The Washington Nationals are trying to send a message, and they barely try to disguise the code. In fact, they often wear it on their chests.
Michael A. Taylor wore a T-shirt under his Washington Nationals uniform Sunday that said, “Anthony Is My Favorite Player,” with a big picture of third baseman Anthony Rendon’s face in the middle. Why? “He’s everybody’s favorite player, isn’t he?” Taylor said, straight-faced but with a sly smile.
Wake up and watch Anthony Rendon. That’s what the T-shirt really means. There’s no better player on the Nats, not Max Scherzer or Bryce Harper, and there may be no better player in the National League this year, not Paul Goldschmidt or Kris Bryant, not Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto or Buster Posey.
“He’s a great ballplayer, humble guy, plays hard every day and doesn’t complain,” Taylor said. “He’s got a sense of humor. Really sly about it, sneaky. You’ve got to keep an eye out for his little practical jokes. Every day he puts in his work in the gym, the cage. He just goes about his business — a silent assassin.”
Some advanced stats, the kind that now drive trades, mega-signings and MVP voting, say that Rendon has been the best performer in the entire NL, either player or pitcher, with a wins above replacement of 5.8 at FanGraphs, ahead of Goldschmidt (5.4) and Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton (5.4), who has 50 homers and may wind up with 62 or more.
The extra factor with Rendon is that his game has only strengths and not a single weakness, while almost all his competitors have gaps in their games. Rendon ranks among the 10 best fielders at any position in the league as well as a plus base runner. He walks as often as he strikes out, a gift for contact and situational hitting that’s rare in a .301 hitter on pace for 28 homers and 100 RBI.
The issue is not who is exactly best or in what order but that Rendon is seldom mentioned in discussions of the greatest in the game.
But he is.
Even though Rendon would hide in another room before he would admit that his five-tool talents have brought him to the top tier of his sport, that doesn’t mean his friends can’t make his case for him. That same “Anthony is my favorite player” T-shirt might be worn by any Nat or several in the same game. At times in the clubhouse, it’s like there are several Rendons walking around, all with goatee, mustache and a devilish sidelong look.
Ironically, the only Rendon who usually isn’t there — at least when the media is around — is the real Rendon. He won’t promote himself, hides from the light, deflects attention and often runs the risk of appearing rude with one- or two-word answers to basic questions — especially if they are about him.
As part of that bargain with non-fame, Rendon allows himself to enjoy the game, wear it lightly and find joy in it. In a sport that talks constantly about grinding, he seems to float unbothered, stress-free, smiling. Where other players — and not just Harper — would love to brand themselves in our minds for the sake of their wallets, Rendon seems to think of being branded as something you might do to cattle in his native Texas.
Trea Turner instigated the “Anthony is my favorite player” expression in a postgame interview at a time when Turner was aware that he was getting more attention than he had earned in less than a full year in the majors; Rendon not only didn’t resent it but was amused that Turner was bearing some of what Rendon would see as the hassle that goes with sports adoration.
Come on over here, Anthony, a.k.a. “Ant,” and let’s talk about that. Are you great? Are you the greatest? What about your greatness is the absolute greatest?
Sorry, we won’t get those answers because Anthony has just let down his long black hair, put on regular-guy street clothes and gone incognito. If he walked up to a Nats season ticket holder on Pennsylvania Avenue, the odds might be 100 to 1 that he would not be recognized. Jayson Werth grows hair everywhere you can see it. Rendon grows it everywhere you can’t see it — that is, after he bundles it up under his hat. When he lets it down, shoulder length and almost shoulders wide, plus his facial hair, he looks like . . . a hipster, a poet or a doom-rock drummer?
“I’m the same person as you are. I just happen to know how to hit a baseball and throw a baseball. But I probably couldn’t go into somebody else’s job and be as good as they are. But no one’s praising them about it,” Rendon told The Washington Post’s Jorge Castillo this spring. “I’m the same person as you. Don’t treat me different.”
Perhaps this view, that he is no different from those watching him, just a person with a different skill, frees Rendon from some of the pressure that many other pro athletes feel. Asked who else plays the game with a smile, seems unburdened, yet maximizes his skills, Manager Dusty Baker says, “Ken Griffey Jr.,” whom he managed in Cincinnati.
What price does Rendon pay for the understatement that rests at the center of his style, for his minimalist brand of minimum-movement efficiency? For one, the Nats had five all-stars this year — four in the starting lineup. Yet Rendon could not get enough national support in the “fan vote” to make the team, too.
This season, the Nationals may overcome an incredible number of injuries, frequently playing with 10 to 12 men on the disabled list, yet win close to 100 games. Who has played the most games (121) this year and, after Harper, had the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage? Rendon, naturally.
In Sunday’s day-night split doubleheader, how many Nats regulars from the beginning of the season started in both of these thankless late August games with a huge division lead? Only Rendon. In the nationally televised second game, Rendon showed his concern for his home town by putting “Houston” on the back of one shoe and a picture of the city’s skyline on the back of the other. Then he went out and got two hits and an RBI. Just another example why so many Nats say — and wear with pride on their chests — the words, “Anthony is my favorite player.”
Take a good look at No. 6 as he stands motionless in the batter’s box, bat on shoulder until the last moment, before assuming a stance so relaxed that it almost seems like a mere precursor to a real stance. Glance at the third baseman who is ready on every pitch but in a crouch so slight that it barely seems to strain his legs. Take a good look.
Because when you pass him on the streets of Washington, as you already may have done, you can stare all you want. You will have no idea who he is.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.