'Nothing changes him': Mike Trout reserves space in Cooperstown, but remains all Millville

·MLB columnist

When the mood comes, when he’s thinking about the three children Debbie and he raised or the game the two boys played or the serenity to be had out there on a summer evening, to be so young himself, Jeff Trout will stop by the park in Millville, New Jersey.

They call it the American Little League Field down behind the dam. There is a T-ball field and a regulation field, both well kept and perfectly scuffed up, the way they’re supposed to look when they’re helping in the raising of boys and girls.

The Maurice River (the locals pronounce it like “Morris”) runs past, out beyond the outfield fence, beyond the reach of most of the young hitters from Millville. Most, but not all. The river is rich enough in catfish, bluegill and perch to bend a few rods and, later, bend the stories up at the ice cream shop.

“Seemed like we lived down there,” Jeff said, “when Tyler and Mike were playing.”

Jeff coached and Debbie worked the concession stand. When the games were done they’d fetch the fishing poles from the car, sit on the river bank and talk about simple things — winning and losing ballgames, hooking and losing fish, how much sun might be left in another perfect day.

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The kids grow up and the evenings are turned over to the next batch of dirt-caked, grass-stained, chocolate-smeared dreamers. Somebody else is teaching them how to round a base. Somebody else is giving them change for a Coke and a bag of chips afterward. But, you know, on a lot of summer evenings, the American Little League Field down behind the dam is still a place for familiar faces and voices, a place where the boys and girls and moms and dads of summer stop on the way to the rest of their lives, where there’s still time for one more cast. That’s why he goes sometimes.

“That’s a hallowed place for me,” Jeff said. “I still love that place.”

When yours sign up for the first time, when they stand fidgety and are sorted amongst the two-inning right fielders and the naturals, when they grow and grow and find little pieces of who they’re going to be, the best of it is to sit out there yourself, see if you can’t get one more inning in before the setting sun, and then hope yours will one day return to a place just as special to them. Maybe it’ll be the same place. Wouldn’t that be perfect.

A few years removed from startling a few fish in that river, a young man, then 19, arrived in Anaheim with a duffel bag, a catchy name and the kind of hype that comes with its own rose petals.

His locker was on the left side of the room, squeezed between grown men who’d seen their share of prospects. Rose petals too.

(Paul Rosales / Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales / Yahoo Sports)

Mike Trout peeked at the lineup card. He was in center field. Batting ninth. He scanned the room, found his name, dropped his bag and turned to Torii Hunter.

“So,” he said, as Hunter recalled, “what’s Beavan got?”

On July 8, 2011, the starting pitcher for the Seattle Mariners was Blake Beavan. In a few hours, Trout would make his major league debut.

“Those little details,” Hunter said recently, “let me know this guy could be special.”

On Friday night in Oakland, Trout, 29 next month, will begin his 10th major league season. After five innings the game will be official and Mike Trout — “Player must have played in each of ten (10) Major League championship seasons,” say the rules — will be Hall of Fame-eligible.

He grinned at the notion of nine seasons gone by, a 10th — odd as it will be — just ahead.

“Aw, it’s been crazy,” he said. “Very fortunate. Very blessed. I got a great family. Obviously, great wife. A great, supportive system from top to bottom. It’s gone by so fast. Ten years. Looking back, it’s crazy to think it’s been 10 years.”

He paused and added, “You know, I never take it for granted being a professional baseball player. I play every game like it’s my last. You know I love playing this game.”

The rest is plaque revisions.

Different from the moment he showed up

So, all that followed from the afternoon of July 8, 2011. Some hellos, a brief scouting report and an oh-fer that day, then half a career spent with his head tilted slightly forward. Part of a smile. Was that a wink? The other half still out there.

“From the time he showed up,” said Vernon Wells, who, with Hunter, flanked the teenaged Trout in the Angels’ outfield, “every day I would leave the park thinking there was nothing more he could do to impress me. And then he would do something else.”

Even then, Trout had most of the skills to be better than the rest.

“Every day in Mike’s first spring training, [hitting coach] Mickey Hatcher said, ‘This guy could be our starting center fielder right now,’” recalled Mike Butcher, then the pitching coach. “I’ll never forget it. He said it out loud, over and over again.”

