Scar Tissue

Tony Renda's late father taught him to be tough. He's learned that lesson well.

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Taryn Erhardt/Staff



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Frank Renda spent eight years building the house his children grew up in.

He tore out walls over and over, and he fired the men who had failed to build them right the first time. Sometimes he worked alone because he was the only one he could trust.

Tony Renda was 10 years old when his family moved in, and he was 18 when he moved out. In that house, he became one of the greatest baseball players in Serra High history; he was recruited to play for the Cal baseball team; he faced accusations of steroid use; he said goodbye to his father.

In that home, Tony's father taught him to be tough. Many of the lessons were filtered through baseball. From the day Tony joined his first T-ball league, Frank expected him to build each at-bat the way he did the rooms of their house: with precision, care and determination. Tony rarely lasted long in any league before being promoted - he hit too hard and it scared the other parents.

When he was four, he was infuriated to learn that his team got snacks after T-ball, win or lose.

"He thought if they lost, they didn't deserve to have snacks," his mother Larree says. "He'd get upset and cross his arms and be real disgruntled, because he thought they weren't taking it seriously like he was."

Frank Renda has been gone less than a year now. He died of lung cancer last summer, and Tony, his youngest, skipped summer ball to spend a few more weeks by his side. When Tony took the field at Evans Diamond this spring, he looked like he hadn't missed a thing.

"Summer ball, it's a tremendous learning period for field players," catcher Chadd Krist says. "And to see him come out here and tear it up, it shows how much mental toughness he has."

Nothing would make Frank prouder.

***

The summer before Tony Renda came to Cal, a rumor started going around his hometown that he'd had his scholarship revoked.

"They said that I'm on steroids," Renda says. "That I tested positive."

The lie never bothered Renda much. That people immediately assumed the real reason for his success was steroids did.

"Can't anyone accept that I work hard and get the most out of myself?" he said then.

Renda never has to think when he plays baseball, because his every movement is pure muscle memory. He's in the batting cages when he doesn't need to be, on the field begging for a few more grounders, in the gym when the weather is bad.

He got that from his father.

"His dad was always trying to toughen him up," Larree says. "He always told me, 'Don't baby him.'"

Tony, with his soft, youthful face and slight frame, is surprisingly hard to imagine as a boy at all. His eyes, which could be gentle blue in another face, cut like shards of glass even when he's smiling.

"(My father) knew the talent that me and my brother both had," Tony says. "He got on both of us when we didn't play to our level. Parents don't do that anymore. That's how he was raised, that's how he raised us."

As Tony grew, his athletic prowess became more and more apparent. He played with - and destroyed - kids twice his age. He adopted a stride-less swing that was vicious in its productivity. The only screaming matches of Tony's life were between him and his father - and they were usually over baseball. On days when he went 0-for-4, whether in person or by phone, Frank was always waiting for Tony after the game.

"He gave me a pretty good ass-chewin', and you better believe Saturday I came out 4-for-5," Tony says.

Renda worked with hitting instructors and trainers and tore through club baseball. At Serra High, former home of Barry Bonds and Tom Brady, Renda stood toe-to-toe with the two legends. His senior year, he broke former major leaguer Gregg Jefferies' career record with 152 hits.

Then, a rumor started going around that Renda was juicing. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about Greg Anderson, a personal trainer who allegedly supplied Bonds with steroids. For years, Anderson had worked with young Bay Area baseball players. Renda was one of them.

The article used Renda as a case study to question the judgment of parents who entrusted their sons to Anderson. The public reaction was immediate and vitriolic. Renda still gets heated now.

"I won't take back anything I said about Greg," he says. "I would stand up for the guy. I would defend him. Whatever he's done, I don't care."

That's not the only thing that bothers Renda. It burns him that the story sparked speculation that his athletic ability came out of a needle, not from his work ethic. Some people in Hillsborough, Calif., still believe that.

Renda doesn't put any stake in it.

"I have a lot of people saying I'm cocky," he says. "It takes a lot to rattle my cage. There's only one person who could rattle me."

