Choo-Choo: How a summer in Maryland continues to define former MSU star Hunter Renfroe

 

Former Mississippi State standout and current San Diego Padre Hunter Renfroe, center, leans on the dugout railing with Big Train players and coaches on Hunter Renfroe Night on June 24 at Povich Field in Bethesda, MD.

Former Mississippi State standout and current San Diego Padre Hunter Renfroe, center, leans on the dugout railing with Big Train players and coaches on Hunter Renfroe Night on June 24 at Povich Field in Bethesda, MD. Photo by: Photo courtesy of Niamh Brennan/Big Train Staff Photographer

 

Ben Portnoy

 

 

STARKVILLE -- Along the right field wall of Shirley Povich Field are six numbers -- 5, 7, 11, 21, 40 and 42. 

 

The Nos. 5, 7, 21 and 42, immortalized in the summer home of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League's Bethesda Big Train, refer to former professional ball players Hank Greenberg, Cal Ripken Sr., Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson, respectively. 

 

The No. 40 commemorates Hugh Adams -- the Big Train's all-time leader in seasons played. 

 

Lastly is the No. 11 -- a nod to Bethesda legend and former Mississippi State outfielder Hunter Renfroe. 

 

A proven commodity on the summer collegiate baseball circuit, the Big Train own eight league championships in the team's 20-year history. In all, 168 players from the program have gone on to play professional baseball, while 16 have made the major leagues -- Renfroe, a 2013 first round draft pick of the San Diego Padres, included. 

 

It's been nearly seven years since the 6-foot-1, 220-pound slugger suited up in Bethesda and six years since he appeared at MSU. 

 

But it's here in the roughly 800-seat ballpark just outside Washington, D.C. -- far removed from the bright lights of Petco Park in San Diego or the enthralling atmosphere of Dudy Noble Field in Starkville -- that Renfroe's mythological status grows larger by the day. 

 

"For fans who have been coming to games for several years, Hunter Renfroe was that legend that people saw," Big Train General Manager David Schneider said. "He was the guy crushing the ball, hitting home runs over the trees in left-center field. Somebody who just made a huge impact on the community and people will never forget the seasons he played here." 

 

New beginnings 

 

With Senior Day 2011 fast approaching, former MSU and Big Train infielder Nick Vickerson had a dilemma. With his younger brother's high school graduation scheduled for the same day as his on-field celebration at Dudy Noble, his mother could not make both.  

 

So, Vickerson asked Rebecca Crowley -- his host mom from the previous summer in Bethesda -- to stand in.  

 

Walking down toward the playing surface at Dudy Noble, it was there Crowley first laid eyes on her newest Bulldog tenant. 

 

"Victor (Diaz) and Hunt were coming to stay with me, so I remember walking down and they're at the dugout sitting there and say 'Oh hi, looking forward to seeing you this summer,'" she recalled.  

 

A few weeks later, Crowley headed to the airport to pick up Renfroe as he arrived for the summer.  

 

While the Big Train season had already begun, the hard-hitting outfielder was late to report due to MSU's run to the Super Regionals.  

 

Racing to scoop Renfroe in time for that night's game, Crowley remembered sitting through stand-still traffic as she familiarized herself with her newest host child.  

 

"I had to take Hunter all the way to the game and it was like an hour and a half, two-hour drive," Crowley said. "It was an unbelievable drive in rush hour traffic and here's this poor kid, he's flown in from Mississippi, doesn't know me and I'm just talking and talking. It was crazy."  

 

'I need baseballs' 

 

Renfroe's power at the plate was evident early in his East Coast stay.  

 

Watching him take batting practice soon after arrival, Big Train manager Sal Colangelo turned to one of his assistants.  

 

"He's going to be in the big leagues one day," Colangelo said.  

 

The respect for Renfroe's ability persisted throughout his time in Bethesda.  

 

Traveling for a game in Alexandria, Virginia, Colangelo informed Renfroe he couldn't take batting practice that afternoon.  

 

"Why not, coach?" Renfroe asked puzzled.  

 

"We're in Alexandria, you hit and we'll have no baseballs to find because they'll go over the fence, into the woods, into the pond and we'll have to supply baseballs and I've got to go to my general manager and say 'I need baseballs,'" Colangelo retorted.  

 

Despite arriving late, Renfroe hit .305 in 29 regular season games with eight home runs and 30 RBIs as he helped the Big Train to the 2011 CRCBL title and the team's only Summer Collegiate Baseball National Championship. 