A young Mike Trout hit only .220 in a brief big-league stint in 2011 before taking off in 2012. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
A young Mike Trout hit only .220 in a brief big-league stint in 2011 before taking off in 2012. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Through diligence, his arm would grow stronger. He’d learn to cut bases cleaner. He’d even come to resist high fastballs. The gap between great and generational is measured in a few more feet of carry, a tenth of a second between stops and surviving one more pitch to get to the next.

They measure it every day, too, and not just on the days the hits are falling. Or when the team is winning. Or when the stadium is full and dusk brings a body back to life, when the bat head is a magnet and then it seems anything is possible and a young man almost can’t help but to be great, to be generational.

He’s the finest player in the game maybe because of the other days, the ones when a sprint to first base feels like a job, when 30 more mid-afternoon swings off the curveball machine will leave his hands raw, when the season’s lost in August and the crowds begin to thin. He’s a career .305 hitter with 285 home runs and 200 steals, a trophy for Rookie of the Year and three for MVP. There has never been anyone quite like him. And none of that happens on the good days alone, or inside those three hours every night. A ballplayer works for greatness. A ballplayer lives for generational.

“I played with him for two years and I really didn’t see the kid have a bad day,” Hunter said. “He’d strike out two or three times and in the dugout he was actually trying to pump other people up. ‘That’s OK! We’ll get ’em tomorrow!’ I watched Kirby Puckett, man, and it’s the same vibe.

“What’s amazing is, what he did back then, he still does it. He’s a professional. He’s still smiling. He’s still running down the line like it’s his first day in the big leagues. … After all the hype, all the TV, all the kids who love him, the parents who named their kids after him, the parents who had twins and named one Mike and the other Trout, he’s still the same guy. Whatever character he has, it’s there to stay. Nothing changes him. Not money. Not fame. Not the Hall. I don’t think anything can break him.”

‘He hasn’t changed his personality’

Hunter, who smiled through a 19-year career and hardly missed an opportunity for fun, had identified in Trout what they — parents, friends, teammates, coaches, opponents — all do. That is, Mike Trout, nine years a big leaguer, almost that long a superstar, a Hall of Famer if he were to walk away late Friday night, having earned about $130 million so far, due another $370 million over the coming decade, remains the young man his father still sees from those old bleachers down behind the dam.

So, the guy who’d call his hitting coach at 2 in the morning, unable to sleep, bothered by something in his mechanics, while batting .320. The guy who’d carve out time every day for the boys and girls waving from the stands. The guy who during games would sit next to not the hitting coach, but the pitching coach, because the pitching coach was finding patterns and delivery flaws in the other pitcher. The guy who funds programs that feed folks in Millville and Cumberland County during a pandemic and, with wife Jess, opens a foundation that assists those with mental health challenges. The guy who’d stand between Hunter and Wells during pitching changes and ask about positioning, ask about routes, ask about arising situations, then playfully ask what the handshake would look like when they won.

Then he’d start over the next day. Every day. Still.

Mike Trout and his wife, Jess, are expecting their first child in August. He signed an extension with the Angels in 2019. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Mike Trout and his wife, Jess, are expecting their first child in August. He signed an extension with the Angels in 2019. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

“The great thing about talking about the greatest active player on the planet,” said Tim Mead, long-time public relations head for the Angels and current Hall of Fame president, “is that he’s not lost the ability to go home and be Mikey from Millville. Ultimately, it’s a body of work, on and off the field. It’s just consistent.”

Jeff, Mike’s dad, can’t really explain that, other than to say there was really only one rule around the house, that being, “Be a good person,” figuring the rest would follow. 

“People say money and fame changes you,” he said. “That they change a person. He hasn’t changed his personality. The things he loves to do, the way he treats people, he’s remained the same. So I don’t know.”

Debbie and he soon will be grandparents for a fourth time. Mike and Jess are due a boy, their first child, in early August. Mike calls it “surreal,” and if he were counting the years he’d probably start in high school.

“When I first started dating Jess,” he said, “we talked about having kids and now it’s happening … I just can’t wait to meet him.”

Jeff has offered little advice on how it goes from here and Mike hasn’t yet asked for much. Some things come naturally, you know, once all the hard work is done.

That’d be a thought for a summer evening at the park down behind the dam, how there’s another generation coming. Same laughs, same dirt stains and grass stains and chocolate smears. Different knees and faces. Same game. Jeff will be there. They’ll all be there. And they can start all over again in the place Jeff never really left, or at least not all of him. Wait’ll the grandkids see this place.

Jeff laughed.

“And if they don’t want to play baseball,” he said, “we could just go fishing.”

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