Brig. Gen. Austin E. Renforth had planned to throw heat.
He’d even been practicing, throwing fastballs to his aide at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island ahead of his trip to Pennsylvania.
But when the depot’s new commander got to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ PNC Park on Aug. 24 and strolled to the mound in his dress blues — the kind with a short-sleeve khaki shirt minus the tie — he saw the parrot.
The Pirate Parrot, the team’s mascot, took up station behind home plate sporting a “cartoonish” — Renforth’s word — glove that might catch a cantaloupe but, the general worried, might have trouble with his fastball.
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So, he changed the pitch ... to a knuckleball, a brave if unorthodox selection.
Renforth, an affable, self-deprecating man, might say he’s an unorthodox selection to lead the recruiting, recruit training and facilities management efforts at Parris Island.
You know, I really don’t know. I mean, I didn’t have the background in recruiting or recruit training. But I have the background in leading.
Brig. Gen. Austin E. Renforth
“You know, I really don’t know,” Renforth said when asked why he’d been selected to command the depot. “I mean, I didn’t have the background in recruiting or recruit training. But I have the background in leading.”
The depot’s leadership has been scrutinized since March 18, when recruit Raheel Siddiqui died on the island; his death is still being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
On Thursday, the Corps released findings of three command investigations — including one initiated by a White House inquiry — that determined Siddiqui’s death was a suicide and shed light on other allegations of misconduct that predate Renforth’s arrival.
On Wednesday, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette sat down with Renforth to talk about the state of Parris Island and to learn a little bit more about the man — his background and his vision for the depot.
Renforth, 52, grew up in Woodsdale, a neighborhood in Wheeling, W.Va.
He was about an hour from Pittsburgh, and he and his friends used to hitchhike to Pirates games. It was 65 cents to get in back then, he said, and they often sat behind center fielder Al Oliver. Sometimes they’d buy Twinkies for the ride to the stadium.
“Our thought was if we ate all the Twinkies by the time we got to Three Rivers (Stadium), it was a good day,” he said. “We’d just think we hit the lottery.”
Renforth played baseball and football in high school, and during his sophomore, junior and senior years, lived alone. His parents ran a bar in Wheeling, and his father — a Marine who was wounded on Saipan during World War II — had fallen ill. The man decided to move his family to Florida, but Renforth decided to stay behind.
“It wasn’t a matter of, like, ‘Oh, my dad left me,’ ” Renforth said. “My dad was surviving. My parents were very loving parents, but they were surviving, and I was being a little baby saying I wasn’t going with them, so it sort of worked out.”
Renforth’s grandmother, in her 90s at the time, lived just a mile away. He’d visit her every two weeks and cash her checks for her, and she’d give him some money. His dad paid the electric bill.
Even though he had a house to himself, Renforth never threw a party.
“And my wife” — the former Susan Dodge, also of Wheeling — “always gets mad at me,” he said. “Because, she says, ‘For three years you never had a party and you had an empty house, you know, what’s your problem?’ But I didn’t want anyone to know I was living there, because I was afraid they’d find out and I’d have to move to Florida with my family.”
Susan Dodge lived across the street from her future husband. Her mother hosted young Renforth for dinner.
“That’s how my wife and I really got close,” he said. “Her mom would be the one (who fed me). I was like a stray cat: I’d go to all these neighborhoods and people would feed me.”
Renforth applied to the Naval Academy right out of high school.
His resume was strong.
He had a congressional appointment. He was an athlete. He was class president.
“But I couldn’t do really well on the SAT,” he said. “I ended up taking that thing seven times. Seven times. So I gave up on it.”
He enlisted in the Navy and worked in a nuclear power program. He acquired some mentors, who pointed him in the direction of a preparatory school that eventually led to the academy.
He decided to join the Marine Corps because of its culture and some of the men he’d met playing sprint football at the academy were Marines.
So “Sparky” — Renforth’s nickname, and how he might introduce himself to you — followed in the footsteps of his father — “Big Sparky” — and joined the infantry.
In February, Renforth found out he would be the depot’s new commander.
“I dreamt about it — ‘Wow, could I ever be the commanding general of Parris Island?’ ” he said. “But then my career path has never taken me toward that. ... I felt like that little kid in high school who was told he was going to be starting.”
But the dream came with baggage.
Renforth inherited a depot embroiled in controversy. But he said his job was to look toward the future, not dwell on the past.
He hasn’t had to make any culture changes or take any major action in light of what’s happened at the depot, he said.
“I want to lead folks so they know they’re part of something special. I want them to understand the importance of their mission. ... This is a great place to be, and I want them to understand that they’re a part of that, and even the most minor infraction that they do here has, really, strategic implications.
“You can go to some infantry battalion and do something wrong, and it’s not going to be read on the Washington Post. You do something wrong here on Parris Island — we (will) have (reporters) coming to see me.”
In terms of his legacy at the depot, Renforth hopes to be remembered as a commander who led and loved his Marines.
The tall, wooden walls of his office are filled with pictures and keepsakes from his old commands.
A trophy buck — one he shot with his son just two weeks before the young man went to San Diego for recruit training — hangs on the wall behind his desk.
And, on a small table, the ball he threw out at the Pirates game.
He picked it up Wednesday and gripped it — a full-on knuckleball, his fingers off the seams.
On the mound in Pittsburgh, he decided against the fastball because he didn’t want make the parrot look bad.
He figured the bird would be able to handle the knuckleball.
“I think it was dancing a little bit,” he said of the pitch.
“But that parrot had to move the glove around — he didn’t know which way it was coming.”