By Joseph Santoliquito
San Francisco, CA (CBS) — Mike Trout sat with his parents at a nice, quiet restaurant in San Francisco’s wharf celebrating his 21st birthday and broaching a pressing matter with his dad.
It wasn’t about the pressure of being a leading candidate for the American League MVP, or about being among the league leaders in numerous offensive categories. Nor was it about setting the baseball world afire with the smiling, infectious way the Millville (NJ) High School grad plays the game. No, baseball’s newest superstar wanted to know what woods he and his father would hunt this fall when he returns home—hopefully in late October—after probably being named 2012 American League Rookie of the Year and possibly the league’s MVP.
The kid that grew up in a coach’s room, the one that hates to lose at anything, even if it’s about being the last one out of the shower, has maintained the same equilibrium and attitude he had when he starred at Millville.
Trout’s American League-leading .346 batting average, league-high 87 runs and league-best 36 stolen bases (as of Aug. 8th) comes from the same principle his father, Jeff, instilled in him as a seven-year old: Don’t overthink the game.
“I have really brought the same approach from the minors to the big leagues,” said the Los Angeles Angels star centerfielder, during a break with the Angels series against the Oakland A’s. “I have learned to keep it simple, not trying to do too much. When I first came up in 2011, I was trying way too hard, over swinging. Now, the simplest, quickest approach at the plate has worked for me.
“I have a lot of confidence in my ability. I think you have to, to succeed at any level, particularly this one. But I am surprised to be so young in the big leagues, but I remain confident in what I can do.”
What Trout has done is grabbed a hold of the American League and shook it—along with major league baseball. The 25th pick overall by the Angels in the first round of the 2009 draft, Trout has blossomed in his first full season. He sat there that June 2009 night as a guest of Major League Baseball in a makeshift dugout at the MLB studios in North Jersey, as the camera sporadically zoomed in on his face as 24 other players were selected before him.
Of the initial 24, only one has done anything significant: first overall pick Stephen Strasburg. Other than him, no one in that first round class comes close to what Trout has accomplished. The Angels were 6-14 on April 28—and struggling, already nine games out of first in the American League West—when Trout was called up this season.
With Trout starting, they’ve gone 50-37 and in strong contention for a playoff spot.
During a series against the defending American League champion Texas Rangers in July, Trout went 5-for-10, with a home run, triple and four runs scored in the three-game series. It didn’t seem to impress Rangers’ manager Ron Washington, who said, “He’s not Willie Mays. He’s a pretty good player, but I think the comparisons have to stop. Let the kid play. When he’s been here five years, six years, then you can start doing that.”
But Trout certainly caught the attention of Rangers’ president and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who said about Trout, “He really is an outstanding talent. He’s energized that organization and the year he’s having has been phenomenal. It’s interesting to see a player come in at his age and do the things that he’s doing and what he’s accomplished in a short period of time. You know the other thing I like about him is how disciplined he is as a hitter. You don’t see a lot of swings and misses. He puts the ball in play and he has a short stroke. There’s an awful lot of things that you like about him.”
The other thing to like about Trout is the perpetual smile he wears playing the game. You couldn’t swipe it off his face during the All-Star game, when Trout came running across the field after the final out to get in line with the rest of the National League All-Stars to shake NL manager Tony LaRussa’s hand.
Talking him, you get the sense Trout is still in surreal land, which may explain why he plays with the wide-eyed, awestruck enthusiasm of a kid who can’t believe this is all happening.
“When I first came up to the big leagues, the speed of the game was one of the first things I noticed,” Trout said. “Just a whole other level of play. The best players in the world are in the majors. It’s amazing to see all the talent up close. Particularly guys that I grew up watching on TV.
“Then the All-Star game came, and having my family and friends there was a great experience. Being in the locker room with all these great players. Getting a chance to speak to some of the game’s greats. The whole experience is something that I will remember forever.”
Jeff and Debbie Trout, Mike’s parents, have crisscrossed the country this summer watching Mike play live. They’ve noticed something gradual during that time, too. Whereas Mike could have sat in any restaurant from Detroit to Seattle undetected, his growing fame has changed all of that.
As Jeff and Debbie celebrated Mike’s birthday on August 7, they thought they were somewhat safe sitting at a wharf restaurant in San Francisco. They thought wrong. Plans to see the Golden Gate Bridge had to be scuttled as more eyeballs began recognizing Trout.
“He’s the same person, that’s for sure and it’s a great thing,” Debbie said. “Mike doesn’t change, he stays on this even keel. The only thing that’s changed is we can’t go out in public a lot. We went out for his birthday, had a nice lunch down at the wharf and we wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge that afternoon. We couldn’t because Mike began attracting a crowd.
“He can’t say no, especially to kids. He loves to sign autographs for the kids. It wasn’t that long ago, he was one of them. Mike still lives at home and he’ll definitely come back home after the season. Mike has always been a happy kid. It’s why he’s always smiling on the field, because he’s always having fun.”
Jeff Trout is not surprised at all by his son’s success. Mike’s still that seven-year old that laid out for a ground ball playing shortstop for his T-ball team. If there is anything that has surprised Jeff, it’s Mike’s power numbers—20 homers and 60 RBIs in 88 games.
“I knew Mike was going to be a good big leaguer, but the power numbers are the biggest surprise,” Jeff said. “Mike loves the game. What separates Mike is his ability to simplify the game. That ability to go out each night and try to win the game, compete in the moment and don’t take things too personally. He’s always had the attitude to let the numbers take care of themselves. That attitude will serve him well over the long haul as he improves his career. Simplicity is the key.”
From a father’s mouth to a son’s ears: “Just trying to be consistent and do my job every day,” Mike says. “You have to be able to move past a bad at-bat or any mistake you may have made. It’s all about the next opportunity and making the best of it.”
Trout wasn’t about to speculate about the rest of this season. He’s remained grounded. He doesn’t get absorbed by various comparisons he hears. He’s the next this, the next that … although there was one thing he was hoping to alter, and that was to push hunting season back a little this year. The Angels are mounting a playoff push—led by Trout. He just has to decide on the woods.