As Mississippi State is putting up billboards across the country for former Bulldogs now in the pros – “Wherever you go, we go with you,” they read – the number of said athletes representing MSU in various professional organizations is growing almost literally by the day.
Particularly so for MSU’s baseball program, which can’t seem to go more than a week without some getting called up or a big story coming out about someone, whether it’s pitchers like Jonathan Holder and Brandon Woodruff breaking records and fighting through tragedy, or guys like Mitch Moreland and Adam Frazier consistently hitting balls out of the park (one of them surprisingly so).
Two of those big stories have come from a pair of teammates who helped guide MSU to the finals of the College World Series in 2013 – Hunter Renfroe and Kendall Graveman.
Graveman has become a fixture in the pitching rotation for the Oakland Athletics, starting 31 games for the A’s in 2016, including a 16-game span over the course of the summer when he compiled a 9-2 record. In that stretch he recorded his first career complete game shutout, allowing just two hits and no walks. All told, he made 16 quality starts this season and finished with a 4.11 ERA.
Renfroe’s call to the big leagues came later than expected as the season was winding down, but even with limited time, the slugger made his impact felt. After being named the Pacific Coast League MVP in AAA (he hit 30 home runs and racked up 105 RBI while batting .306 for the El Paso Chihuahuas), the San Diego Padres called him up on September 20.
It turned out, they were right to do so. In 11 games, Renfroe hit .371 with a .800 slugging percentage as he hit four home runs and gathered 14 RBI. In fact, in a game against the Dodgers, he was responsible for all seven of the runs the Padres scored, racking up seven RBI on two home runs, then following it up with four more RBI and a home run the very next night. For his efforts, he was named the National League Player of the Week.
This Saturday, as MSU’s football team hosted Auburn, Graveman and Renfroe returned to the place where so much of their success stories began. Each was honored on the field in between the first and second quarters, welcomed with loud applause. I caught up with both of them at halftime to talk about why they came back to Starkville and what MSU means to them.
Highlights of those question and answer sessions are below.
Hail State Beat: With all the success you’re having professionally in California, what makes you want to come back to Starkville for events like these?
Graveman: I was telling someone earlier, it’s the family atmosphere. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today, baseball wise, if it weren’t for this place. This is one of the many reasons to my success. Mississippi State kind of molded me into who I was when I left my parents. And hats off to them, they did a great job raising me. I couldn’t ask for any better parents, but you get away from them and you come to a place like Starkville with a small town feel. It’s not just on the baseball field. I’ve seen all the guys on the baseball field since I’ve been here, but people outside of baseball that just live in the community and work and go to school here. That’s a blessing too, to be able to see some of those people. All those reasons come to mind for why I want to come back for a weekend and try to come back for a few weekends during the offseason.
Renfroe: I mean, I love this place. It’s just my second home. I’ve spent a lot of time here and, obviously, lived here for three-plus years. I enjoyed every second of it. I always say I want to come back in the offseason and see everybody that helped me through college and see some of my old teachers and see my host parents that helped me in baseball, then just see Coach Cohen and the guys.
HSB: Hunter, after they showed highlights of your record home run and you walked out onto the field, that might have been the loudest cheer anyone got all day. What was that feeling like?
Renfroe: That tells me that they actually did love me here. That’s honestly what I appreciate the most. They support us 100 percent. Once we leave this place, they still watch and support us and follow us. That’s very special to me and we’re very blessed to be a part of a Major League Baseball team and live out a lot of people’s dreams that nobody gets to do. So few people get to do it. God has blessed us tremendously.
HSB: People around Starkville and MSU always talk about how special baseball here is and how unique the bond is between the team and its fans. You’ve both been around guys from all over the country since leaving State. Is it really different at MSU or is that just sort of living in a bubble down here?
Graveman: I’ve been with guys from other teams and it’s not the same. I’ll be like, ‘Hey, are you going back to any games?’ And it’s not the same passion. It’s not the same welcoming home. That’s what’s special here. It does feel like a family. I’m blessed enough to be able to step out on the football field during a timeout. The ovation you get, you feel like you’re really welcomed here. Yeah, you play with other guys, but then you play against guys, like Mitch Moreland. I talked to him and we always talk sports. Or Buck Showalter and I catch up on football, or how’s the baseball team going to be? It’s always fun to talk with those guys that share a similar bond in Mississippi State, even if you didn’t play with them and our time was not shared here. Those guys are still Maroon and White and we bleed that.
Renfroe: I think it has a lot to do with the SEC. I think the SEC supports baseball far more than a lot of other places. Especially at Mississippi State. Something we’ve always looked forward to doing is going out in the Left Field Lounge and having a great time out there cooking and eating and watching the Bulldogs play.
That’s one thing I thought about when I was thinking about colleges to go to. I thought, even if I wasn’t a baseball player, that’s where I wanted to be – in the Left Field Lounge out there having a blast, watching some baseball and relaxing. I think, here, it’s just kind of more of a social event at a football game. You’re always having fun, but I think baseball is a different environment. It’s very special. You get to interact with the players. I think it’s different, and obviously, the fans here are wonderful and the best in the country.
HSB: I know you were busy with your own season, but as you watched MSU win the SEC Championship this year, what did that mean to you?
Renfroe: I think it was very special. Obviously, John Cohen is an unbelievable coach and I think the fans love him, as well. If you ask any of his players, we loved him. He was obviously hard, but he was hard the right way. He pushed us because he knew what he could get out of us. It was very special, the team we had in 2013. We had a lot of talent and he was trying to milk us for all it was worth. He’s got a great team coming up this year. We always cheer them on and wish them the best. We try to come up there and help out and be around those guys as much as possible.
HSB: Talking to you two about everything you’ve done in the pros, then looking at how many of your teammates have made it or are close to doing so, as well, is it weird to look back at the 2013 College World Series team and realize just how many MLB guys were in that group?
Renfroe: I don’t think that’s a very big surprise to the guys that were on that team. So many people might have thought, ‘Oh, he may make it.’ No, we knew, hey, we’ve got MLB quality people right here, right now, especially with Kendall and the arms we had.
I think it’s gonna be an eye-opening experience when it’s all said and done and we all get there. That’s something you look back on and say, that’s one of the best teams that Mississippi State ever had, honestly. It kind of speaks for itself that we made it to finals, the championship game. That has a lot of luck to do with it, as well. You can’t get there by talent alone. I think we had a brotherhood there, as well. We did phenomenal together. We lived together. We had hangouts together. We went to football games together. That’s one of the big aspects of what we did with what we had. We had a lot of fun.