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The Perfect Catch: Angels' Trout turning everybody into believers

Observe Mike Trout when he is standing still and it is not immediately evident that you are looking at a man who, at the age of 20, has become baseball's most dynamic player, inarguably, and baseball's best player, only somewhat arguably.

He looks athletic, certainly, though not in that extreme way of Usain Bolt or Alex Rodriguez. He is tall, though not, at 6'1", notably tall. He is broad and muscular, though not, at 210 pounds, extremely so. A casting director could find a place for him, though not as a leading man. In a movie set at a summer camp, Trout, with his build, his crew cut and his narrow eyes, might play the counselor of the cabin, its campers gifted in hand and in eye and in physical maturity, that our butterfly-collecting heroes must defeat in a color war.

It is when Trout is in motion that he sets himself apart, even on fields that he shares with talents like Albert Pujols, his decorated teammate with the Los Angeles Angels. It is not just that Trout is very fast, although he is. One scout says that while it is virtually unheard of for a righthanded hitter to reach first base from home plate in less than four seconds, he has regularly timed Trout at 3.89. On an early May bunt, the Angels timed him at 3.53.

He is so fast that, when he is playing in the outfield, it often seems as if the only fly ball he cannot reach is the one that sails over the wall. When that happens, Trout usually is already standing on the warning track as it lands, looking like a border collie whose owner has thrown a Frisbee a bit too ambitiously in a fenced-in backyard. Sometimes, of course, a fence proves no obstacle for Trout, such as on June 27 in Baltimore, when he propelled almost his entire body above the Camden Yards wall to turn a certain J.J. Hardy home run into the catch that launched a thousand highlights.

He is strong, too, as the 13 home runs he has already slugged from the Angels' leadoff spot begin to suggest. But what really sets Trout apart from almost anyone else currently playing baseball is his combination of strength and speed. It is a matter of physics, really. It is mass times velocity. It is momentum, and it is the relentless way in which he deploys it.

So yes, you can look at all the numbers Trout has produced in his two-and-a-half months in the major leagues this season, and see that he is a special player. You can look at his AL-best .355 batting average; at his MLB-leading 30 steals, on 33 attempts; at the Angels' 6-14 record before they called him up from Triple-A on April 27, and at their 44-27 record since. But all it takes is a few moments of watching him in motion, to realize: This is something different. This is something that will change a franchise.

The curious thing is that Trout was also strong, fast and relentless just three years ago, in 2009, when he was a senior at Millville (N.J.) High. It is not as if, between then and now, he experienced a magical growth spurt or shaved a half-second off his home-to-first time. Yet, in that June's draft, 21 different clubs had the opportunity to change their futures by drafting Trout, before the Angels finally picked him at No. 25, and 21 clubs phoned in some other name. Now, as Trout astounds every night, the question has become: How did so many of them fail to see in Trout what seems so obvious?

* * *

The answer, according to Billy Beane, is simple. They didn't fail to see it. Not entirely.

As of March 2011, few could have predicted that the promise of Mike Trout would so quickly become the full-blown reality of Mike Trout. That's mainly because that is not how the developmental timeline of a prospect, especially a then 19-year-old one who had yet to play a game in Double-A, almost ever works. Back then, though, two things were clear: that Trout was a future star -- he was 1a to Bryce Harper's 1b, or vice versa, on every ranking of prospects -- and that he had just 21 months earlier been drafted much too low.

So it was that I broached the subject of Trout with Beane, who is the general manager of one of the 21 clubs who passed on him, as his A's used the 13th pick in '09 on a highly regarded USC shortstop named Grant Green. Beane's demeanor is almost always courtly, and our conversation in his spring training office in Phoenix had been breezy, until I mentioned Trout. Then I saw the first licks of the fire that burns beneath his calm exterior, which has been documented on both page and screen.

"He was one of our guys, actually," Beane said. "He was one of the three guys we were talking about drafting -- Trout, Green and Mike Leake." Leake, a pitcher from Arizona State, went eighth to the Reds, and is now 23-19 through 69 big league starts. "That's why I flew out to New Jersey to watch him. I'm not going to make a trip to a high school in New Jersey unless I thought he was the real deal."

Beane talked faster. "It's an inexact science," he said of the draft. "You have to think about all the guys picked ahead of him, all the things that go into it. It's not like college football, where they're all playing against each other. Such a wide range of ages, kids from Maine, kids from San Diego, kids from Seattle, kids from Miami... He could run, throw -- big, strong kid. Billy Owens, our director of player personnel, his first report said he's like Brian Urlacher on the baseball field, with strength and speed. I could show you the reports. We loved him."

