Sam Palace sifted through the displays at Guitar Center, helping Anthony Rendon choose his first acoustic. On a day off in July, Rendon wanted to learn a song — “Troubadour” by George Strait — even though he had never played. He had asked Palace, the Washington Nationals’ bullpen catcher and a guitarist since high school, for assistance.
They picked one out and drove home. In the evening, Palace showed Rendon a few chords, and then he sat and watched, stunned, as Rendon solved the instrument. Since opening day, Palace had seen Rendon’s natural skill on a baseball diamond — quick wrists, strong hands, an uncanny sense for the game, a beyond-his-years tranquility — make him the Nationals’ most valuable player at 24, in his first full season.
Now, he saw Rendon’s raw talent in another form. It’s just like hitting for him, Palace thought. Within a half hour, Rendon could strum “Troubadour.” Two days later, Rendon told Palace he had taught himself a Matchbox Twenty song. He was the quickest learner Palace had ever seen.
“I was like, ‘God, how is he doing this?’ ” Palace said. “It took me three years to play my first song. I played a long time, practiced a lot. This guy can pick it up like that. It’s like, save something for the rest of us.”
Is it all really that easy? Anthony Michael Rendon, the serene son of a pool player and document control manager from Mission Bend, Tex., was raised by his parents not to boast. He was shaped by his faith to credit others, starting with God. He promises baseball does not come so easy to him — “definitely not,” he said. It just looks that way.
As the Nationals prepare for the playoffs, the second trip in team history, no player has been more responsible for pushing them there than Rendon. Name an action on a baseball field. Rendon excels at it.
His college coach at Rice once compared Rendon’s wrists to Hank Aaron’s. He leads the National League in runs scored. Advanced statistics rate him the third-best base runner in the National League. He fields bunts, by one measure, better than any third baseman in the majors, even though he started the year at second base. Rendon carries himself with rare poise, the attribute teammates admire most. During one at-bat this season, Rendon yawned.
“He’s a very, very impressive player,” Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels said. “I put him up with the [Troy] Tulowitzkis and the David Wrights when they first came up, those impact players you don’t normally see at such a young age. You know they’re only going to get better, and you’re like, ‘Great.’ He’s that type of guy — one of those superstars that’s going to be around forever.”
Rendon does not appear on billboards, film commercials or have a Twitter account. He politely resisted an interview request for this story for more than a week. On talent alone, Rendon has become a franchise cornerstone. Within clubhouses and front offices around the league — including his own — Rendon is viewed not as a complement to fellow first-round picks Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman, but a pillar next to them.
“You think about it,” said Nationals veteran Kevin Frandsen, a keen observer of clubhouse dynamics. “Zim is going to be here for so long. Hopefully ’Tone will be here for a long, long time. And Bryce. The whole thing is in great hands here with those guys.”
In April, Zimmerman broke his thumb and landed on the disabled list, which forced Rendon to take over at third base. The switch represented a clean passing of a baton from the franchise’s face to Rendon, a handoff made with Zimmerman’s blessing. For years, Zimmerman said he would leave the position when the Nationals found someone better. This month, Zimmerman said, “You got a guy, moving forward, that’s going to play third.”
Zimmerman sensed Rendon’s ability the first time he saw him take batting practice in spring training. The way the ball back-spun and carried. The way he laced pitches to left, center and right. “Watch how the ball comes off his bat,” Zimmerman said. “It’s different.”
It had been different from the start. At 9, Rendon began working with a local coach in Houston named Willie Ansley who once played in the minor leagues for the Astros. Even in a player of that age, Ansley noticed Rendon’s explosive wrists.
“You can kind of tell the kids that see things just a little bit different,” Ansley said. “I tell people now, ‘That’s just something certain kids have.’ It’s not something you teach. You just kind of have it.”
Ansley repeated two mantras: Take good swings, get good pitches to hit, and power would come. He told Rendon to focus on making his swing as short and quick as possible. Ansley aligned a pole even with Rendon’s back foot and told him to swing, which forced Rendon to tuck his hands close to his chest. “He was always kind of good at not hitting the pole,” Ansley said.
During a recent trip home, the mother of one of Rendon’s childhood friends showed him a video of him at 11, hitting his first grand slam. His swing was “pretty much the same” then, he said, as it is now.
“He had a good approach to hitting probably before he knew he had a good approach to hitting,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Rendon describes the swing in simple terms. “I just close my eyes and swing as hard as I can,” Rendon said earlier this month, sitting in the Turner Field visiting dugout. His swing is more complex than he makes it sound, fierce and artful, a dangerous lash composed of gentle movement.
Rendon stands with his front foot open to the pitcher, hands even with his neck, the bat held softly in twitchy hands. He stills pulls his hands close to his chest to swing, bringing his bat quickly into the strike zone. He finishes with a sudden jolt of his wrists — “that flick,” Rizzo says — that moves his bat through the zone and causes the ball to backspin.