He flashes a rare smile: "It was my dad."

Criticism isn't new to Renda. He's been called cocky, conceited and worse. When he broke Jefferies' record, he compared himself to Bonds and Brady, and that annoyed many. Renda is the type that you either like immediately or dislike. He doesn't grow on you, because he never changes - what you see that first time is exactly what you get.

So some will always think of him as an abrasive cheater, while others will respect him because, if nothing else, he's never stopped fighting.

"Am I going to be a Hall of Famer someday? God, I hope so. I think I can. I'm extremely confident I can," he says. "Do I think anybody is better than me at the game? Yeah. There's some people. But head-to-head, I trust that I could beat them."

Out of high school, the Dodgers drafted Renda in the 42nd round. The scout who called Renda told him the organization knew he was going to Cal, and they thought that was the right move for him.

"We just wanted to say that we drafted you," he said. "Just in case we don't get you again, at least we can say that we tried."

Renda appreciated the gesture, but he doesn't need anyone to tell him what he already knows: he's going to make it.

***

When Renda steps into the batter's box, he takes his whole life with him. Some people find an escape in sports; Renda always finds his father there.

"I think about him a lot when I play baseball," he says. "He's a big reason I'm in baseball. He's a huge reason why I'm successful."

Renda falls silent for a long time. He seems vulnerable until he lifts his gaze up and you see his eyes burning. "It keeps me going. It makes you want to play the game more. Do better."

In a year and a half at Cal, Renda's done things that the program has never seen. He started every game last year as a true freshman and led the team with a .373 batting average. He was among the Pac-10's leaders in five different offensive categories.

Coach David Esquer has seen a lot of future stars pass through Evans Diamond. In his 12 years at Cal, he's coached the likes of A's reliever Tyson Ross and Mariners starter Brandon Morrow and hitters like Brett Jackson, Xavier Nady and Conor Jackson.

The best he's ever seen is a 5-foot-8 second baseman from Hillsborough.

"He's one of those players who comes along once in a career," Esquer says.

Someday, maybe, Renda will acknowledge that too. But, for now, he sees himself as a bundle of unfulfilled potential.

Renda talks about failure a lot. The word sounds so harsh, so final, but he doesn't see it that way. He uses failure like its dictionary definition: the opposite of success. Nothing more, nothing less.

"If you're 0-for-4 and you don't get a hit, well, you just failed," he says. "0-for-5 and you didn't get a hit? Failed again."

These days, it feels like Renda is twice as hard on himself to make up for his father's absence. Over the last five games, Renda's been mired in a slump, going 4-for-20 in that span. He hasn't taken it well.

"It's his nature," his mother says. "He's harder on himself than anyone can be on him. I tell him all the time, 'It's all right' ... He doesn't want to hear any of that."

On Sunday in a rubber match against USC, Renda fought off an 0-2 count, working it to 3-2. Then, with a quick flick of his wrists, he rolled a pitch toward third base. It never left the infield, but it didn't matter - Renda was safe. Up in the stands, his mom stood and cheered.

Tony finally cracked a smile.

***

Renda will be all right, and he'll figure it out on his own. He doesn't take advice from his mom, and he doesn't get much help from anyone else either. The coaches let him work through his struggles because he knows himself better than they ever could. His teammates are smart enough not to impose, but that doesn't mean they don't care.

Last September, Esquer suggested the team attend Jog for Jill, a lung cancer fundraiser, in honor of Renda's dad. Without telling Renda, the entire team showed up to represent "Team Frank." His mother cried, but Tony just stood there and smiled.

"He's one of our brothers," shortstop Marcus Semien says. "We've always got his back."

When Renda steps into the batter's box, it's no different. He squares himself to the plate, digs his left foot in a little. He swings his bat back and forth a few times, settles in. In that moment, it's just him and the pitcher.

But if he turns back to look, he is never alone.

Tags: CAL BASEBALL, TONY RENDA


Contact Katie Dowd at [email protected]



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