By Daniel Riley
At the end of a crooked block, off a country road, at the edge of a town so distant from the southern exits of the New Jersey Turnpike that it feels like Delaware, sits the modest house where Mike Trout's parents live, and where Mike Trout still lived this past winter, just months removed from one of the greatest rookie seasons in the history of baseball. While I wait for Mike to get home, I sit with his mother in their snug living room, catching the faint seizure-strobe of SportsCenter, muted and looping on the TV over my shoulder. I look at pictures; she orders pizza. Mike's girlfriend from high school, Jess, blonde and pretty like one of the top-ten blondes at every high school, is here, too. She hangs out for a couple of hours before heading to work. As in real-person Millville work. (She says the cross-country distance is tough on her and Mike but that visiting California's not such a bad element of the LDR.) Soon Mike's father, a high school history teacher and football coach, who suddenly had a nice reason to retire, arrives home. He seems like he's grown accustomed to strangers being in his house but isn't anywhere near liking it. Killing time, Mom asks me, wholly earnest: What makes you so interested in talking to Mikey?
Here's what: Baseball has never seen anyone like him. When Trout returns to Orange County this month to lead off an impossibly stacked Angels lineup, he will be, at 21, the brightest-burning star on a team built to win the World Series and for which anything less will be a total bummer. Immediately after his minor league call-up in late April, he began filling up each column of the stat bank -- leading all of baseball with 129 runs scored, twenty more than the next-highest -- with his freaky three-ring talent: a swing as tight and efficient as the swirl on a barber pole, the base-stealing explosiveness of an NFL running back, the infield-to-warning-track outfield coverage of a ten-time Gold Glover.
But for all the accolades, the most notable line on the Trout prospectus has always been his hometown: Millville, New Jersey. Not Florida, or Texas, or California -- places where the constant sun lets budding stars bloom all winter. Jersey. Where the slushy cold has historically put a ceiling on prospects, to the extent that most big-league teams only task one scout to canvas the entire Northeast. Which helps explain why Trout's freaky talent was overlooked, or at least underrated, in the 2009 draft, when he was chosen just twenty-fifth. He spent most of last season making good on a promise to himself: Show all the teams that passed on him --some of which passed on him twice -- that they'd made a once-in-a-generation mistake.
Everyone perks up when Mike walks through the door. He is neither short nor tall, just really thick. His body seems as wide as it is high -- modified da Vincian. Huge hands. Bounds around the house the way guys with swollen muscles seem to, side to side. With his shaved head and his naturally frowning mouth, he looks a bit like Brian Urlacher. Which is to say: more football player than baseball. Trout's father didn't push Mike to play football past the JV level, 'cause "really," says Mike, "it's only ever been baseball."
Trout spends most of his waking hours in his "man cave" -- a remodeled ground floor stocked with pretty much what you'd expect: bar, dartboard, Ping-Pong table, Xbox, empty gun rack. And that's where we retreat to talk. There're some taxidermied trophies on the wall, remote-controlled cars and airplanes in the corner. The best touches are the reminders that this place belongs to an unusual 21-year-old. There's a Mike Trout Fathead, a trout-shaped foam hat ("I came in the locker room one day and Howie Kendrick had it on his head, and I was like, 'What is that?' And he goes, 'They're sellin' 'em at the shop!' "), a wall of baseballs signed by players Mike approached over the course of the season: Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Mariano Rivera. "Then, up there, is a big one I got this year: my Mickey Mantle ball."
Mantle: twenty-time All-Star, three-time MVP, Hall of Famer, Triple Crown winner in 1956. Flat-out legend. And the ballplayer to whom Trout gets most readily compared. The bat speed, the power, the blanketing of center field. A first-tablet commandment for baseball nerds in the modern era is that a player's individual contribution of runs -- not batting average or slugging percentage or strikeouts -- is what wins games. Mickey Mantle scored a lot of runs. No one scores more runs than Mike Trout.
All over the basement, the Trouts have hung fresh prints of Mike as an Angel. Every proud parents' home in America has similar photos. But these are disorienting—small on the wall and modestly framed, but capturing Mike doing things that are physically preposterous. Like leaping higher than you are tall to reach over the centerfield fence in Baltimore and rob J.J. Hardy of a sure home run, as he did last June.
