Photo by Bruce Adams
San Diego Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe received several offers to play in the Cape Cod Baseball League for the summer of 2012, where more than 1,100 players had advanced to Major League Baseball.
The 13th overall selection in the 2013 MLB draft brushed the opportunity aside, committing on a return to the Bethesda Big Train, who had won the summer collegiate baseball national championship in Renfroe’s first season in 2011.
That decision was not based on opportunities for more at-bats, it was not based on guaranteed playing time and it was not about the chance to compete for another national championship.
Renfroe’s decision to return to his old summer collegiate team was based on the Crystal Springs, Mississppi native’s relationships he built that summer in Bethesda with the coaches, players and BIg Train supporters.
“There was no question where I was going to be. After that first summer I knew I was coming back (to Bethesda),” Renfroe said to MLB.com reporter Oliver Macklin after San Diego’s 5-3 win over the Washington Nationals on May 28. “I loved the coaching staff there and I made great friends there. There was no doubt in my mind where I was going.”
The First Encounter
Renfroe had never traveled outside of Mississippi for an extended period of time before the summer of 2011. With Mississippi State falling to Florida in the NCAA Regionals, the Bulldogs’ freshman boarded an airplane five days later to his first trip out of his home state.
His host mother, Rebecca Crowley, drove an hour to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to pick up her first of three Big Train players staying at her home for the summer season. When Renfroe arrived in the car, he charmed Crowley with his manners on their way back to the Crowley home.
As soon as the 6 foot 1 inch outfielder dropped his luggage off, the two hopped back in her car and took an hour and a half drive to Regency Furniture Stadium for his Big Train debut against the Southern Maryland Nationals in Waldorf, Maryland.
Although Renfroe did not get any game action, that did not down his spirits when he spoke to Crowley at dinner. Instead, he used the dinner as an opportunity to kick-start the bond between the two.
“It was just the two of us eating dinner and we just talked and talked and talked,” Crowley said. “And ever since then, we just connected.”
With Renfroe’s college teammate, Victor Diaz, being absent from the Crowley house for most of the off-time, that allowed Crowley and the Big Train star to have a plethora of 1-on-1 bonding moments. Renfroe was not one that enjoyed going out at nights, Crowley said.
The two would watch television together, allowing them to spend time when Renfroe was not playing at Shirley Povich Field or traveling up to an hour competing on the road. Crowley also discovered that Renfroe had a knack for cooking.
With Crowley giving Renfroe freedom to cook meals, he executed his craft in the kitchen and they would eat together to use the opportunities to expand their relationship.
“Hunter is a fantastic cook...and I’m not,” Crowley said. “So we’d talk about, ‘okay what are we going to have for dinner?’ I’d go to the grocery store, get what he needed and he’d cook dinner for us.”
Not only was Renfroe connecting with his Big Train teammates, coaches and the front office on the field, the Big Train’s record holder in five categories became an instant fan favorite and took more time to associate with Big Train supporters. Allison Druhan first met Renfroe when she was 12-years-old after a Big Train game Shirley Povich Field.
Druhan was in San Diego during Renfroe’s rookie season with the Padres in 2016 visiting her mother’s side of the family. As a 17th birthday present, Druhan’s father contacted the Padres to get special access to batting practice in order for his daughter to see her favorite Big Train player in MLB action.
She told Renfroe that it was her birthday, in which he wished her a happy birthday, and asked the 2012 Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League MVP how old she thinks she is. Renfroe guessed Druhan’s age on the nose.
Before San Diego’s May 27 game against the Nationals, Druhan got to take a picture with Renfroe during the Padres’ batting practice and was even surprised that the .255 career hitter recognized Druhan.
“He actually did (recognize me),” Druhan said. “I’m like, ‘do you remember me?’ And he said, ‘Yes. Of course I do.’ It was pretty cool.”
There was no doubt in Renfroe’s mind that he wanted to return to Bethesda for the 2012 summer season. He had built close relationships with a community of supporters in 2011 that impacted his return, former Big Train general manager Adam Dantus said.
“He really loved his time in Bethesda,” Dantus said. “He had a great relationship with his host family, still talks to (Crowley) to this day. And that played a pivotal role in him coming back to Bethesda.”
Renfroe got the improvement he needed to excel at MSU and raise his draft stock with his two summers in Bethesda, getting the at-bats, figuring out how to hit an off-speed pitch while playing on a daily basis.
Bethesda was a career and life-changing experience, Renfroe said, where his interactions turned into lifelong friendships.
“I think it was a really big growing experience,” Renfroe said. “It was definitely a world-changer for me and I think my host mom really made it easy for me. She was unbelievably nice in getting everything I needed for me, so I really thank her for that.
“Obviously, the coaching staff for Big Train and the people in the front office made it easy as well.”
Thanks to Oliver Macklin for interviewing Hunter Renfroe while covering the Padres for MLB.com on Sunday May 28 and contributing to this story.
Check out the video of Hunter Renfroe in MLB Action on YouTube!