BOSTON -- The magazine has just come out and has been passed around as if it was printed in the Vatican and hand-delivered, one copy for the entire world. There you go, unbelievable, the cover of the Aug. 27 issue of Sports Illustrated. Mike Trout stares into the camera with that high-school yearbook kind of staged sincerity, a bat in his hand, the headline THE SUPERNATURAL across his chest, and now Jeff Trout, his dad, stares at the picture and then turns to page 32 and begins to read the nine-page story right here in the grandstand at Fenway Park.
The wacky, implausible summer saga continues.
“We were hoping that Mike would be called up in September,” Debbie Trout, who is Mike Trout’s mom, says about 20 feet from her husband. “That would have been good enough. …”
Debbie is here and Jeff is here and their older son, Tyler, who is in his final year at Rutgers Law School, is here and their daughter, Teal, who has added two grandchildren to the family in the last two years, joyous events, is here and Mike’s girlfriend, Jessica Cox, very pretty, is here. Everyone is stuffed into the cramped Fenway seats, Section 20, up a bit, but behind home plate, all the seats in a row, one after another, no personal space, none. There is a crowd.
“Sept. 1 is when the rosters are expanded,” Debbie continues. “We figured Mike would spend the summer in Salt Lake City, Triple A, learn a lot. Then get a chance to taste the big leagues in September. …”
No less than four months ago, this trip to Boston last week would have been a daydream, a cross-your-fingers wish. Fenway Park? The family all together? To see Mike play? In the big leagues? Preposterous. Now this is the new life, the changed reality. Every day is another surprise. Every day is a celebration.
“When he didn’t make the team in spring training, we figured that was the way it was,” Debbie says. “You know, though, we went out to visit him in Salt Lake City and he had a look about him that I never had seen before. He was on a mission. That’s the only way I explain it. He was very serious in a way I never had seen. On a mission. ...”
The mission has landed everybody here.
Debbie and Jeff’s 21-year-old son is playing centerfield, hitting first for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, ripping his way through the American League, leading the league in batting average, stolen bases, runs and a bunch of sabermetric indices that calculate a player’s offensive worth to his team. He is a rookie, might have started the season in Salt Lake, but check the numbers, now he’s the best player.
Three days were left in the month of April when he called home to Millville, N.J., in the middle of the night and said, sorry to wake everybody up, he was being brought up to the big team, was going to join the Angels right away in Cleveland. The team was struggling, had dug itself into a hole with a 7-16 start, and needed a boost. Jeff and Debbie hustled to Cleveland to see that first game, that first series, and everything has proceeded from there.
“There never has been a position player this good this young,” Jeff reads in that SI story by Tom Verducci. “Trout turned 21 on Aug. 7, an occasion he marked with his 20th home run in his 88th game of the year. (He spent all but the last three days of April in the minors.) His OPS+ (182), a measurement of on-base and slugging percentages adjusted for ballpark factors and league norms, blows away the previous best by anyone so young, a record set 105 years ago by Ty Cobb (167). He is a slam dunk to win the AL’s Rookie of the Year, the favorite to become the youngest MVP.”
A pair of school teachers, Debbie and Jeff have been on the road for much of the summer. They have spent serious time in Los Angeles. They have hit assorted baseball outposts, were in Kansas City for the All-Star Game, are here in Boston tonight, part of a three-game series. They have seen magic unfold in front of their eyes.
This is the new life. This is the changed reality.
“Unbelievable,” Debbie says. “That’s the one word that keeps going through my mind.”
* * *
The name that is heard most often in the comparisons is Mickey Mantle. Willie Mays sometimes is mentioned, and just the other day, Shoeless Joe Jackson was in a Mike Trout story about something that hadn’t been done “since Shoeless Joe Jackson.” But Mickey Mantle is the standard.
The combination of speed and power is the irresistible link. Trout is 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, has hit 25 homers and stolen 41 bases through Tuesday. Those are the sort of numbers that Mantle put up before knee problems intervened. Trout’s speed to first base, timed at 3.53 seconds on a bunt single, is astonishing for a batter from the right side, terrific for a batter from any side. His personal highlight reel of catches -- the one against the Mariners, the one against the White Sox, the four-star, out-of-body spectacular off J.J. Hardy of the Orioles, long run, full extension, stretch over the fence, ball landing in the web of the glove -- evokes further Mantle memories. Athleticism mixed with instinct mixed with calculation.
“You hear the names that are being thrown around, and they’re impressive,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia says. “Not many people are compared to these people. Mike deserves to be with them, the things he’s done this year, but what you have seen is what happens over time. Those names, they’ve proved it over time. That’s what we have to see with Mike.”
His story is such unadulterated American schmaltz that every executive in the Major League Baseball offices in New York has to be hoping beyond hope that it has a long, long shelf life. Kid from depressed town in New Jersey (New Jersey! What baseball prospects ever come from New Jersey?) is picked 25th in the first round of 2009 draft by Angels. Kid rockets through minor leagues in record time. Makes debut in big leagues in 2011 as a teenager. Comes back in 2012 on his mission and becomes a star. A flat-out star!
This is baseball from the typewriters of John R. Tunis or Bernard Malamud, baseball from the silver screen, Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, coming from nowhere to hit home runs that make scoreboards explode. The recent baseball miracle stories largely have come from Latin America, poor kids from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela or somewhere exotic, kids arriving on the scene, learning the language, but already knowing how to pitch or to hit. Mike Trout is from the old-time Mantle-Mays School, heck, the Ruth-Gehrig School. He and Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals and Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates are a group of emerging, rising American stars straight from familiar domestic situations with grade school, high school, proms and video games, and certainly apple pie. Trout is in the lead.