"That one was probably the first thing in the majors where I felt fired up on a different level," Trout says. "It was just ... different. When it came off the bat, I didn't think it was going to be a home run at first, and then I got to the track. I jumped, I came down, I looked at Torii [Hunter], and he said, 'Look in your glove!' I didn't even realize it." The best, most 20-year-old thing about that moment was Trout's reaction: turning 180 degrees, his back to home plate, to check out the scoreboard replay. "Had to look up. Standing out there in centerfield watching the highlight."
And to think that just four years ago, Trout was still playing here, staring down fledgling 15-year-old noodles from Egg Harbor. I swung by the field at Millville Senior High, which looked, in January, like city streets do in postapocalyptic movies. Deadened to straw, overgrown, abandoned. No one would be playing ball here for months. I imagine Mike at bat, popping up a home run over that fence 330 feet away in center. (Three hundred thirty is the spot in a big-league stadium where you'll find a pile of cracked sunflower seeds left by a bored center fielder.) It almost seems unfair. "Man, I drive by there every once in a while when I'm home," Mike says. "I look at that fence and it's like, How did I not hit more home runs here?"
Mike still hears from the occasional high school opponent who, somehow, not so long ago, managed to get the better of him. "I get it a lot on Twitter, Facebook -- these guys saying, 'Remember me? I struck you out!' Well, congratulations," he says, laughing and realizing, passingly, that that is pretty awesome. "You know, in my senior year, I went four games and never struck out. Then we were down in Lower Cape May against this guy who was throwing maybe fifty-five. All these guys on my team had hit a home run, and they were getting on me that I hadn't hit a homer yet, or whatever. So I get up there, and I strike out on three pitches. And the last one I swung at was over my head. I walked back to the dugout, and all the coaches and players were laughing at me. No matter what I do the rest of my career, these coaches'll say, 'Remember that pitcher from Lower Cape May?' There'll always be that one game."
Home isn't always the best place for a young star after a breakout season. I ask Mike if the distance makes the Angels nervous. "A little bit," he says. "They're checking on me every couple weeks. Wanna make sure I'm working out, staying sharp." John Updike once wrote that Ted Williams went the distance of a twenty-year career because he "spared his body the vicissitudes of the seasonal athlete" -- by which he meant Williams was a nonsmoker, nondrinker, and didn't destroy himself each winter. (Unlike Mantle, by the way, who had a flair for self-destruction that few athletes in history could match.) To this day, baseball front offices still worry about the same things: booze, babes, boredom -- stay out of trouble.
So let's tick through them and put the Angels at ease. Boredom? Here's Mike's version of a raucous off-season: "Just a huntin' trip to Missouri with my buddies, and fishin' in Key West with my brother." (He hooked a 500-pound grouper down there in January.) Babes? Remember, High School Jess is not only still on the line, she's still in the living room. Booze? Mike turned 21 during the season -- Torii Hunter bought him his first legal drink -- but he also lives in a place where the bartenders in town might know Mom and Dad.
Still, he says California is already changing him in little ways, ways that surprise him. "The sushi thing, man. If you put sushi in front of my face two years ago, I wouldn't even sniff it, wouldn't touch it, wouldn't try a lot of food. The appetite's changed," he says. "The food and the beach. I'm moving down to the beach. Settling in in Newport. Really love that."
Settling in. And finally taking stock of that historic rookie run. "Had to be the craziest year of my life," he says. "At the airport at the end of season, I'm coming home, buying a pack of gum or something. And there were all these magazines. And I see this little kid looking at the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Looks at it and looks at me; looks at it, looks at me. And he finally goes, 'Is that you?' " The question on the magazine cover: Can he possibly get any better with age? The Angels seem to think so. They want Mike Trout for his career. First- and second- and third-year players who outperform their starter contract make pennies on the dollar compared with their All-Star value, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that the Angels will soon offer Mike a Pujols deal—a ten-year lockup in the $200 million range. He knows he could be in California for the long run. So he's gotta be thinking about buying a place, right? His response is balanced on the slender ridge between his past and his future. "I've considered it," he says. "But the first house I buy will be right here."