Rendon's ties to Nats Youth Academy run deep

Why DC's marquee player chose 'backyard baseball' over ASG, and what the future holds

July 15th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- It’s 's turn to pitch, so he strolls out to the middle of the field. He’s wearing blue shorts, a grey V-neck T-shirt and a backwards cap, and he keeps his sunglasses on the entire time. He can hardly hide the wide, toothy smile on his face as he grabs three yellow rubber baseballs.

A little boy from an adjacent field runs up to the chain link fence, still wearing a batting helmet, and presses his face into the fence.

“Hi, Mr. Rendon,” he screams, and before Rendon even has time to even realize where the voice is coming from, the little boy rushes back to his field, returning to his place in the on-deck circle again.

Later that night, the American League will beat the National League, 4-3, in the All-Star Game in Cleveland. Rendon was invited to the game for the first time in his seven-year big league career. And yet, here he is, 400 miles away in southeast D.C., spending the day at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.

“Why y’all on the bench?” he calls to the dugout.

About 20-25 of the Academy’s scholar athletes are on the field with Rendon, and it’s far from an organized game or even a scrimmage. But it’s clear the kids are having a blast, and so is Rendon.

One little boy jumps in front of Rendon on the mound to uncork a pitch on the ground. Rendon waits to throw another pitch because a boy is lying down in the on-deck circle. At one point, Rendon looks behind him and realizes his defense has abandoned him. When one kid gets too far off third base, Rendon tries to pick him off, and the kid sprints toward the plate.

“Where’s my catcher? Where’s my catcher?” Rendon yells as the kid slides in safely ahead of the throw home.

“You've got speed,” Rendon says after the play, offering a fist bump to the kid as he regains his breath. “You've got speed. I like that.”

On Twitter later that night, the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy posted pictures of Rendon’s visit, with the caption reading, “No place he’d rather be.”

It’s not that Rendon didn’t appreciate being named an All-Star. He joked about not wanting to go, and almost openly campaigned against himself when he was named to the now-defunct Final Vote in 2017. But as the game drew closer, he began to reconsider. Doubt began to creep into his mind: “What happens if you don’t make another one?” Teammate Ryan Zimmerman encouraged him to experience it at least once. Rendon realizes now that if he was fully healthy, he would have wanted to go, but also acknowledges that it’s not necessarily the scene for someone trying to fly under the radar or relax for a few days.

Related

Since coming back from the injured list with a bruised elbow on May 7, Rendon started 58 straight games for the Nationals, including the first three out of the break. For more than a month, he has been playing through a left hamstring/quad injury. Yet his production has hardly cratered during this stretch. Rendon deserves as much credit as anyone for helping the Nationals climb out of their early-season hole.

And he’s heard about how busy the schedule for players can be at the All-Star Game -- the events and appearances, the media day, the Home Run Derby, the parade, all the extra stuff he usually goes out of his way to avoid.

“I think that’s where it gets messed up,” Rendon said, leaning on the back legs of a chair inside a conference room at the Academy. “I love the game of baseball. Like I love playing, I’m just not good at -- I don’t enjoy the media part of it. I don’t enjoy all the different aspects that come with it, like the business side of it. If we can, like, be in the backyard playing baseball, I’d be the happiest kid in the world.”

Only a handful of people in the world can do the things Rendon does on a baseball field. And yet he still feels uncomfortable when people treat him differently because of it. He’s skeptical even of the Academy kids who claim he’s their favorite player: “It’s like brainwashing. I’m sure all they hear is ‘Rendon, Rendon, Rendon.'"

And he knows he’s fighting a losing battle.

When Rendon was seven, he tagged along to an Astros game with his older brother David’s Little League team at the Astrodome in Houston. Rendon remembers waiting around with everyone for autographs. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio both passed by without signing that day, but Bill Spiers stopped for the crowd. Rendon admits he didn’t really know who Spiers was then, but it stuck out to him how excited everyone around him suddenly became. Whoever this guy was, he must be important.

“Give him something to sign,” someone told Rendon.

“I don’t have anything,” Rendon responded, and then he grabbed the only thing he could think of: the hat he was wearing from his Little League team, the Marlins. Spiers grabbed the hat without seeing who gave it to him and then he paused, dumbfounded.

“A Marlins hat? Who gave me a Marlins hat?” Spiers said.

“I was like, 'I’m sorry,'" Rendon said. “It’s all I have.”

Rendon still has that signed Marlins hat. He laughed as he considered how he would react in present day if someone came to Nationals Park and gave him a Marlins hat to sign. And yet all these years later, that memory still sticks with him.

“Thinking back to times like that is when I know I can have an impact on kids,” he said. “And realizing and having this understanding that I’m a professional baseball player, people are going to look up to me, whether I like it or not. I’m going to get recognition, I’m going to bring attention, so I might as well do it in a positive way instead of really just climbing under a rock, like I want to [do].”

In the summer of 2015, then-Nats shortstop Ian Desmond introduced Rendon to Tal Alter, the chief executive officer of the Nationals Youth Academy. Desmond had been the Nationals’ player rep at the Academy, but he was in the final year of his contract in Washington and the writing was on the wall that he wouldn’t be returning to D.C. So Desmond recruited Rendon.

