13 years into his baseball career, Hunter Renfroe was burned out. Like any student-athlete, he was travelling across the country on weekends, balancing practice with schoolwork during the week and forgoing the typical freedoms everyone else his age was able to enjoy.
He was also in ninth grade.
For the guy who started swinging a bat at age two, quitting baseball was the best decision of Renfroe’s life.
Playing 100-some odd games every summer, Renfroe was mentally exhausted with the sport he loved so much. Lucky for him, his parents were far less concerned with him making the high school team than they were his happiness.
“They always asked me, whenever you want to stop playing, you can stop and take a break,” he said. “I took a summer off and just relaxed and had fun. Went to the reservoir in Jackson, skied a lot, wakeboarded, did all the stuff a regular freshman did, instead of playing baseball. And I think that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Get back to the love of the game instead of having to do this, having to do that, everything’s rushed.”
Now, another eight years later, Renfroe is one of the hottest baseball players in the country, a candidate for the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and being projected by many as a first round pick in the MLB Draft this summer, though he’s shelving any talk of that until after he finishes what he hopes is a lengthy postseason.
For Mississippi State, Renfroe is batting .429 with 13 home runs and 42 RBI, and his .439 batting average in conference play is the best in the entire league. Against Texas A&M last weekend, he batted .571 and hit a home run in every one of the three games in the series.
To say he’s having a good season would be quite the understatement.
The success is the realization of untapped potential for Renfroe, who has been a star in the making since before his first chin hair.
Growing up in Crystal Springs, Miss., a town with a population size under 6,000 people, Renfroe’s area travel team was so good they had to be moved up an age bracket just to try and make it fair, and even then they rolled over the competition.
“We always played up in tournaments because we just killed our opponents,” he said. “We actually won the older age group state championship and they wouldn’t give it to us because we were younger.”
Even now, he’s a little bitter.
Then it was in high school when Renfroe – who ran track, was a shooting guard in basketball and played five different positions for the football team – realized baseball might be something he could do for a while.
“Everybody was about the same growing up,” he said. “You had your guys that matured earlier than others of course, but in high school I really started standing out my sophomore and junior year and realized, ‘I’m pretty good at baseball now.’ Scouts started to come watch me, colleges started calling me a little bit. That’s when I figured out I’m pretty good at this, I’m gonna make a living out of it.“
He’d have had the opportunity to go straight to the MLB, and his parents were big Ole Miss fans, so it seemed Renfroe had two choices.
But, be it out of natural rebelling against parents or an appreciation for history, Renfroe wanted to go to Mississippi State.
In fact, despite his parents’ now-changed allegiance to Oxford, Renfroe was “always Mississippi State.” So much so that when scouts from MLB teams came calling, he turned them back. All he wanted was to move to Starkville and experience college.
“That’s why I think I got drafted so late, too,” he said. “I openly told them I’m gonna go to college first.”
And so he did, with a world of hype and expectations that he’s at the very least meeting and perhaps even exceeding ins his junior year for the Bulldogs.
His first two years were a bit of a struggle, but at the end of last season, starting with MSU’s series against Florida, things started to click for Renfroe. He saw the ball, he caught the breaks. Then he went to the Cal Ripken League for summer baseball where he had such a good season that he became the first player in the history of the league to have his number retired.
With so much success outside of Dudy Noble Field, MSU fans were anxious to see it happen within the friendly confines of their own ballpark.
“We knew that eventually it would come around,” he said. “I knew I had the talent a long time ago, but it was kind of frustrating to me last year. I knew what I could do and it just wasn’t happening for me. I was hitting balls hard last year and it wasn’t finding holes. This year shows I have the potential.”
And as the potential has been met, Renfroe has helped lead the team through a successful two-thirds of the season, with their eyes set on hosting a regional and finding a way to Omaha for the College World Series.
As the college career he wanted so badly has arched upwards, Renfroe is happy he chose the route he did, though the college experience is far from that of a typical student, as baseball takes up nearly all the free time he would have outside of classes, studying and sleeping.
“You’re kind of used to not doing stuff like a normal student,” Renfroe said. “Me and [first baseman] Wes Rea joke about it all the time. We’d have killed every animal in the state of Mississippi if we didn’t play baseball. We were talking about it yesterday. It’s just something you live with and something you adapt to. You’re out here three hours a day practicing baseball, and it’s a lifestyle. You’ve got to enjoy it to do it.”
It’s that love for baseball that keeps him going. That summer he took off which made him rediscover his passion for the game and lit the fire that will take him through the rest of his career.
“The game is the biggest motivation on its own,” he said. “All the fans in the stands, screaming your name, cheering when you get a hit. All my teammates, coaches, giving me pats on the back, saying ‘Great job.’ Just winning, that motivates.”
“It’s pure elation. It’s total joy,” he said. “You know you’re helping your team get that much closer to winning the game or won the game. It’s awesome. It’s an awesome feeling. You get chill bumps every time you talk about it or when you do it. When you run around first base, second base, it’s pretty special.”
Those moments – the home runs, the game-winning RBI, the diving catches – are why Renfroe never stops playing, why he works endless hours on his approach at the plate, why he spends days on end in the film or weight room.
“I love just playing the game.”