Beane declined to share the reports. I inquired how it was, then, that they ended up with Green -- who is hitting .289 in Triple-A, and who has still not made his major league debut -- and not Trout. Beane's speech accelerated even more. "Grant was a shortstop at a major university, a high profile kid. He was predicted to go ahead of us. We'd seen him a lot more, California kid, seen him since high school. It was a position of need in the organization. We're happy with Grant. I would expect both of them to be the real deal. Just like Leake turned out to be the real deal."

Then, he addressed me directly. "The smarter guy is the guy who does this interview before the draft and says, 'Why aren't you guys going to take Mike Trout with the first pick?' The industry didn't miss this kid. He was in the first round, he was on everybody's list. The smart guy would be the reporter that came and said, 'How can you guys not take Trout if he drops to 13?' That'd be a guy who wouldn't be a reporter very long. That'd be a guy owning a baseball team, telling guys what to do --"

Beane, all at once, trailed off. His courtly manner returned. He leaned back in his chair. "The fact of the matter is, he's a great player, and he ended up being even greater than we thought he was," he said evenly. "But I think you'd be challenged to find any team that didn't like him."

So, no, Mike Trout was not Mike Piazza, a 62nd rounder who out of nowhere became a future Hall of Famer. Had one pick somewhere ahead of him been different, a subsequent selector might have chosen him before he reached the Angels. Had the Angels passed on him, he likely wouldn't have lasted long. As Beane suggests, most every scout could pick up on the young Trout's athletic gifts, and most every scout did.

The next step was believing in those gifts, and believing in them more than in anybody else's, even those players who didn't play high school ball in New Jersey, where a full season can consist of 16 games, three of which are snowed out. Believing that once Trout was no longer playing against New Jersey teenagers, but the best players in the world, that his gifts would remain so evident, and believing in that so fervently that you were willing to stake your job on it. The Angels had people who believed, starting with an area scout named Greg Morhardt.

Morhardt was the Twins' second-round pick in 1984, and he spent most of the next three seasons with their Double-A affiliate in Orlando. In each of those seasons, he played alongside a slightly older infielder he admired, and who quickly became a close friend. That man's name was Jeff Trout.

Greg was there on the day that Jeff's mother happened to sit in the stands next to a woman who had a nice, pretty daughter named Debbie. Debbie was soon to become Jeff's girlfriend, and then his wife. Greg and Jeff laughed together about their fiery manager, Charlie Manuel, who greeted Greg on his first day with the team by saying, "Hey, son, we ain't got no trainer, so unless I see bone, you're playing." Manuel's style suited both players. One late-season night in Jacksonville, Jeff broke his hand, but he stayed in the game. The next day, he came back from the hospital wearing a cast, and played again.

After '86, it was made clear to Jeff -- even though he was a .303 hitter in four minor league seasons -- that he would not be promoted to Triple-A. He decided to go back to Millville, N.J., to become a teacher and coach, to give his expanding family the comfort he couldn't on $1,100 a month.

Greg's playing career ended three years later, before he had reached the majors. By that point, he had fallen out of touch with Jeff -- Trouter, he had called him -- as even very close friends sometimes do, when life separates them.

By August 2008, Morhardt had covered the Northeast for nearly a decade as a scout for first the Mets, and then the Angels. Being a scout in that region can be difficult, as fewer top prospects emerge from there than from places like Florida, Texas and California, where kids can play all year along, and against better competition. But, says Morhardt, "Every once in awhile, you catch a guy like Rocco Baldelli, who was from Rhode Island. It's just you don't get it too often."

Morhardt was putting together a team for an annual East Coast high school showcase game when someone mentioned that one of the roster candidates, from New Jersey, had the last name of Trout. "I said, 'OK, here we go, it's gotta be Trouter's kid,'" he says. It did not take him long to start to believe that even Rocco Baldelli had nothing on his old teammate's third and youngest child.

There was, first, the way the 16-year-old took batting practice. He was a natural pull hitter, and lashed ball after ball to left, but Morhardt asked him to try going the other way, and he hit the second pitch he saw on a rope, down the rightfield line. "I brought my son, Justin, who was 14, and Mike's got this 32-inch bat, this little wooden bat. I said, 'Justin, take a look at that kid over there. That's Mike Trout. That's a big league player, no ifs, ands or buts about it."

