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The Future is Now

by Matt Cosentino

Millville’s Mike Trout turns 21 this month, but he’s already becoming one of the faces of Major League Baseball

Mike Trout rocked uncomfortably back and forth, showing the nerves typical of someone his age who was on the national stage for the first time, even if he’s far from typical.

It was moments after his debut at the Major League All-Star Game in Kansas City in July, and Trout was answering questions from FOX reporter Ken Rosenthal in a live televised spot on the field.

Suddenly, Tony La Russa—who has 2,728 career wins and three World Series titles as a manager—interrupted the interview.

“Albert (Pujols) told me all about you,” La Russa said.

“Oh really?” Trout replied with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. “That’s awesome.”

One of the most successful managers in baseball history, and one of the greatest right-handed hitters the game has ever known, and like the rest of the baseball community, they just wanted to talk about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim rookie outfielder.

Yep, it’s been that kind of summer for Mike Trout.

Since being promoted from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 28, Trout has rocketed to stardom in his rookie season with the Angels. Aside from becoming one of the most feared leadoff hitters in the game, a defensive whiz, the favorite for American League Rookie of the Year, and a first-time All-Star, all Trout has done is rescue Los Angeles from a horrendous start, steer it into playoff contention, and gain support for AL Most Valuable Player.

Not bad for a South Jersey kid who just graduated from Millville Memorial High School three years ago and doesn’t turn 21 until Aug. 7.

“I have always been confident in my abilities, but to do this at my age, it really has been surreal,” Trout admitted in late July. “Last year I tried to do too much, and this season, I have really focused on keeping it simple.”

Trout, a first-round draft pick out of Millville in 2009, was considered one of the top prospects in baseball when he made his major-league debut on July 8, 2011. He ended up playing 40 games last season but hit just .220 with a .281 on-base percentage.

But since getting his second chance at the big-league level early this season, he’s proven that he’s here to stay. In a lineup with established stars like Pujols and Torii Hunter, Trout has become the headliner. “The veterans in the clubhouse have really taken me under their wings and taught me a lot about this game,” Trout said. “Really, being up last year may have been the best thing for me this season.”

As of late July, Trout was first in the American League in hitting and stolen bases, and was vying to become just the third person since 1945 and the first since 2001 to lead the league in both categories.

“I knew he had the potential, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming this fast,” said Roy Hallenbeck, who coached Trout at Millville and is still leading the Thunderbolts. “Nothing he does surprises us, but it is a little surprising that it’s happened so quickly.”

Most people who watched Trout grow up knew he was destined for great things—but like Hallenbeck, they expected it to come much later.

“He was always playing up in Little League—when he was 10 or 11, he was playing with the 12-year-old All-Stars,” said Millville Mayor J. Tim Shannon, who used to live next door to the Trouts. “Even back then, when you saw him play on the All-Stars, you knew he was a real good baseball player. I mean, I’d never seen a major-leaguer growing up. We knew he was going to excel, whether it be on the high school or college level. But making it to the Show and putting up these kinds of numbers, that’s something else. He’s captivated the nation. He‘s just a special, special individual.”

If Trout has captivated the nation with his play this summer, imagine the response in his hometown. Especially with the Phillies struggling for most of the year, Trout and the Angels have become the favorite subject of Millville residents, even those who aren’t usually baseball fans.

“He has single-handedly put a bounce back into people’s steps in Millville,” Shannon said. “People are excited. People who wouldn’t even be following baseball are following baseball and checking box scores. It’s a major discussion every day. You run into somebody and they say, ‘Hey, did you see what Mikey did last night?’

“We’re like Anaheim East right now. We have as many young kids wearing Angels hats as Phillies hats. The way the Phillies are playing, you probably have more people watching Anaheim. They still like the Phils, but now we have two red teams to choose from.”

