Jeff and Debbie Trout drove their son Mike to a baseball game last Tuesday.
Mike slept most of the way. The family has made similar trips from their Millville home thousands of times since Mike was 6. The ride was routine with one big difference — the destination.
They dropped Mike off not at a local baseball field but Oriole Park at Camden Yards — the home of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles.
Trout, a 2009 Millville High School graduate, stars in left field for the Los Angeles Angels. He’s 20, and after a loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday he led the American League in batting with a .336 average and in stolen bases with 22.
Trout’s success at such a young age has made him one of the biggest stories in baseball. His country-boy good looks, speed and power evoke memories of Mickey Mantle. USA Today has written stories about him. Highlights of his spectacular plays seem to appear nightly on ESPN’s SportsCenter and on the Major League Baseball Network.
“You won’t believe what Mike Trout did tonight!” an MLB broadcaster said during a recent highlight show.
Just three years ago, Trout played for the Millville Thunderbolts against local high school teams.
Today, Trout could be named to the American League All-Star team. Most who follow baseball say he’s a shoo-in for the American League Rookie of the Year award. Some writers have said he should be a candidate for the Most Valuable Player award.
“I talk to my parents about it, and (the success) seems a little crazy, a little surreal,” he said. “But you just stay humble. You just keep telling yourself it’s a game you’ve played since you were a little kid.”
Mike seemed born to play baseball. He slept in his uniform the night before Little League opening day, and no matter how dirty it was after a game, he refused to take it off.
Trout is the youngest of three children. His older sister, Teal, is married with two young children. His older brother, Tyler, is a Rutgers-Camden law student.
His father, Jeff, is a longtime Millville teacher and coach. He still coaches the offensive line for the Millville football team, which reached the South Jersey final last December.
Jeff is also one of the best athletes in Millville history. He excelled in baseball for the high school and the University of Delaware. Jeff played four years in the Minnesota Twins’ minor-league system from 1983-86 before he retired in part because of knee problems. He reached the double-A level and had a career batting average of .303 in four seasons. Jeff’s minor-league manager for three of his four seasons was a young Charlie Manuel, now the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Trout could hit,” Manuel said of Jeff.
Mike emerged as a New Jersey sensation his senior year of high school when he hit a state-record 18 home runs.
The Angels selected him with the 25th pick in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft in June 2009, and he immediately established himself as one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
He made his Major-League debut July 8, 2011. He finished that season with a .220 average (27-for-123).
Trout started this season in Triple-A after a viral infection sidelined him for most of spring training. The Angels promoted him from Triple-A on April 28. The Angels are 36-19 since Trout joined the team. They are 22-7 when he scores a run. After Saturday’s loss, the Angels (43-35) still had the fourth-best record in the American League and trail the first-place Texas Rangers by six games in the American League West division.
Trout’s said his experience last year has helped him this season.
“I was definitely pressing last year,” he said. “The game has slowed down. You can’t teach experience. It was big going into this year knowing what to expect.”
It’s unlikely that anyone expected what Trout has done in his rookie season. The 6-foot-2, 227-pounder creates excitement nearly every night.
On June 22, the Angels hosted the Los Angeles Dodgers before a sold-out stadium. In the sixth inning, Torii Hunter lined a single to right field with Trout on first base. Trout started running with the pitch. He scored all the way from first base. It was a play few Major Leaguers — if any — have the speed to make.
Trout made one of the best defensive plays of the season Wednesday in Baltimore. Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy blasted a ball toward center field. Trout sprinted to the fence, leaped and caught the ball, saving a home run. YouTube clips of the highlight have garnered more than 20,000 views already.
Nearly Trout’s entire torso was above the fence when he snared the ball. Angels pitcher Jered Weaver doffed his cap in Trout’s direction.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he had never seen a baseball player jump that high.
“The speed that Trout has is explosive,” Hunter said. “You only see that in football players. You don’t see that in baseball. When you have speed like that, him leading the league in runs scored or stolen bases, that’s truth. The speed he has is ungodly.”
The Angels are a mix of young, talented players and veterans — such as Hunter and Albert Pujols — who are among baseball’s best. The Angels’ veterans look out for Trout.
Trout is humble, but the Angels make sure he doesn’t get carried away with all the media attention he gets.
“If I see any change in him, I’m going to be the one to pull his ear to the side,” Pujols said.
Hunter treats him like a son. He gives him advice on and off the field. Hunter tells Trout to take care of his legs — or as Hunter calls them, Trout’s “moneymakers” — by staying hydrated to avoid cramps or muscle pulls.
