South Jersey native Mike Trout wins 2012 Daily News Sportsperson of the Year award
This story is part of a series in the December 23, 2012 edition of SportsWeek honoring the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year. You can also read profiles of the four runners-up: Bill O'Brien, Carli Lloyd, Carlos Ruiz and Claude Giroux.
Some time after the original Nintendo and before the first generation of PlayStation, sports video games weren't only gaining in popularity, but they were also allowing users to get creative, too. You had the ability to create your own players.
You could build a football recruit from scratch, place him at your college of choice and then attempt to draft him to your favorite NFL team. You could have yourself centering a line between Mark Recchi and John LeClair.
Creating fictional players was fun because you had both creative license - Facial hair? Check. Mullet? Check. - and the ability to max out the talents in every skill set possible. It was like the movie "Weird Science," except you were trying to create Lou Brock and not Kelly LeBrock.
Now close your eyes and think of the perfect athlete from 2012, someone who dominated his or her sport and didn't appear to have any deficiencies in his or her skill set. Someone who reminded you of that perfect player you created in a video game.
Meet Mike Trout, the South Jersey-born and -bred kid who was arguably the best all-around player in the major leagues in 2012. Trout's rise from Millville High School to Los Angeles Angels All-Star culminates in being honored by the Daily News as the Philadelphia Sportsperson of the Year.
"It's pretty cool," said Trout, who calls Chase Utley his favorite all-time Philadelphia athlete and was at Citizens Bank Park as a fan for the World Series-clinching game in 2008. "Growing up being a Phillies fan, an Eagles fan, Sixers and Flyers, too, I'd read the newspaper every day. So getting a chance to be recognized like this, it feels good. I watch all of those other players, so it feels good."
In his first full big-league season, Trout won American League Rookie of the Year honors, was named to the All-Star team, and was the runner-up in a highly debated AL Most Valuable Player race. Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who won baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years, won the MVP.
But along with his Bo Jackson-ish combo of power and speed and his Ken Griffey Jr.-like wall climbing in centerfield, Trout's stats were similarly historic.
Trout hit .326 with a .399 on-base percentage, .963 on-base plus slugging percentage, 30 home runs and 83 RBI in 139 games. Despite spending most of the season's first month at AAA, Trout led all of baseball with 129 runs and 49 stolen bases.
"Not many people stopped him from stealing bags," Texas manager Ron Washington said of Trout, who was caught stealing only five times. "He's a very aggressive ballplayer. He not only can beat you on the bases, but he can beat you with power. So guys like Trout don't come along very often."
The only two rookies in major league history to score more runs than Trout did in 2012 are two of the game's all-time greats: Ted Williams (131 in 1939) and Joe DiMaggio (132 in 1936). Trout is the only major league player to hit .320 or better with at least 30 home runs and 45 stolen bases in a single season.
"When he left us, we thought he had a chance to be a real good major leaguer, because of the athlete he is," said Millville assistant coach Ken Williams, who has known Trout since he was 6. "But I don't think anyone envisioned this."
The Trouts probably did.
Mike is the baby of the family, the son of Debbie and Jeff Trout and the younger brother of sister, Teal, and brother, Tyler. Since Mike is only 3 years younger than Tyler, the two Trout boys would play every sport together with the rest of their neighbors in Millville.
"He was always the first picked for a team," said Tyler Trout, who is in his third year of law school at Rutgers. "I can remember all the times we would play home-run derby in people's yards and he would just hit bombs. We would have to stand in other neighbor's yards just to try and rob them."
When he got to high school, where he also played football and basketball, Mike Trout became the most popular Millville Thunderbolt since his dad. Jeff Trout, who once played under Charlie Manuel, was a .303 hitter in four minor league seasons.
"I think fairly early in his high school career," Jeff Trout said, "Mike expected to do big things."
It didn't take long for other people to take notice, too.
Opposing coaches watched in awe as Trout put on a daily show in batting practice. And then they saw his in-game speed and knew this wasn't the normal, dominant high school player.
"Almost any high school team will have the kid who throws 85 to 90 [mph], has a lot of pop," Bridgeton High coach Mike Valella said. "But the thing that always stood out about Mike is his speed. You'd see a ball hit to the outfield, and with the ball still in flight, he's already between first and second base. The ball was just hit!"
"I had read a lot about him, but you just don't know. Is he for real?" Bishop Eustace coach Sam Tropiano recalled. "So we're waiting for [Millville's team] to come off the bus and I'm thinking, 'Which one is he?' Well, you knew right away. He was like a man among boys."
Scouts flocked to Millville.
The Millville coaching staff invited major league staffers into their offices daily. Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane flew in and found a seat in the Thunderbolts dugout one afternoon.
Although area scout Eric Valent was on Trout already, the Phils sent their entire brass, including Ruben Amaro Jr. and Pat Gillick, to watch Trout. The Phillies, however, didn't have a first-round pick in 2009; they forfeited it when they signed free agent Raul Ibanez.
Even if they had the pick, the Phils wouldn't have been able to get Trout. Since they won the World Series the previous year, the Phillies would have picked last in the first round.
