Anthony Rendon, Only Human

Let's admit it. We often wish all baseball players were of the same mind as Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. Asked once during a particularly arduous road trip, Pops replied, "The umpire doesn't say, 'Work ball.' I asked to be a ballplayer." We often wish every player on the planet was as romantic about the game as us.

We swear we'd be the ones who'd tolerate everything around the game for the privilege of playing it professionally because, you know, if we're making in even 10 years what Donald Trump was fined in his New York fraud case we'd damn well better be ready to tolerate it.

We swear we'd come through in the clutch, we swear we wouldn't have blown that play, we swear we would put those pain in the you-know-what writers in their place, we swear we would play through injuries and not sit it out when our team needs us to win that big game, we swear we wouldn't let anything or anyone get in the way of...

We are full of it. And most of us won't admit that we're full of it.

That's why so many of us were ready to have Anthony Rendon hung by his shorthairs from the top of southern California's tallest lamppost for saying outright that baseball doesn't quite command his priorities ahead of his family and his spiritual faith. You'd think Rendon had just admitted to painting graffiti on the Washington Monument.

The third baseman who once made a pros-and-cons list about playing the game is a decade older now. "It's a lot different now," he told The Athletic's Sam Blum last Monday.

I'm married. I have four kids. My priorities have changed since I was in my early 20s. So definitely my perspective on baseball has been more skewed . . . It's never been a top priority for me. This is a job. I do this to make a living. My faith, my family, come first before this job.

If you choose to see him as just expressing some bitterness about the game, Rendon's certainly earned the right. Since he signed a seven-year, $245 million free-agency contract with the Angels, after he factored big in the Nationals' first World Series conquest, Rendon's baseball life has been battered by injuries.

After his first Angel season, in pan-damn-ically truncated 2020, his 2021 only began with a groin strain and a ten-day injured list spell. He incurred a knee contusion and a hamstring strain, and that was before his season ended early thanks to right hip surgery.

His 2022, which featured hitting one out left-handed for the first time in his Show career (and during Reid Detmers's no-hitter, yet), ended in June with surgery on his right wrist. 2023? Left leg injury, not to mention a tibia fracture he swore was diagnosed at first as another contusion.

You can rest confident in the knowledge that nobody signs up to play professional baseball looking to spend as much time on the injured list as Rendon has spent since becoming an Angel. But if you'd been paying attention close enough since his Washington years, Monday wasn't the first time Rendon ever denied baseball über alles, either.

"I want to be known as the Christian baseball player," he told the Baptist Press in 2018. "I'm still trying to grow into that. But at the end, I want to be more 'Christian' than 'baseball player'." Nobody was ready to arrange his execution then. Maybe finishing 11th in that year's MVP voting and leading the National League with 42 doubles, not to mention posting a .909 OPS and 137 OPS+ had something to do with that.

Guess you're just not supposed to talk that way after four years of a filthy lucrative seven-year contract have been spent on the injured list and you've only been able to play an average 52 games a year over the four.

"[A]ny job, no matter how hard you worked for it, how much you wanted it, how much you love it, is still a job," writes Deadspin's Julie DiCaro. "Baseball is no different."

Sure, players get winters off, their offices are pastoral cathedrals, and they get paid millions to play a child's game. But they still have to go (almost) every day from mid-February to September, in nagging injuries and in health, when things are going great and when they aren't. They have bosses, performance expectations, long stretches away from their families, and, especially on days when things go south, a scrum of reporters standing around their lockers, waiting to ask them exactly why things went so poorly.

. . . [W]hy is it that, in almost any other profession, saying one's job is their top priority is thought of as cold, heartless, anti-family, and some kind of Cat's Cradle tragedy, unless the person saying it is a pro-athlete? You're supposed to say your family is a bigger priority than your job, unless your job is to entertain the masses. Then you'd better kick your wife to the curb during childbirth because we need your bat in the five-hole.