All of the attention can be overwhelming at times, and not just for Trout. Shannon said he gets asked every day for the phenom’s autograph, while Trout’s parents, Jeff and Debbie, have become his unofficial secretaries.

Jeff Trout is a Millville teacher and the former baseball coach at the school, and played in the minor leagues himself in the Minnesota Twins organization, where he was once managed by Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel.

He tries to get out to see his son play as often as possible, and in July made trips to the All-Star Game in Kansas City as well as regular-season trips to New York and Detroit. “It has been crazy,” Jeff Trout said that month from Detroit. “Last night at the game, I had 37 messages on my phone, all calling about Mike. One was from a guy who I taught with 16 years ago. I don’t even know how he got my number.”

Trout is certainly not the first person from the area to make it to the majors in recent years. Paul VI graduate Andrew Bailey, a closer with the Boston Red Sox, won the AL Rookie of the Year Award with the Oakland Athletics in 2009 and is a two-time All-Star. Dan Meyer of Kingsway Regional and Gloucester Catholic products Greg Burke and Zach Braddock have also pitched in the big leagues.

With Trout well on his way to stardom, South Jersey is being taken more seriously as a baseball hotbed.

“I’m proud to see whenever someone from the East Coast makes it, especially from South Jersey,” Trout said. “I hope that with some of us making it from the area, perhaps more players will get scouted and noticed.”

Being based on the West Coast, Trout doesn’t get to visit South Jersey much during the season. For a young player, he’s handled the distance well.

“Of course (I miss) my family and friends,” he said. “But I’m playing the game I love with some of the best talent in the world. I couldn’t ask for more.

“My family has linked up with us on some road trips. I do plan on hanging out with friends and family this offseason. I am so proud of where I am from and glad to represent the Angels and Millville.”

The offseason could be a short one if Trout and the Angels make an extended run into October. But eventually this winter, he’ll return to South Jersey, where he’s been known to make appearances as a guest speaker and will surely be in demand after his breakout season.

“He truly enjoys South Jersey,” Shannon said. “He likes to hunt, he likes to fish, he likes all of those outdoor things. So he really enjoys his time back here. He’s making it harder and harder to come back because everybody is going to be chasing him. Everybody wants to see Mike Trout now. He has created excitement that goes beyond the city limits of Millville.”

When Trout does come back to the area, people are likely to see the same kid who grew up here.

Hallenbeck took his family to visit his former star player in Anaheim this year. He also joined two of his assistant coaches at the All-Star Game, where Trout became the third-youngest player to get a hit at the Midsummer Classic.

“He’s exactly the same kid, I don’t see anything changing,” Hallenbeck said. “One of the criticisms that his dad had in high school was that he doesn’t say anything, you never get anything out of him. … That’s the same way he is now.

“When we were with him at the All-Star Game, you’d think the kid would be wide-eyed with a million stories to tell, but when we’d ask him if he’s having fun, he’d just say, ‘Man, it’s great.’ That’s about all you get. He just refuses to talk about himself, he never has and I don’t think he ever will.”

Trout usually saves his excitement for the field, and that enthusiasm was on full display in a game at Baltimore in June. He made what could go down as the catch of the year when he robbed the Orioles’ J.J. Hardy of a home run, extending well beyond the fence to pull in the ball.

His reaction was even better—pure joy, like a kid playing ball with his friends, which he was not too long ago.

“That was as genuine as it gets,” Hallenbeck said. “I was at the game the night before, but for that game, I was home watching on television. When he did that and I saw his reaction, I told my wife and my son, ‘That’s the real Mike. Look how excited he is.’ He wasn’t showboating or posturing, he was just ecstatic over what he did.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s so athletic, you’re probably gonna see a few more catches like that.”

Added Shannon: “People always laugh or smile when I tell them this, but I think the greatest thing about Mikey Trout is his personality and the way he carries himself. As good of a baseball player as Mikey Trout is, he’s a better person. He’s been like that forever.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 5 (August, 2012).
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