 

"If you put Hunter on the field, he would be the best player at any position on that field because he was going to make sure of it," Colangelo said. "He was competitive. He was going to fight. He was going to earn everything he got. There was no sense of entitlement." 

 

An East Coast homecoming  

 

Renfroe wouldn't budge. 

 

Chatting with current Louisiana Tech head coach and former MSU assistant Lane Burroughs regarding his 2012 summer plans, his mind was made up. 

 

Despite offers from teams in the famed Cape Cod League or the potential for a tryout with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, Renfroe's heart remained in Maryland. 

 

"His exact words were, 'If I don't go to Bethesda, I'm not playing summer ball,'" Burroughs recounted. 

 

Renfroe phoned Colangelo to deliver the news personally.  

 

"He called and was like, 'Coach, Becky was like a mom to me, my host family is great, you let me play and what matters to me is what I do my junior year in the spring,'" Colangelo said.  

 

Renfroe played 36 regular season games that summer. Flashing an improved approach at the plate, he set a league record with 16 home runs -- a number of which remain the stuff of legend.  

 

Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolt Jake Taylor's 2012 mark of 13 home runs ranks second in CRCBL history.  

 

"I mean he hit balls further than I've ever seen an amateur college player hit in 21 years," Colangelo said.  

 

The exorbitant statistic also earned Renfroe perks at home.  

 

Crowley had an annual agreement with her players that for every home run they hit while she was in attendance they would receive a steak dinner as compensation. 

 

The home run dinners became an almost nightly occurrence in 2012.  

 

"I mean it just got crazy with Hunter," Crowley said through a laugh. "I had upgrade the steaks to take of three home runs or having a friend over to take care of two home runs."  

 

After 2012, Renfroe held single-season CRCBL records in home runs, RBIs, runs and slugging percentage -- all of which still stand today.  

 

"Summer baseball to Hunter was the minor leagues," Colangelo said. "Summer baseball was extended spring training or fall in Arizona to get better to where he wanted to be."  

 

The legend returns  

 

Looking out into the left-center field gap at Povich Field, a small sign rests against a light fixture roughly 50 feet above the ground. 

 

With a green backdrop and a white No. 11 painted on the plank, the placard is a reminder of the 24 towering home runs Renfroe hit during his two seasons with the Big Train. 

 

Colangelo joked players see the sign and insist they can hit the ball that high.  

 

He quickly fires back. 

 

"I'm like, 'Guys you don't understand, that's as far as the bucket truck could get up to put the No. 11,'" Colangelo said. "(Hunter) hit it over that.'" 

 

With a day off before the Padres' midweek series with the Baltimore Orioles on June 24, Renfroe paid a visit to his old stomping grounds. 

 

Like she had done so many times before, Crowley drove her previously adopted son to the ballpark that afternoon. 

 

"When I picked him up we were driving back to the field and he was like 'Oh I remember that's where we used to turn off to go to your house,' and 'Remember this was where we did that,'" she said. 

 

For nearly two hours Renfroe signed autographs for eager fans hoping to catch a brush with greatness as part of "Hunter Renfroe Night" at Povich Field. 

 

During the game -- a 13-3 win over the FCA Braves -- he sat in the dugout and gave pointers to current Big Train players. 

 

"I think for some, Hunter Renfroe is that mythical player who, did he really hit a ball up that high? Does he really like Big Train? Does he remember us?" Schneider said. "... And so having him back clarified that for some people like wow he is a normal person, wow he does remember Bethesda and he's willing to come back." 

 

A portrait of nostalgia 

 

Hanging in Renfroe's home in Southern California is a painting of Povich Field.  

 

A housewarming gift from Crowley, the piece is a reminder of summers past -- ones filled with youthful exuberance and an undying love for the game. 

 

While his time with the Big Train continues to fade into the ether, Renfroe remains cognizant of his roots. 

 

In the midst of a breakout season with the Padres, he batted .252 with 27 home runs and 49 RBIs through the first half of 2019. Many argued Renfroe should've been selected for the National League All-Star team or the Home Run Derby. 

 

Neither came to fruition. 

 

No matter. Renfroe is used to doing his damage far removed from the spotlight.  

 

And though his ever-developing baseball odyssey continues, the Big Train, its fans, and, most of all, Povich Field will continue to hold a special place in his heart and on his wall in California.  

 

"Hunter is a guy who will never be bigger than the game," Colangelo said. "He will always remember where he came from and he's going to be very successful wherever he is."

 

Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.

 

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