-and-A session.
“Okay,” Rendon said, “Whaddya got?”
Leaning on his elbow, smiling devilishly, shooting comical looks of horror and shock at the kids, throwing his head back in a belly-laugh, he looked natural and at ease in a way he rarely shows publicly.
If you could have one super power, what would it be?
“Either to fly, or be invisible,” Rendon said.
Did you ever drop an easy catch?
“Oh, yeah. Many times.”
What’s your favorite late-night snack?
When former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, the first player-representative to the Academy’s board, departed Washington via free agency in 2015, he handpicked Rendon as his successor — surprising some in the organization, given Rendon’s private nature. But Rendon, just 25 and entering his third full big league season when 2016 began, quickly accepted and dove immediately into the role, with an energy that surprised even those closest to him.
“Anthony hasn’t been around other kids much — he was always the youngest. He didn’t have younger siblings or cousins,” Bridget Rendon said. “Taking interest in kids who have nothing — that was a bit of a surprise to me. But it’s what Anthony should be doing. He knows he didn’t come from a whole lot. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rolling in dough. ... I think he connects with them.”
Earlier this year, Alter, the Academy’s executive director, began formulating a pitch to Rendon regarding a donation, always a delicate process, especially when the potential donor is someone everyone in the organization knows.
“We want to be mindful,” Alter said. “Just because we know someone’s salary doesn’t mean we can ask for a lot of money.”
But before Alter could broach the subject, Rendon beat him to it, telling Alter it was something he and Amanda had been thinking about. Soon, Alter went back to Rendon with some possible dollar amounts and a detailed accounting of what each amount could do for the Academy, but Rendon was thinking of a bigger number than any of those. Eventually, he wired $150,000 to the Academy — money that will be used to bring more kids into the summer program and fund the educations of two of the Academy’s volunteer coordinators.
“This is a meaningful contribution,” Alter said, “that directly impacts individual people.”
The next step was getting Rendon to talk publicly about it. “I wanted people to know,” Alter said, “because that’s a lot of money, and giving anonymously is great for different people for different reasons, but it’s to our benefit for people to know, because it legitimizes what we do [and] it might inspire others to give.”
No formal interview, however, can provide as much insight into Rendon’s mind as a casual one conducted by the Academy kids.
On the afternoon he hosted them at Nationals Park, taking their questions in the interview room, he had them laughing and giggling and, at times, gasping in horror — as when he answered “jalapeños” to the question of what is his favorite pizza topping.
How would you rate your drawing abilities?
“Oof. Not very high.”
Who’s your favorite teammate?
“Oh, man. I like everyone the same.”
Finally, a kid asked Rendon: If you were any type of creature, what creature would you be?
Rendon thought for a moment, then came back with an answer so revealing that the kids, though they nodded in satisfaction, could have no idea how perfect it was.
“I’d be Bigfoot,” he said, a dreamy look spreading across his face. “Nobody would ever find me.”