The veterans also play jokes on him. Hunter once said he would race Trout for $100. Trout said, “Let’s go.” Hunter then explained to him it didn’t matter who won. Hunter only said he would race — not beat — Trout for $100.
“I’m a veteran,” Hunter said. “He’s doing great on the field, but in (the clubhouse) he’s nobody.”
The Angels also are wary about Trout’s increasing fame. It can be a lot for a 20-year-old to handle. One of the hottest Angels souvenirs is a foam hat shaped like a fish with Trout’s number 27 on it.
“Life’s changing fast, and he’s adapting well,” Jeff Trout said.
Trout gets recognized in Southern California now. His family was out in California for a vacation in June, and they went to Newport Beach.
A 9-year-old girl walked up to Trout and asked if he was Mike Trout. He took a photograph with the girl, and then more people started to come around.
“When word got around he was there, we had to leave,” Jeff said.
Trout also gets spotted in restaurants. Jeff said Mike can’t say no to anyone.
“There’s no road map for this one,” Jeff said of teaching Mike how to handle fame. “The people are pretty good. They wait until we’re done eating. But it’s great. These are good problems to have.”
Trout lives in a condominium near the Angels’ stadium in Anaheim with 24-year-old rookie starting pitcher Garrett Richards. The two played together in the minor leagues. Richards said Trout approaches the game like a kid playing Wiffle ball in the backyard.
“He doesn’t let anything get to him,” Richards said. “He’s all about doing everything the right way, and you wouldn’t think a 20-year-old kid would be like that.”
When Trout isn’t playing baseball, he’s watching sports on television. What does Trout do when a story about him appears on SportsCenter or some other sports news program?
“He tries to play it off like he’s not paying attention,” Richards said with a laugh, “but we all know he is.”
He and Richards also play video games, mostly “MLB: The Show.” Trout usually wins, although he doesn’t just want to win. Richards said with a laugh that Trout wants to bury his video game opponents.
“He’s different,” Richards said. “I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s good at everything.”
Trout’s success has rallied Millville and all of Cumberland County, a region that has struggled with tough economic times.
“Every hit he gets, the closer (everyone in Millville) is related to him,” said Millville resident Jeff Dubois, 53, a longtime friend of the Trout family.
Trout’s connections to Millville are strong. His longtime girlfriend, Jessica Cox, is a 2008 Millville graduate. Trout spent Monday in town before the Angels played in Baltimore on Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s why his family drove him to Camden Yards.
He spent most of that day with his family. He joked to reporters that he wanted to remain incognito. Trout has a passion for hunting and fishing and said it was nice to see trees and grass and not just palm trees.
“It’s where I grew up, in the woods,” he said.
Trout also loved catching up with his young niece and nephew.
“I got home from the airport (last Monday), and they were like, ‘Uncle Mike, Uncle Mike’,” he said. “Four months ago they weren’t saying that. Seeing them in person makes you feel good.”
There are plenty of people walking around Millville with bags under their eyes because they’re up until early morning hours watching Angels games from the West Coast.
One of them is Tony Surace, a former Millville football coach, athletic director and current Cumberland County freeholder. Surace coached Jeff at Millville. Surace’s wife, Barbara, taught Mike in nursery school. Surace is a die-hard New York Yankees fan, although he didn’t mind in May when Trout went 4-for-13 in a three-game series against the Yankees to help the Angels win two of the three games.
Surace travels the county, and everywhere he goes someone is sure to ask about Trout. He went to Baltimore this week to see the Angels play the Orioles on Wednesday. He ran into a former Millville student with an Angels halo tatood on his bicep.
“I’d say the town (has) Angels fever,” Surace said.
The All-Star teams will be announced today. The game is July 10 in Kansas City, Mo. All-Stars are selected by fans, players and the managers of each team.
Trout downplays talk of making the All-Star team, although he admits it would be a dream come true. The Angels think Trout deserves to be an All-Star.
“No doubt,” Hunter said. “If he’s not an All-Star, I’m going to be surprised.”
Trout’s success is surreal to almost everyone who knew him growing up. As Jeff said, it’s hard not to be taken aback when you’re in line for a beer at a major-league stadium and the five guys in front of you are wearing jerseys with your son’s name on the back.
But although Trout’s success might have come quickly, it didn’t shock people who have seen him play at any age.
No matter how old he’s been.
No matter what the level of competition.
And no matter whether his parents dropped him off at big-league ballpark or a township recreation field.
Trout has never looked out of place on the baseball field.
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