People like to say that the All-Star Game is for the fans. They get to vote, they get to debate, they get to watch and cheer — it’s all for the fans, baseball sells us, and we buy it. ¶ But the stars themselves know different. They may grumble about the lost days off, they may complain about the extra travel and the endless promotional responsibilities that are foisted on them. But the moment a ballplayer walks through that clubhouse door and sees his temporary teammates, when he recognizes the faces of the greatest the game has to offer and realizes he belongs among them, that’s when the truth strikes: The All-Star Game is really for the players.
“There’s nothing like it. I’m not that old, so I’m in that clubhouse with guys I’ve watched growing up. It’s so cool to be around them, get to talk to them, sit on the bench with them, just be in the same dugout with all those stars,” Mike Trout says, staring straight ahead as he remembers it. “Last year, just being in the same clubhouse with Mariano [Rivera], knowing that’s one of the greatest ever standing right there, it was pretty awesome.”
So what did Trout say to the great Yankees closer?
“Oh, I didn’t talk to him at all. I mean, I gave him his space,” Trout said. “I didn’t want to intrude.”
Yep, that about sums up Mike Trout. More bashful than brash, more reverent than rash, Trout may be the last person on Earth who would ever publicly suggest something that virtually everyone else, scouts and sabermetricians alike, agrees is settled: That he is, at age 22, the best all-around player in the game already. In a recent 15-minute conversation, Trout mentioned “respect” or used the phrase “respect for the game” seven times, a BHQ (basic humble quotient) of 5.42 that confirms about his makeup what his OPS+, WAR and PSN, not to mention every scouting report in existence, tell us about his makeup.
“He is never cocky. He’s a very grounded young man who just loves to play baseball,” said Trout’s manager, Mike Scioscia. “He was brought up right.”
And still is, in some ways. Trout speaks to his parents, Debbie and Jeff, every day, he said, and he famously still lives in the family house in Millville, N.J., in the offseason. “People always mention that, but it’s not like I’m home much. It’s like staying with family when you go visit them,” Trout said. “It’s just [where] I’m comfortable.”
Comfort is something that Trout denies the pitchers he faces. He led the AL in stolen bases as a rookie, he’s finished in the top 10 of the first two batting races he’s been a part of, and he reached 75 home runs third-fastest in baseball history. He also patrols center field as though he’s playing right and left, too.
For that reason, it’s no surprise that Trout was a unanimous choice this spring of Baseball Writers Association of America members who took part in a Star Tribune survey asking to name each league’s best “Five-Tool Player.” Adam Jones and Manny Machado, both of Baltimore, finished second and third in the AL balloting, but nobody listed any name but “Trout” on the top line.
And you don’t have to watch him long to understand why. He has a textbook swing powered by some of the fastest hands in the game, allowing him to spray hits with authority despite looking like he’s placing them precisely where he intends.
But his quick feet form the tool that Trout maintains he treasures most. “All the other stuff — hitting for power, throwing arm — they mainly help you on one side. But speed is important for both offense and defense,” Trout said. “I do a lot of work maintaining my legs, keeping them fresh, working on strength. Getting on base, covering ground in the outfield — speed is really important to me.”
But here’s the thing about Trout: There’s something for everyone. One of his teammates realized that Trout would be a superstar when he saw him swing a bat. One came to the same conclusion after watching him not swing. And an American League advance scout joined the bandwagon without even watching him at the plate.
For Angels catcher Hank Conger, the first oh-my moment came during Trout’s brief 2012 stay in Class AAA, where he was batting .403 for Salt Lake — “video-game numbers,’’ Conger said — before being called up for good.
“We were in Reno, and he’s leading off the game. [Second] pitch of the game, it looked like they tried to jam him, and he just inside-outed the ball to right-center,” Conger recounted. “It was a bomb. It had to be like 460, 480 feet — the opposite way! It was unbelievable. That’s when I knew.”
A few weeks later, when Trout burst into the majors by collecting hits in eight of his first 11 games, Torii Hunter realized that his new teammate would eventually claim his old job in the Angels outfield. It wasn’t so much how he hit that impressed him, Hunter said; it was how he didn’t hit.
“Right away, I would notice his plate presence, how he already could work the count. He’d get down 0-2 and just keep at it ’til it’s 3-2,” Hunter said. “He’s only 20 years old and he’s already got plate awareness. ... I told him, ‘You remind me of a guy named Joe Mauer.’ ”
What’s amazing is, Trout still is improving, still adding to his game.
“That’s what floored me when I saw him in Arizona” during spring training, said a scout for an AL team who asked not to be identified talking about another team’s player because it’s against team policy. “I was watching him throw from center field, and he’s great! Distance, accuracy, mechanics, all above average. I had to go back to my last report on him — I had him below average. And I realized, he worked on it and got better. If he takes steps forward in the rest of his game like he did with his arm, he’s going to be Hank Aaron.”
And if he stays humble, works hard and helps carry the Angels — who have locked him up with a $144 million contract until he’s 29 — to postseason glory, people around baseball suspect he might be Derek Jeter, too. In other words, the face of baseball, the star most adored, as the retiring Yankees shortstop is now.
“Jeter, that’s flattering. I hope I can be a good role model like him, respect the game, stay out of trouble,” Trout says. “You look at him, one thing that stands out is, he wins. Hard worker, great competitor. I’d be doing pretty well to be compared to him.”
But probably too respectful to say anything to him.