“He’s got easy, tension-free barrel release,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu said. “There’s never a panic. He never muscles up.”
At Nationals Park, Rendon’s home runs sound different. For his teammates, the crowd’s roar typically follows the crack of the bat, an instant recognition of power. The ball trampolines off Rendon’s bat with less obvious force, and the roar comes later, as the ball sails over the field and keeps sailing, the crowd realizing it actually might clear the wall.
“There’s something called ‘backing the ball up’ — catching it just right and really getting through it,” Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You get that extra carry. The swing may look like, ‘Man, he barely even swung at that, and the thing went a mile.’ You see some stronger guys, and they look like they’re swinging way harder. But when you get behind the ball to really back it up, that’s when you catch those balls that go a long way. He’s got a knack for doing that a lot. His bat stays in the zone, let’s call it, an extra foot. He’s able to be a little bit fooled and still get good wood on it.”
Rendon’s quick bat has led opponents on an impossible search. They have tried to pitch him in every way since he debuted early in 2013, and every approach has failed. He can rifle inside fastballs down the left field line. He can be fooled by off-speed pitches and still hook them over the fence. He can shoot outside pitches into the right-center field gap.
“We’re still trying to figure out his weaknesses,” Chicago Cubs advance scouting coach Mike Borzello said. “There’s not many holes to exploit. If you make a mistake middle-in with a fastball, he’s going to make you pay for it. That’s no secret.
“With two strikes, he’s good at going the other way and staying within himself. There’s a two-strike approach that he has that’s pretty impressive. We’ll get him with two strikes, and he’ll get a base hit down the right field line. He seems to be pretty intelligent when you talk about his at-bats. He has a plan. Usually young players don’t have a plan.”
“I see how pitchers are trying to pitch him, and he adjusts to how people are trying to pitch him,” Nationals reliever Craig Stammen said. “There’s not one way to get him out. There’s a lot of hitters in the league, if you make your pitch a certain way, you’ll get him out. He’s proven he can hit almost anything anybody throws at him. . . . There’s only one or two on every team, if that. Some teams don’t have any.”
Hamels said Rendon can react to any pitch he executes — Rendon can turn his supposed weaknesses into strengths. “He can get a sac fly when you need the strikeout,” Hamels said. “He’ll do the complete opposite of what you want.” Hamels faced Rendon in July at Nationals Park, and he thought he had divined a plan that would work.
“I threw a fastball in, and I thought I had him set up for the fastball, and I beat him,” Hamels said. “He hit it to the warning track. That should have been a broken bat. He got in, and he still hit it with authority. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And then you’re like, ‘I’m not doing this again.’ But you kind of have to go back and forth.”
The thought of breaking Rendon’s bat has failed many others. Rendon’s swing has made him immune from shattered lumber. How many has he broken this year? “Maybe one,” Schu said. Just because he likes it, Rendon uses a cracked bat in batting practice. Seeing Rendon hit a ball over the fence, Schu will joke, “Another broken-bat home run, huh?”
Can it be that easy? How did it happen? Where, Rendon was asked, do those quick-strong wrists come from? Rendon craned his neck, leaning over beyond the overhang over the dugout, and looked into the sky.
“The man upstairs,” he said. “He somehow gave me these things. I didn’t do wrist curls when I was younger. I have no idea.”
Rene Rendon’s parents moved to America from Tzintzuntzan, Mexico, when he was 2. He grew up in Houston and met a German-Irish girl named Bridget, whose parents had moved from Michigan to find jobs amid a Texas oil boom. Her parents moved back; she stayed with Rene. They married and had two sons, David and Anthony, 41 / 2 years apart. The family settled in Mission Bend, a neighborhood in southwest Houston.
“I didn’t grow up in the worst neighborhood,” Rendon said. “It wasn’t the best either.”
Rene Rendon played football and basketball, never baseball. He learned to make a living with his own quick wrists, holding a cue instead of a bat: He played pool for money.
“If you’ve seen the movie ‘The Color of Money,’ that’s a good story line,” Anthony Rendon said. “That’s what he did.”
Rene Rendon sometimes beat “professional guys you see on TV,” Rendon said, and he could have roamed the country playing in high-profile tournaments. Rene chose instead to haunt Houston pool halls, eschewing limelight and potential fortune for the chance to raise David and Anthony. Bridget worked days as a go-between for oil engineers drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and engineers drawing up plans for rigs. Rene drove David and Anthony to school and their baseball games.
When Anthony needed to raise money for a Little League tournament at Disney, he sold candy bars at the pool hall while his father played. On summer weekend nights, Rene would let Anthony hang out with him until 2 in the morning. Rene’s friends would slip him $20 bills for single candy bars.