"It was really difficult for us to sit back," Phillies assistant GM and amateur scouting director Marti Wolever said. "We left the draft room and went to watch him play. We hoped something wild or crazy would happen, but we knew it probably wouldn't."
Trout went to the Angels with the 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft.
"Greatest night of our professional lives," said Millville head coach Roy Hallenbeck, who was among the group Trout invited to the draft at MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J.
Looking back, some other people may not characterize the night the same way. Twenty-one major league teams passed on Trout, including the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks, who each had two picks before the Angels' selection.
The stigma of being a high school player from the Northeast probably worked against Trout. Ten of the 11 high school players selected ahead of Trout hailed from warm-weather states.
But the major league draft is far from an exact science. Ten years earlier, Trout's current teammate, Albert Pujols, was drafted in the 13th round with the 402nd overall pick.
Forecasting future baseball talent when looking at teenagers is, in a word, difficult.
"It is, because of the projection element that is required," said former Phils assistant GM Mike Arbuckle.
Arbuckle, who works in the Kansas City Royals front office, oversaw drafts that brought the likes of Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins, among others, to Philadelphia.
"We scout athleticism, tools, actions, those things you can see physically in the player," Arbuckle said. "But you have to go beyond that. Generally speaking, whether it's a Mike Trout, someone who the industry was light on, or a top of the first rounder who flames out in Double A, most cases, it's not a misread on a physical ability, it's a misread on the makeup. And the mental makeup is huge."
With his compact, thick build and military-issued crew cut, the now-21-year-old Trout looks as if he should be a college linebacker gearing up for a bowl game. Instead, he's rewriting both baseball record books and the long-established five-tool player definition.
Trout has all five tools: He can hit, hit for power, run, throw and field his position. But it's the sixth tool that is arguably the reason he went from late first-round pick to bona fide baseball superstar.
"I think everyone underestimated his makeup," Arbuckle said. "I don't think we realized how exceptionally good it is: his aptitude, work ethic, competitiveness. It's a combination all of those traits you look for."
"Mike Trout was blessed with gifts that most people could never ever dream of," Williams said. "And not just being blessed with those gifts, but he was the hardest-working kid we've ever had. So you put those things with his God-given ability . . . "
. . . And you get a season like Trout's rookie year.
After a brief taste of the big leagues the previous summer, Trout began his 2012 season on April 28, the same night fellow rookie phenom Bryce Harper made his own debut with Washington. Although their careers will continued to be compared going forward, Trout outshined Harper in their respective rookie seasons at the plate and with his regular home run-robbing theatrics in centerfield.
The city of Millville, meanwhile, followed Mike Trout's every step. Family and friends made regular road trips to big-league stadiums across the country to watch Trout.
At Rutgers, Tyler Trout saw a classmate wearing a "Trout" T-shirt and couldn't help but smile. Back in Millville, Angels T-shirts began to outnumber Phillies gear and TV sets lit up living rooms past midnight routinely.
"I would not miss a single inning," Tyler Trout said of the West Coast start times. "We'd take a lot of naps."
"It was fun, just a lot of fun," said Jeff Trout, who led the family cavalry at the All-Star Game in Kansas City. "Deb and I just had a tremendously exciting summer. It was surreal at times."
Mike Trout made the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title, "The Supernatural" in August. Highlight reel-worthy plays began to become as routine as pregame batting practice.
People began comparing Mike Trout to Mickey Mantle.
"He's really fun to watch," Charlie Manuel said. "Off the charts. Every night, he'll show you something different."
Perhaps the only person not overwhelmed by Mike Trout's exploits or reduced to swooning after watching him play is Mike Trout.
"I've never met a baseball player at any level that doesn't pay attention to their stats a little bit. Everybody takes a peek," Hallenbeck said. "But personally, he's the one who cares the least."
Trout - who is more concerned with wins than anything else, period - is as humble as he is talented.
Unlike Kobe Bryant, another Philly-to-L.A. story, Trout isn't making any plans to become a full-time resident of the West Coast.
"I'm a big weather guy. I like a little rain, some snow," said Trout, who currently lives at his parents' house in Millville. "It's 75 [degrees] every day in Anaheim. I like coming back for winter in the offseason . . . I'll probably build a house somewhere in New Jersey, stay close to family and friends."
And closer to Citizens Bank Park?
Trout grew up a Phillies fan. Of course, he's not even arbitration-eligible yet, and he can't become a free agent until after the 2017 season at the earliest.
But the people of Millville and Philadelphia can hold out hope, right?
"I don't think about that stuff," Trout said. "I'm happy with the Angels . . . Right now, I'm an Angel and hopefully I'll stay an Angel the rest of my career."
But then again . . .
"It'd probably be cool to play in Philly," Trout said with a laugh.
After shocking the baseball world in back-to-back offseasons by signing Pujols and Josh Hamilton, there's little chance the big-pocketed Angels' ownership will let Trout anywhere near free agency. That's reality.
But no one is stopping you from powering up your video-game system and working out a trade that nets you a player you could only hope to create in an alternate, fantasy world.