2:30 AM EDT, September 20, 2012
No fish jokes about this kid. Mike Trout is a keeper.
Who could have imagined where this was headed when he was called up on that fateful day of April 28. He looked a little bit like Mickey Mantle and he sure could run like the Mick. But the talent-rich, underachieving Angels — or as The Times' Mike DiGiovanna calls them "The Big Engine That Couldn't" — weren't looking for a Mantle.
They wanted a spark, a little help. They were dry, tasteless. Also 6-14. Maybe this 20-year-old kid who was smoking triple-A pitching with a .403 average, would be a pinch of salt.
Now, here we are, with 13 games to go after a 6-2 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday night, another murky moment in a regular season that has driven Angels fans to the psychologist's couches. And often, when Trout comes to the plate, the chant begins:
"MVP MVP MVP."
No, Angels fans have not gone the Leonard Tose route. This is not the result of losing a mental grip because of their team's streaks of amazing excellence and startling incompetence — sometimes in the same homestand.
"I hear it, and it's kind of cool, to know that people think that about you," says Trout, who then quickly retreats to the cocoon of comfort that he uses to both continue to achieve and explain how he is doing it. "But I need to calm myself right away. You can't go out there and be all amped up."
Suffice to say that Angels fans, and all of baseball, are amped up about Trout.
He entered Wednesday night's game against the Texas Rangers at the Big A batting .327, second in the American League. He led the league with 118 runs scored, 18 more than the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.
He also led in stolen bases with 46 and was in the top 10 in hits, triples, on-base percentage, total bases, slugging percentage and multi-hit games.
The numbers more than validate the chanting.
He opened the game by adding to those. His single up the middle gave him 284 total bases, an Angels rookie record.
None of this, of course, makes a lot of sense. He is a leadoff hitter who hits with power and plays center field like a kangaroo with a bushel basket. Twelve days ago, in a 6-1 Angels win against Detroit, he opened the game against 2011 most valuable player and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander by hitting a homer, then ended the game by stealing a home run from star slugger Prince Fielder with a leaping catch above the wall.
It was routine stuff for the greatest meteor-riding rookie since well, maybe nobody.
Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated writes, "There has never been a position player this good this young."
Ron Washington, manager of the Rangers, says, "I don't think you'll see another one like him come along for a long time."
Torii Hunter, Trout's teammate, mentor and drinking buddy, says, "We are watching greatness."
Trout says of Hunter, "What I want to know, and what I need to know, I go to Torii."
Hunter says that, when Trout turned 21 a month ago, he took him out to celebrate.
"We just had milk to drink," Hunter says, trying to deadpan it and failing.
The pressure on Trout should be unimaginable. By now, any other rookie would be wetting his pants, batting .220 and talking about next year. Not Trout. He is answering questions about winning the batting title and being MVP — rookie of the year is a lock — and answering them with the political savvy of a 35-year-old.
"Sure, I'd like the MVP. Anybody would," he says. "But the first thing is to help the team win."
What he has done may be surpassed in unbelievability by how he has handled it.
Manager Mike Scioscia says, "He is as unfazed when he goes 0 for 5 as he is with five for five."
Hunter conjectures, tongue in cheek, about the pressures he faced at age 21.
"They were chanting MVP for me, too " he says, "in double A."
Scioscia does the same, projecting himself into the batter's box at Dodgers Stadium at that age.
"They wouldn't be chanting MVP," he says. "They'd be chanting, 'Are you kidding me?'"
Only he didn't say "kidding."
According to Scioscia, Hunter and several other members of the Angels family, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Trout's dad, Jeff, a teacher and coach, was once a minor league grinder who got everything out of his limited talent for a couple of years as a second baseman. His mom, Deb, is also a teacher, and the lesson he likes to repeat most often that came from them is to "stay humble and keep grinding."
Trout is from Millville, N.J., and Scioscia says this Jersey boy may benefit from the family standards that remain solid in that part of the country, not coincidentally close to the Pennsylvania area where Scioscia himself grew up.
"A lot of strong families there, a lot of responsibility taught," he says.
Trout has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his picture under the headline "THE SUPERNATURAL." Friday, ESPN Magazine will hit the newsstands and his mug will be on that cover, under the headline "MAGIC MIKE." All that's left is maybe a stealth bomber flyover the next time he comes to bat and a visit from the Pope.
Trout's preference would be a World Series victory. For him, anything else would just stink from the head.
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