There was his athleticism, not just that he was fast, but the way he commanded his body. He could start to dive into third base but then, after seeing the third base coach signaling for him to come in standing, pull up, like a fighter jet aborting a landing mere feet from its carrier, and reach the bag without having dirtied his uniform.

Morhardt also saw in Trout what perhaps he was the only scout equipped to see: his old friend's drive, but paired with more ability. "He just had it," Morhardt says. Many players have the skills necessary to play in the major leagues, but not the drive to exploit them. More have the drive, but not the skills. Morhardt was sure that Trouter's kid had both, and that the Angels should do whatever it took to make him theirs.

Morhardt sent glowing reports back to Eddie Bane, who had been the Angels' scouting director since 2004. Some scouting directors are wary, even unintentionally, of pinning their drafts to even talented players with a greater potential of combusting. High schoolers from the Northeast rank among those, as they've usually played less baseball than most other potential draftees, and against lesser opponents. Eddie Bane prided himself on not being one of those directors.

"In baseball, you're comparing a high school kid from Connecticut with a guy from Arizona State that's won 40 games the past three years," Bane explains. "It's apples and oranges. Sometimes it comes down to, 'We got two guys. One guy's from Jersey, the other's from USC. Who are we going to take?' They make the tiebreaker favor the guy from college, or California, or whatever. In our case, we almost never did."

Bane followed along as Trout began a senior season in which he would set a state record by hitting 18 home runs. But he wouldn't commit to him until he saw him play for himself and sat across from him at a dining table. Bane reminded himself not to judge Trout in the easy ways. "He's facing 75-mile-per-hour pitching," Bane says. "If he rips that all over the place, big deal. You have to look for other stuff."

Trout popped out three times during the game that Bane and Jeff Malinoff, a national cross-checker, attended in Millville three weeks before the draft. Still, they saw in Trout what Morhardt had seen. They saw even more of it while eating dinner with Trout and his parents. By the time Bane and Malinoff walked back to their rental car, Bane's mind was made up.

"We're going to take him with our first pick," Bane told Malinoff in the parking lot.

"Come on," said Malinoff.

"No. We're taking him with our first pick. The problem is that he's not going to be there, because he's too good."

When the Angels compiled their official draft board, Stephen Strasburg sat at No. 1. Just behind him -- and there had been some debate about ranking him so low -- was Mike Trout.

Even as draft days go, June 9, 2009, was unusually stressful for the Angels' scouting department. Its members -- including Bane, Morhardt, Malinoff and Ric Wilson, the other national cross-checker -- were worried, first, that their prize would be gone by the time they had their first of two consecutive picks, at No. 24. They knew that many teams ahead of them, including Billy Beane's A's, liked Trout very much, and that the Yankees -- who, thankfully, would not pick before No. 29 -- loved him. "Scouts are old gossip hounds, and I think Damon Oppenheimer with the Yankees was the only guy who had Trout up like we did," says Bane. "I'd let Damon know there's no chance, in a little private conversation. 'If you're thinking about Trout, you're not getting him.' He wasn't very happy."

The Angels' scouts' second worry was whether they would be able to sign Trout. The franchise did not pay picks bonuses higher than those recommended by MLB's slotting system. At dinner three weeks earlier, Jeff Trout had told Bane that his son would agree to his slot amount, but later Bane was hearing whispers that he would demand more. "Eddie called me about three hours before the draft, because the numbers were flying on Mike, and he wanted me to reach out to Jeff," says Morhardt. Morhardt called his old teammate, and reported back to his boss: "He's ready to go."

This, Morhardt reveals now, was not exactly true. "I actually had to lie to Eddie," he says. "He wasn't ready to go."

In fact, when Morhardt reached Trout's father, he could tell that "people had been getting at him" -- that is, trying to convince him to hold out for more money. "I said, 'Trouter, what's going on?'" Morhardt recalls. "Trouter was terrific, like he always is, telling me as much as he could. His main interest is his son and his family. So I told him, 'Trouter, if he gets there, we're going to take your boy. Six years from now, he's going to be getting $20 million a year.' Then I hung up the phone and called Eddie."

As the first round went on, Bane had another cause for concern. Prospects had for the first time been invited to attend the draft in person, at the MLB Network studio in Secaucus, N.J. "The knucklehead Trout actually showed up, when no other kids did," says Bane. "He's standing out like a sore thumb, just sitting there with his family. You're hoping that doesn't alert other clubs."