“You grow up now, you go, ‘Dang, if he actually wasn’t there to do these things for us, how would my mentality be now?’ ” Rendon said. “Would it be different if he hadn’t made an impact on that ride to school or this ride to school? Just to have those memories and think back to how things could have panned out, if he would have been selfish and went his route, it’s kind of awesome that he made that sacrifice.”
Rendon gravitated toward baseball because he idolized David, and David played baseball. He watched him compete against James Loney and gets hits off Scott Kazmir, two Houston kids who made the majors. David let Rendon tag along, but he never took it easy on him.
“I would either have to learn how to play with him, how to keep up with him, him throwing fastballs in my face or curveballs,” Rendon said, “or I’m not going to play with him at all.”
So Rendon always played with kids a year or two older, even in competitive tournaments. He was always small — he stood 5 feet 5 before a growth spurt took him to just under 6 feet after his sophomore year of high school — and he relished hitting the ball over the heads of unsuspecting outfielders who crept in.
“He’s been like that this whole time,” Ansley said. “He accepts challenges. When you give him a challenge, he steps up.”
Rendon traveled across Texas and the rest of the country, playing with select teams year-round. He still has never taken a spring break.
Rene taught himself baseball so he could teach his son. He did not always throw strikes when Rendon took batting practice. When they played catch, Rendon remembers thinking, “I think I’m a little more natural than my dad right now.”
Rene would draw a diamond on a chalkboard about the size of a piece of paper, then diagram a situation for Rendon to diagnose: Okay, one out, runners on first and second, the ball is hit to you: What do you do?
Rendon played and thought baseball constantly, and it gave him a deep understanding. He knows when to steal a base, when the lead runner is slow enough to try to nab him at second on a dribbler, when he should move a runner with a grounder to second base.
“Some guys have to go through a Rolodex of things they have to check,” Nationals first base coach Tony Tarasco said. “They have to check this, check that. He just kind of scans the field. It’s almost like your iPhone, where you just scroll down and it goes through it.”
“He’s got as good of instincts for the game as anybody I’ve been around,” said Rizzo, who has been around professional baseball players for the past quarter-century.
Rendon has not given much thought to the way he views the game, the way he seems to see everything at once. On the field, he is constantly aware — checking the position of outfielders, the way a catcher sets up. Having played so much, for so long, the answers for what to do in a given situation race through his mind.
“You’re running around, trying to see each potential play that might arise,” Rendon said. “You go to your left, you go to your right, if it’s a chopper, if you bobble it — it’s little things that have to run through your head, but everything is a possibility.”
Even as his mind flutters, his surface stays unruffled. This, teammates say, is what separates him most. He reacts the same to slumps and streaks. “He could be facing [Craig] Kimbrel in the ninth or in his back yard playing Wiffle ball,” Schu said. “He’s always the same guy. He trusts his ability. He doesn’t panic.”
In June, a torrent of line drives at fielders led to a .181 batting average over 24 games. “I felt like I was throwing helmets for him,” Frandsen said. “He went in there like, ‘Oh, well.’ We’ve all been there. You get frustrated. But he was never high, never low. It was directly after a lot of [multi-hit] games. It might have been the greatest .190 anyone’s ever seen. You go back and look at-bat to at-bat, you’ve never seen more lineouts in your life.”
Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez often catches himself thinking of Rendon as a veteran. “It’s like he’s been here before,” Gonzalez said. Rendon is more fiery than he lets on — Ansley said he texted him with goals before the season of hitting .300, knocking 20 homers and both scoring and driving in 100 runs. But he does not let any of it show. If Rene let emotion affect him on the felt, it could have cost him a day’s pay. Rendon converts the lesson to the field.
“I think it’s just me trying to stay relaxed,” Rendon said. “That’s what a lot of people say, especially in college, it looked like I’m lackadaisical out there, like I’m not really paying attention. If I’m always tense, I’m going to be overthinking the game. I try to just go with the flow.”
“Usually, that takes a player a long time in this league to get like that,” Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth said. “He was doing it since he got here.”
In the offseason, Rendon returns to Houston to spend time with family and the closest friends he has, all of whom he met before he went to college. He has established a rule when he is home: no talking about baseball. When the Nationals drafted him sixth overall in 2011, they signed him to a $7.2 million contract. He does not want anyone to think of him in different terms.
“My parents are people who like to stay to themselves,” Rendon said. “They’re quiet. They raised me not to be boastful about anything we do. My faith as well — it says don’t boast about anything that’s coming your way. The Lord has given you everything. It’s just being modest, being humble about everything and keeping my head on straight.”
If Rendon ever takes that vacation, he would like to visit Tzintzuntzan, the place his father was born. His family has talked for years of traveling there. “This Christmas, we’re going to go,” someone will say, and they never get around to it.
Schu says Rendon could win a batting title and hit 30 home runs one season. He could become a player to build a franchise around. It is tempting to watch Rendon’s skill and grace and imagine the places he is going. To Rendon, it is more important — it is most important — to remember where he is from.
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