HOUSTON -- Rice University baseball coach Wayne Graham was seated on a folding chair next to an indoor hitting cage when 18-year-old freshman Anthony Rendon grabbed a bat and stepped to home plate for the first time.
This was in fall 2008, and right then, watching those first swings, Graham began to understand that this new kid was special. Six decades in the game had given him a reference point for certain things.
The newcomer’s swing was smooth and powerful, almost effortless. Over the next three seasons, Graham would come to admire Rendon on a variety of levels. But in the beginning, there was the swing.
Another Rice player, Jimmy Comerota, waited his turn to step into the cage.
“Hey, Comerota,” Graham said, “you want to see Hank Aaron’s wrists?”
Graham nodded toward Rendon.
“I watched him swing and saw Aaron and [Ernie] Banks,” Graham said this week. “He’s got a natural bat speed. Defensively, he’s one of the best third basemen you’ll see at fielding bunts.”
This Nationals-Astros World Series is going to be the sweetest of homecomings for the Washington third baseman, who is now 29 and about to be one of this offseason’s two most sought-after free agents, along with Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole.
To play in a World Series for the first time is special beyond words. To play against your hometown team, well, that’s beyond the stuff of dreams. Rendon was once one of those kids waiting at the end of the Astros’ dugout to get an autograph from Jeff Bagwell or Craig Biggio.
Rendon, who makes his offseason home in the Houston suburb of Katy, became something of a legend as a multisports star in Houston’s youth sports programs. He attended Lamar High School a few miles from Minute Maid Park and he turned down an offer from the Atlanta Braves, choosing instead to play at Rice, where Graham coached until spring 2018; he led Rice to a national championship in 2003.
Rendon’s path to this moment -- Game 1 is Tuesday in Houston -- began when the Nationals made him the sixth overall pick of the 2011 Draft. He made his Major League debut two seasons later and he just finished a season in which he tied with Corey Seager for the National League lead in doubles (44) and he led the Majors in RBIs (126). In his first trip home as a Major Leaguer, he had a four-hit game on April 30, 2014, and he is 9-for-20 in his career at Minute Maid Park.
In his hometown, though, some of the people who know him best do not begin conversations about him with bat speed or defensive instincts or any of that.
“My first impression of the kid is pretty enduring,” Lamar High coach David Munoz said. “He’s still the person he was when I first met him. He’s a good human being and [he] cares about people. He just has not changed.”
Munoz and his wife, Elizabeth, who teaches at Rice, flew to Miami this summer when the Nationals were playing there.
“He gets us down on the field for batting practice and comes over and gives us a big hug,” Munoz said. “He’s very passionate and very committed to the game.
“But there’s also a calmness about Anthony. He trusts his talent and his preparation. You just don’t see him rattled.”
Asked for one “wow” moment, Munoz has it in an instant.
“We’re playing a long scrimmage in February, probably 14 or 15 innings,” Munoz said, “and it’s wet and cold. He’d already had five or six at-bats and [he] asked if he could hit left-handed.
“He stepped into the box and hit one off the top of the center-field wall. I look across at the other coaches and they’re like, 'What the ...'”
Moments like that happened dozens of times at Rice. Once, in the Conference USA Baseball Tournament, Rendon rushed in, barehanded a grounder and made a laser throw to first.
Later, when asked about the play, the opposing coach said the play itself isn’t what amazed him. He said the really amazing part was that, as Rendon approached the ball, he had the presence of mind to wipe his hand on his pants before fielding it. Rendon’s Rice teammates had seen that kind of thing before.
“One year in fall ball, he just kept drawing walks,” Comerota said. “His strike-zone discipline was what you see now in the Major Leagues. In the squad games, our pitchers wouldn’t throw him strikes because of what he was capable of doing.
“So, he just keeps drawing walks. I’m playing shortstop, and he gets to second base and I say, 'Why do you never swing at a ball?' He just looks at me as if to say, 'Why would I swing at a ball?'”
“It’s not that easy,” Comerota remembers thinking.
“'Casual' is the wrong word for the way he plays,” he said. “'Calm' is the right one, and he has always been like that. He’s very comfortable and very confident, and you can watch the Nationals now and tell that his teammates play off that.
“You see him in the dugout telling the coaches to relax. It’s just a different game for him. He looks like he’s playing slow. Even when he dives for balls at third, it’s almost like he times the dive. I’m envious of it. It’s also beautiful to watch.”
Rice coaches figured Rendon would never make it to campus. The Braves had drafted him in the 27th round of the 2008 Draft, and then Rendon had a huge summer in amateur baseball, including one tournament in Atlanta.
“I think he went 13-for-15 in one tournament,” said University of Texas head coach David Pierce, who was then a Rice assistant recruiting Rendon. “I’m thinking there’s no way we’re going to get him. For whatever reason, the Braves didn’t offer him what he wanted.”
As Pierce got to know Rendon, he came to understand that the humility he displays in public is real and that he really is uncomfortable drawing attention to himself.
While Pierce appreciates the player Rendon is, the real joy is seeing the man he has become. In his hometown, it’s this Anthony Rendon that makes his coaches and teammates the happiest.
“Listen, he’s a fun guy,” Pierce said, “but he’s serious about his business. He’s also a great teammate and so down to earth. He’s not overwhelmed by baseball. [It’s] what he does, but it’s not who he is.”
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.