It is not a new position.
“I work with his dad, Jeff, at the high school, coached football with him, so I’ve been watching Mike play for a long time,” Ken Williams of Millville says. “At the high school, we ran a baseball camp in the summer. Mike started coming when he was 10 years old. He was already pretty good, way ahead of anyone his age. You could see.”
Jeff Trout arguably was the best player ever to come out of Millville before his son. He played at the University of Delaware, hit .512 in his senior year, second in the country. Drafted in the fifth round, he played four years in the Twins organization, the final three at Double-A in Orlando. A third baseman, he always hit -- he batted .321 in his final season -- but he could see Gary Gaetti, an All-Star, at the top of the Twins’ depth chart and had met and married Debbie in Florida and was 26 years old and ready to begin real life.
He coached football and baseball at the high school for a while, coached both of his sons in youth leagues, teaching the basics. Debbie remembers standing on a set of bleachers at some New Jersey field, turning this way and that, so she can see her son, Tyler, on one diamond and son, Mike, on another. Tyler eventually decided to go in other directions, away from the game. Mike couldn’t rush into it fast enough.
“He was a kid, from the time he was a baby, he always would have a ball in his hand,” Debbie says. “Any kind of ball. He was fascinated. Tyler wasn’t like that.”
Jeff tells people that he took Debbie to the hospital at 4 in the morning, and by 7, Mike was born. The kid has been fast from the beginning. The only times he would sit still were to watch baseball on television. He would watch a nine-inning game by the time he was 8.
By the time he reached high school, he was good enough to start at second base, bat leadoff as a freshman. By the time he was a sophomore, he had been discovered by major-league scouts. They would come to his games, more and more of them, taking notes and asking to see him hit or throw or do something. By the time he was a junior, he was on a different level from most New Jersey high-school baseball players. He had played on crackerjack summer teams such as the Tri-State Arsenal, a South Jersey club that traveled to Disney World, Cooperstown, spots around the country. Every year his game was better and better when he came back from these summers. He pitched, (fastballs up to 90 miles per hour, backed by a big overhand curve), played shortstop, belted the covers off baseballs.
“We’re in the tournament at the end of his junior year,” says Ken Williams, who has been a long-time assistant to head coach Roy Hallenbeck, who succeeded Jeff at Millville High. “In batting practice before we play Cherry Hill East, a big school, where Orel Hershiser went, Mike is putting on a show. Maybe the best batting practice he ever had. The kids from Cherry Hill East are just standing there, watching him. The coach comes running out, says, ‘Go hit, go throw, get out of here.’ Then he says, ‘this kid isn’t going to beat us.’”
The game began. Trout, leading off as usual, was intentionally walked. Next at-bat, runner on first, he was intentionally walked. Next at-bat, bases loaded, he was intentionally walked, allowing a run to score. (“Not going to beat us.”) On the final at-bat, Cherry Hill already with a good lead, the game safe, maybe another intentional walk in the books, the coach let his pitcher throw to Mike Trout. Let the scouts see what they wanted to see.
“Mike almost decapitated the kid,” Williams says. “Hit a line drive, right through the box. Knocked the pitcher out of the game.”
In his senior year, Trout hit .530, had 18 home runs in 21 games. He played center field, getting ready for his future, but also had an 8-2 record as a pitcher with four shutouts and 1.77 earned run average. Picked 25th in the first round -- lower than expected because of the traditional bias against cold-weather position players who are limited in experience by short seasons -- he was the only player from the entire country to show up at the 2009 MLB draft at Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J.
“I can’t wait to get out there and play ball,” he said into the MLB Network cameras, nervous and proud, an Angels cap on his head.
And that was the start.
* * *
“We never thought much about him playing pro baseball until his senior year when it all started to get serious,” Debbie Trout says. “Jeff and I, we’re educators. We thought he’d go to college, then, maybe if everything went well. …”
Jeff still is reading that SI article. (“In a short time, Trout has become a franchise player who leaves people grasping for rarefied comparisons,” Verducci writes.) The family still is stuffed into those seats, ready for the game to begin. Around the ballpark, because Boston is within driving distance of New Jersey, assorted residents of Millville are in attendance.
Some, like the mayor, Tim Shannon, and Ken Williams’ father and mother, Ken Sr. and Ann Marie, are family friends. Some, like John Bennett and his son, Cole, and daughter, Ryley, are just fans. The two kids are wearing Angels shirts, “Trout” on the back. One held up a sign during batting practice that read, “We Are From Millville, Catching Trout In Boston.” The other one’s sign read, “Forget Shark Week, It’s Trout Week In Boston.” They are Trout fans, not Angels fans.
“Millville’s had some tough times,” John Bennett says. “I think our county, Cumberland County, is one of the 20 poorest counties in America. The glass business used to be Millville. All the big glass companies were there. Now they’re gone.
“It’s great for all of us to see what Mike’s doing. To come from the snow belt of New Jersey, where we live, and do all this … that’s something.”
“It’s like a dream,” Debbie Trout says at Fenway Park, ready to watch her now-famous son go to work. “You wonder how it’s happening to you. Then you say, ‘It’s got to happen to somebody.’ It might as well be us.”