There are so many comparisons, and not just statistically, between Mike Trout and Mickey Mantle. Trout, young and strong, does the kinds of things Mantle could do on a baseball field when Mantle was young and strong, even after Mantle's legs began to betray him. But there is one thing Trout doesn't have, at least so far, that Mantle had until his body was breaking down for good. And that is October.
Trout, who just turned 26 the other day, has had one shot at October. It was an American League Division Series against the Royals three years ago. Trout and the Angels got swept. Trout had one hit in that series in 12 at-bats. It was a home run. It is, by the way, the same number of postseason home runs, in a different world, that Willie Mays hit in his long and amazing baseball life. And Mays never hit one in a World Series, not in 1951 with the New York Giants or '54, when he and the Giants swept the Indians, not in '62 against Mantle and the Yankees, not in his last shot at the Series, when he was with the Mets, in '73. Ted Williams played one World Series in his baseball life. Got seven games. No home runs.
Mays' lasting, unforgettable moment in the Series wasn't at the plate. It was in dead center at the Polo Grounds, where he made an over-the-shoulder catch against Vic Wertz that is one of the most famous catches in baseball history. Of course, as soon as the ball was in Mays' glove, he was wheeling in his own dazzling way and throwing it back toward the infield.
Mantle hit 18 home runs in the 12 World Series he played. His greatness, even when it was diminished greatness, was always framed by the World Series. And sometimes defined by it. Even in his last World Series, in 1964 against the Cardinals, one the Yankees lost in seven games, Mantle hit one of the most famous World Series home runs of his career and perhaps the longest, off knuckleballer Barney Schultz in the bottom of the ninth of Game 3, winning that game 2-1 for the Yankees.
Tim McCarver caught that game for the Cardinals, and has always joked about the Cardinals right fielder, Mike Shannon, going back to the short old fence at the old Yankee Stadium, setting himself for a possible leap even as Mantle's home run was on its way to the moon.
After the game, McCarver asked Shannon, known as Moon Man to his teammates, what he was doing out there. Shannon looked at him and said, "Timmy, you never know."
McCarver, remembering the wondrous trajectory of Mantle's home run, with wonder in his voice, said, "You never know?"
What the whole world knows is how much October meant to Mantle, and not just in New York. He played in those 12 World Series with the Yankees and No. 7 won seven. Hit all those home runs, against Barney Schultz and everybody else. Mays won his one World Series when he was 23 and never won another, even though teams he played on later in his career made it to Game 7 twice. And never hit a World Series home run. The one October home run Mays hit was in the 1971 National League Championship Series between the Giants and the Pirates.
Right now, Trout -- who brings his usual amount of amazing to his current season even having missed plenty of it because of injury -- is playing on the wrong team in southern California, at the wrong time. The Angels still have a shot at the AL Wild Card Game, just because everybody except teams in the Little League World Series seem to have a shot at the AL Wild Card Game.
"It's frustrating, for sure," Trout said to Jorge Ortiz of USA Today this spring. "You want to get to the playoffs. It's fun. You've seen the World Series last year. You want to be in that atmosphere."
The Angels are just two games out of the second Wild Card in their league. So do they have a chance to play a one-game season when the postseason starts? They do. But the odds of them doing that are as sketchy as the rest of the teams in the scrum behind the two teams holding Wild Card spots right now, the Yankees and the Royals. It means that the October spotlight will likely find players other than Trout again. Trout has to wonder when things are going to change for him in Anaheim. There was a time when there was talk that the kid from Millville Senior High in New Jersey might sign a lifetime contract with the Angels, under whose control he is through the 2020 season.
But you wonder how Trout will feel about that in a few years, if he has remained healthy and has continued to play baseball in the complete and thrilling way that so few young players ever have. LeBron James, the best all-around player in basketball, and for a long time, could take a bunch of guys named Booby Gibson and Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden to the NBA Finals when he was just 22 years old. Amazing basketball players can do that. Amazing baseball players can't.
For every season except one of Trout's career so far, he has watched October baseball the same as you and me. Hit that one home run. Never had his team win a postseason game. Might be watching again this year. It would be like LeBron watching the NBA playoffs, or Steph Curry, or Kevin Durant. Trout is that good. The best Trout can hope for this season is to play one postseason game to keep playing. As young as he still is, you wonder when this will start to get old for him, playing for the team in his part of the world that isn't the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Out There, he plays for the Other Team.
Much was made recently when Bryce Harper hit his 150th career home at the exact same age Trout was when he hit No. 150 the year before. Already people have been talking about what kind of contract Harper might get as a free agent, the number $400 million frequently thrown around. So far, Harper's Nationals have won the same number of postseason series that Trout's Angels have, which means none. At least Harper has had some innings in October, three NL Division Series, two of which went five games, the last one against the Dodgers last season. Harper has managed to hit four postseason home runs. It is a real good bet that he will hit more this season.
The Nationals will win another division title with Harper as their star. The Angels can't even see the Astros in the AL West. Trout is LeBron, just in baseball. He is as much the captain of amazing as anybody in the sport. But he can't carry a team the way LeBron can, or the way Aaron Rodgers can in Green Bay. It is way more complicated than that in baseball, even for a player who can do the kinds of things that Mike Trout can. In just the 70 games he has played so far, he has 23 home runs and a .347 batting average and an OPS of 1.177 and a slugging percentage of .710, and when he has been on the field, he has been as good as he's ever been in his life.
You've seen him in the outfield. He gets to everything. The only thing that has been out of his reach, at least so far, has been October. He might be the new Mantle. Just without that. One hit in October. One homer. World's best jockey, just without a horse worthy of him.