ANAHEIM, Calif. – When a young man is gone, when the only possible explanation for it summons more questions and suffering and when none of it feels real, one day his friend and brother has to go pretend it’s OK. Not even OK, though. Just OK enough. And then just enough to get out of bed and eat a little something and drive to work and try to do that for a few hours.
Friday afternoon, about the time Mike Trout was to come back to work, a man in a red shirt and dark shorts watered the ground near where Mike Trout ordinarily stands. Dozens of pigeons pecked the earth nearby. But otherwise it was just this man and a green hose and the sound of water from the hose, him wandering in an empty stadium, nourishing tiny bits of it while the world went by.
Maybe what Mike Trout does for a living doesn’t always look like work. But what it wasn’t, starting Friday night, was being at home in New Jersey, being with his wife and brother-in-law’s family, his family for more than a decade, people he counts as his own.
They buried Aaron Cox on Wednesday, seven days after his death. He was 24. He was a minor-league pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels who’d abruptly retired earlier in the month, and the Angels respected his decision while also hoping he’d one day pitch for them again. More, he was Mike Trout’s wife’s little brother, three years younger than Mike, a ballplayer like Mike, built strong and capable. He wore Mike’s number at the same high school, the number no one was supposed to ever wear again, seeing as what Mike had done in that number. But Mike insisted it go to Aaron, who could play, who was family, who always would be.
So, on Friday night, Mike Trout wore Aaron’s jersey, in a way. He stood in the moments before a baseball game, his head down, his feet kicking at the grass, the stadium silent in memory of Aaron. On his jersey, in place of his own name (or, in this case, his nickname for Players’ Weekend): “A. COX.”
Often enough there is strength in just showing up. When the tribute was over, the man standing beside Trout – Eric Young Jr. – patted him on the rear end. A year-and-a-half ago, Young lost a child, his baby boy.
He’d written a letter to Aaron and released that on social media, in it saying in part, “I promise to take care of your sister and watch over your whole family,” and, simply, “Thank you” and “I love you, bro.”
Trout returned to Southern California. He hadn’t played since Aug. 1, when he’d sprained his wrist. On Thursday afternoon he took a dozen at-bats on the Angel Stadium field against minor leaguers bused in from nearby San Bernardino. On Friday night, on the first real pitch he’d seen in more than three weeks, against Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, he hit a line drive off the left-field wall for a triple.
“You know, physically he’s ready to go,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He wants to be back out there.
“The routine helps you get through stuff. But there’s always that spot. It’s always with you.”
General manager Billy Eppler attended Aaron’s funeral, as did team president John Carpino. Some of Aaron’s teammates, any who requested permission to leave their teams, Eppler said, were there, along with other club officials.
“When people go through tragedies in life and they spend time grieving, conversations with teammates, friends and coaches, it can kind of help be therapeutic,” Eppler said. “That’s my hope for him at this time.
“He’s got a heavy heart. He’s such a remarkable person, son, brother, husband, brother-in-law, teammate. That carries responsibilities that he doesn’t shy away from. They were very close. I could see the responsibility he was shouldering there.”
So he’ll do this for a few hours a day for a while, stand in a freshly watered center field amid a season that for his team isn’t going anywhere good, a reality that probably carries less weight today. Otherwise, he’ll tend to Aaron Cox’s sister, and Aaron’s mom and dad, all the people hurting like he is, just as he promised Aaron. It’s a terrible thing that happened. No amount of batting practice will make it less so. No amount of hits. No amount of wins. No amount of time.
“It’s been an emotional and tough couple days for me and my family,” Trout told reporters late Friday night. “You lose a family member like that, you know, how close I was, it’s tough. He was a great kid. I don’t wish this upon anybody. When it happened, you know, you just tell yourself you want to wake up from a dream or a bad nightmare. We’ll get through it. He’s got a great family.
“Every so often you think about him. Coming to the field. You hear a song that … he liked. But it’s good to get back on the field. It was tough. I was fighting emotions tonight. … I was emotionally drained these past couple days.”
What’s left is the promise. And putting one foot in front of the other. And turning a calendar page. Finding a fastball that’ll have to do for now. It’s a name on his back for a few days. A young man – a friend, a brother — in his heart forever.
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