In this May 28, 2010 file photo, Rice University's Anthony Rendon… (Smiley N. Pool/AP )
The first time he watched Anthony Rendon swing a baseball bat, Wayne Graham knew instantly what he recognized. Those wrists, that angle of the bat — he had seen the same things in the 1960s, back when he played in the major leagues, decades before he became the head coach at Rice University.
As Rendon hacked away, Graham gathered his assistant coaches and told them to watch close.
“You want to see Hank Aaron’s wrists?” Graham told them. “There they are. Don’t mess with him.”
Over the next three years, Graham grew familiar with the other qualities that convinced the Washington Nationals to draft Rendon with the sixth overall pick in June’s draft: his innate defensive ability, his effortless swing, his unflagging work ethic, his team-first attitude and his joy for the game.
Most of all, Graham coached a player born with the right kind of athleticism for baseball and the mental approach to draw it out of himself. Rendon is 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds, hardly imposing. He runs with average speed. If you judged this year’s draft prospects on their physical attributes alone — how high they jump, how much weight they lift — Rendon would fall to the middle of the pack, maybe.
Rendon’s gifts — hand-eye coordination, agility, balance — are more subtle.
“In terms of hand-eye coordination, in terms of reflexes, he operates on the same level of a [Dustin] Pedroia or a [Brooks] Robinson,” said Graham, who played in the minor leagues for 10 years and the majors for two. “I’ve seen a lot of players in my time. He does. He’s got incredible hand-eye coordination, reflexes.”
Small stature, big heart
During his sophomore year of high school, Rendon said, he stood 5-4 and 103 pounds. He played shortstop and second base, always one of the best players on his youth teams, and he never let his size deter him from believing professional baseball was his future.
“It’s always been in my heart,” Rendon said during a conference call the day after he was drafted this June. “I was just hoping maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’ll be six feet tall.”
He almost made it: He’s now 5-11. Before his junior year, Rendon grew six inches and transferred to Lamar High in Houston.
Rendon led the area in home runs for two seasons and left his teammates and coaches with a handful of stories to tell.
Here’s one: Lamar was trouncing an opponent late in a game, and Rendon asked Coach Mike McGilvray if he could try batting left-handed. McGilvray had never seen him do that, not even in batting practice, but he gave him permission. In the first left-handed at-bat of his life, Rendon drilled a double off the right field fence, 375 feet away from the plate.
“The players, coaches, our mouths just dropped,” McGilvray said. “I couldn’t believe it. We were just shocked. We were stunned. I don’t even think the kids knew he could turn around and hit left-handed.”
At Rice, Rendon kept producing stories. During his sophomore season, he hit three home runs in one game at Disch-Falk Field, the home park of the University of Texas for the past 36 years. No one had ever done that before.
His sophomore season, Rendon slugged .801 and reached base in 53 percent of his plate appearances. He mashed 26 home runs and stole 14 bases. By consensus, he was the best player in Division I.
“When he was playing good,” Rice starting pitcher Andrew Benak said, “no one could stop him.”
This year, though, something prevented him from playing his best. At the outset of his junior season he strained a muscle behind his right shoulder. He could still swing, but throwing brought pain and increased the risk of turning a strain into a tear. Rendon appeared in 63 games, 55 of them as a designated hitter only.
The injury provided Rendon more than a physical challenge. Those around him uniformly describe as fun-loving, happy-go-lucky. “He’s always smiling,” Benak said.
Rendon entered this year as the projected first overall pick, a position that had netted the previous two top choices — Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, both taken by the Nationals — eight-figure signing bonuses.
Now, he had to face the season with one healthy shoulder. Rendon had less power, but he still hit .327 and walked 80 times, the most of any Division I player since 1998.
But he couldn’t field, and the injury raised questions among major league teams. Rendon comes from a supportive family of modest means, and the pressure from the expectations and the injury wore on him.
“Good Lord, think about it,” Graham said. “For a family, you’re talking about life-changing money. The pressures he was under, and then you have the injury. And then you have the expectations.”
With Rendon resigned to designated hitter, Rice replaced him at third base with a freshman named Shane Hoelscher. Unable to play, Rendon dedicated himself to helping Hoelscher learn his old position, pulling him aside during games and practices.