Baseball history should remind us that Yankee legend Thurman Munson died at 32 trying to split the difference. He bought and was learning to fly a Cessna jet that may have been above his pay grade operationally because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and children in their native Ohio during Yankee homestands.

Some ballplayers wouldn't let themselves think of marriage and family until after their playing careers ended. Some of those, of course, preferred the swinging bachelor's life, but others sensed that being professional baseball players might not really be conducive to happy home lives. Some marry sports-oriented women, many don't. It's not for us to judge what the heart embraces.

I remember a player who learned the hard way. If you're my age, the name Steve Kemp might register. He was a solid ballplayer, an above-average hitter and a hustling outfielder with the Tigers and the White Sox, who enjoyed his first and only free agency payday when he signed with the Yankees for 1983. Five years, $5.45 million, big money that year.

Whoops. An early shoulder injury on a basepath collision; then, after rebounding following a sluggish first third of the year thanks to the injury, hit in the eye by a line drive during batting practice. Facial fracture, vision and depth perception loss, never the same player again. The Yankees eventually dealt him to the Pirates, willing to take him because of his determination, in a deal making Yankees out of Dale Berra and (especially) Jay Buhner.

Kemp lost more than that, alas. He made a jarring admission to Peter Golenbock, author of The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time. He was so single-minded about the game from boyhood forward that it cost him his marriage.

"He learned," Golenbock wrote of Kemp's days playing college ball, "that if he selfishly, myopically concentrated on his own needs — excelling at the game — he would succeed in life." Not quite. "[T]he one part of your life that seems to get cut out is family," Kemp said. "That's wrong, totally wrong."

You're on the road, and your family wants to come, and you say, 'Fine, but I'm not going to go out with you. You get up on your own and go. I have to sleep in.' And I looked at myself as being very selfish. I look back, and I see it cause a lot of problems for me. I learned it, but too late. Baseball was the most important thing.

When Kemp's playing career ended in 1988 after spells in the minors (and a fleeting sixteen games with the Rangers), he returned home to California to discover his wife asking for a divorce. The divorce happened in 1989.

"We were the American family with two beautiful, intelligent children," he said. "It was a very good situation that was thrown out the door. A lot of people were saddened when our family split up. Now I'm saying to myself, I realize there are more important things in life than baseball."

Kemp went on to play for the St. Petersburg Pelicans in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association (1989-90). He did it for love of the game and to help take the sting out of his divorce, not necessarily in that order. He dealt with injuries, fought his own perfectionism, and mid-season asked for two days off — to take his two visiting children to Disney World. Owner Jim Morley granted them even if manager Bobby Tolan wasn't thrilled.

"You can be bitter and negative," he told Golenbock, "or you can try to get the most out of a situation, to learn from your mistakes. I'm trying to change myself so that I can enjoy life. I know that I have a long way to go, but before I never gave. Now I'm trying to give. That's the important thing."

"Mindful of how much he lost," Golenbock wrote, "[Kemp] took his kids to Disney World for two days instead of insisting that baseball come first. He knew that Bobby Tolan would be angry, that his teammates wouldn't understand, but it didn't matter anymore. The happiness of his kids, that's what counted most. The Pelicans would be there when he got back."

It's not as unreasonable as Rendon's critics might think to surmise he knows already that there are more important things in life than baseball. No matter how much or how deeply anyone loves the game, no matter how much fans who don't know him as a human being would prefer to incinerate him for admitting it.

Maybe he doesn't want to let the game consume, fracture, or divorce him, the way it did Steve Kemp and who knows how many other players about whom we know little beyond what they did on the field or said to the press.*

Rendon's done nothing more evil than admit that baseball players are human beings, after all. Maybe those attacking him since it hit the press running can't bear that. Because they're supposed to be infallible, indestructible, dream-affirming, life-denying. That's their job, the attackers seem to say.We don't want to know you're only human.

* Steve Kemp ended his professional playing days when the SPBA folded. He returned to southern California and became both a part-time salesman for a golf accessory firm and an annual participant in Tigers fantasy camps.

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