It caught Rendon off-guard. He’d been to the Academy a couple of times before, and he was a fan of its goals: to use baseball and softball programs as a way to drive academic achievements, develop character and improve health of the children in surrounding and often underserved communities in D.C. But he never considered getting involved at this level.

“I really just think that we’ve got to have a positive influence on kids in general,” Rendon said. “And really understanding people are going to look up to me, so why aren’t I doing something to be positive about it?”

So he makes visits to the Academy several times throughout the year. He and his wife, Amanda, have made financial contributions with little to no publicity. He recruits other players to come with him when he can. He got nearly the entire team to show up during player day.

“There are children who have connected with him in a way such that that’s their reason for coming here,” said Jennifer Cartland, the executive director of the Academy. “He has taken the time to also be their friend, be their mentor, be their coach, be their guide -- and for many of them, that is going to be something that sticks with them not only throughout their time here at the Academy, but for the rest of their lives.

“[For] Anthony and Amanda, it’s one thing to write a check, it’s a completely different thing to come and spend half your day in the heat, on-field, with 100 children. They kind of walk the walk and talk the talk.”

And there is the uncomfortable truth for Rendon and for everyone at the Academy. This is the final season of his contract with the Nationals, and with each passing day, he is drawing closer to free agency. His agent, Scott Boras, made waves with his visit to D.C. before the All-Star break, when he met with Ted Lerner, the Nationals founding principal owner. Boras downplayed the visit, pointing out that he has a number of different clients with the Nationals, but Rendon’s contract was among those topics discussed.

Both the Nats and Rendon are on the record that they are open to an extension, and Rendon still seems optimistic they will eventually get a deal done. The Nationals made an offer to Rendon during Spring Training, but the two sides were far apart at that point. That offer came shortly after Nolan Arenado signed an eight-year, $260 million extension with Colorado, and Rendon’s camp believed they had a case that Rendon should get something comparable.

Going through the year with the potential of free agency looming hasn’t felt too different for Rendon, but it has made him think about the future a lot more often. One thing he hadn’t considered until recently, however, was that he would need a replacement at the Academy. A few weeks ago, one of his teammates quipped “don’t even think about putting it all on me.”

“It’s human nature to not help,” Rendon said. “And you want to plan your future. You want to have the best life for your family. You want this, this and this. You want your kid to go to the best schools or whatever, so your mind races and your mind can’t help but think best-case scenario or worst-case scenario.

“Have you heard the Tom Brady interview from 60 Minutes?"

Rendon is referencing Brady’s appearance on the show in 2005, when at 27, Brady had just won his third Super Bowl championship. Steve Kroft asked Brady, "What’s next? What else is in store?"

"I think -- God, it's got to be more than this," Brady said. "I mean, this can't be what it's all cracked up to be."

That stuck with Rendon. It reminds him of how fleeting it can all be, how happiness is this target constantly in motion.

There was a point when baseball used to define Rendon. But once you’re in the big leagues ...

“All right, I made it. This is it,” Rendon said. “What’s next? Can I get called up to the moon league? Is there another league I can do? It’s like I kept trying to fill something inside of myself to make me happy.”

"Content" is the word he uses to describe himself now. He and Amanda are happy now in Washington, and he would be happy to work out an extension, but he also told the Washington Post last month that he wouldn’t have hard feelings if things don’t work out. Wanting to stay in D.C. doesn’t mean he’ll take a contract for less than he’s worth, but it’s also not entirely about the money. He mentions several times he could walk away from it all right now, in the prime of his career, and be perfectly at peace.

“Because of her,” Rendon says motioning to his daughter, Emma Kate, who is crawling around the conference room. “You stink. Did you poop?”

Emma can barely keep her eyes open in her stroller as the Rendons walk toward their car after spending a few hours at the Academy, and they are prepared to fight traffic on their way back home.

It doesn’t take long for the walk back to the car to get interrupted.

“You wanna race?” a little boy wearing a Sammy Sosa jersey said to Rendon.

“I don’t wanna embarrass you in front of all of your friends” Rendon replied with a laugh.

“Anthony,” another young boy rushed up to tell him. “I threw a ball all the way up on the roof once.”

“Mr. Rendon, can we take a picture?” another little girl asked.

It’s the first of a few selfies he’ll stop and take before he gets back to the car.

Losing Rendon on the baseball field could have huge implications for the Nationals, who don’t have a natural replacement in the organization for Rendon. It would be the second year in a row they have let a marquee position player go to free agency, with Bryce Harper now playing for the division-rival Phillies.

But Rendon’s connection to the Nats Youth Academy is another factor to consider with how much could change if he is wearing a different uniform next season.

“We’re very hopeful that everyone recognizes that not only is this someone who is a tremendously talented athlete, but this is a person of high character, and a person that we would want to have representing Washington, D.C., and the Nationals,” Cartland said. “So I’m hopeful. I know that I say that on behalf of my team … We’re going to be cautiously optimistic and deeply hopeful that he’s going to be someone to engage with for many years to come.”