It didn't. With the 24th pick, the Angels submitted their name: Randal Grichuk, who was also a high school outfielder, but from Texas. "Morhardt almost fainted," says Bane. "That was kind of cruel of me, but I thought it was funny." Grichuk is currently hitting .271 for High-A Inland Empire. With the following pick, Bane took Trout. Of the 24 names called before his, 12 were of college players and 11 were of warm-weather high schoolers. The other, Jacob Turner of Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, was a pitcher with a skill that was easy to contextualize, no matter where he played, or against whom: he could throw 98 miles per hour.

Bane didn't know it, but Morhardt had a different reason to feel light-headed. He had put his career on the line for Trout based on a split-second decision he had made, born from a 15 year-old friendship, that Trout's father would do what he said and have his son sign for slot.

"I thought, 'This guy's got a chance to be a Hall of Fame player, and I'm not going to pass it up, and if I lose my job because he doesn't sign, I'm good with it,'" Morhardt recalls. "Sometimes, as a scout, you've got to roll the dice. There's only a few times you're actually in the middle of something, all the arrows were pointing toward this being a very special athlete, a very special person raised by two terrific people, and I'm going to put all my chips in there."

About a week later, Jeff Trout called Eddie Bane. "Can we just get this done?" Jeff asked. "I need to get him out of the house and back on the baseball field, because he's driving us crazy." Within a month, the Angels had signed him, for his slot-suggested bonus of $1.215 million. He hit .352 in the minors that year, the start of a blazing ascension up the franchise's ladder, which included a promotion to the Angels last summer, and ended for good with his call-up in April.

Bane and Morhardt have had many past successes, and long careers ahead of them -- Morhardt with the Angels, Bane with the Tigers, for whom he is now a scout. "Every one of us has judged players we thought were going to be terrific, and then the guy got out there and didn't quite do it," says Morhardt. "There are no geniuses in scouting. We're all just working hard." Still, no matter what else they have done, and no matter what else they will do, they will always be known first as the men who drafted Mike Trout.

* * *

At this point, there might be one person in the baseball universe who has little to say about Mike Trout. That person is Mike Trout.

Everybody wanted to hear from him at the All-Star Game, where he was the star of the stars who assembled in Kansas City. While he gave many interviews there, he rarely said anything of interest. "I just go out there and have fun, and the numbers'll be what they are," he would say. "Dream come true as a kid," he would say. "I'm going to remember this the rest of my life," he would say. (This last thought he delivered during his postgame interview on Fox, which the National League manager, Tony La Russa, interrupted by laying his hand on his shoulder and saying, "Pujols told me all about you.")

Trout's verbal reticence is not a new development. Last year, he conducted a 20-minute, 1,500-word ESPN.com chat in which the most revealing thing he said was that he likes to grill. Gas grills, mostly.

Three days after I'd spoken with Beane, in March of 2011, I interviewed Trout on a picnic bench outside the Angels' spring clubhouse in Tempe. The transcript will never appear in a collection bearing the imprimatur of the Paris Review.

"I guess people second-guessed me because I was an East Coast kid," he said of his slide in the draft. "Maybe. I don't know. I really don't have a clue."

"He says he was good," he said of his father's career. "He said he was pretty good. I didn't see him play, so. I've seen some of his stats. Pretty impressive."

"I'm just a first year guy, so I'm happy I even have one," he said, about having to share a locker with another player during what was his first big league camp. "I would put my stuff in the middle of the floor and sit there, I don't care."

Says Bane, "He's great when he's around people that he's comfortable with. He's got some tried-and-true answers to questions. He's not going to offer up any great nuggets. That's just Mike."

That might be a function of his youth, or of his relative inexperience with the media. But it also says something about the main thrust of his interests, and might help to explain his meteoric rise. He will endure whatever he must -- shared lockers, press conferences, web chats, interviews with prying reporters -- to be able to express himself in the way he does best, which is through baseball.

"Not everybody is Winston Churchill," says Morhardt. "Everybody has different abilities. Mike has great athletic ability, with a terrific perspective on the ability he's been given. And he plays joyfully."

Indeed, the best way to understand Mike Trout is to watch him play, and to observe the sheer joy that his relentlessness brings to him. You can see it when he does the amazing, like robbing Hardy of that home run in Baltimore. "When he made that catch, he was so happy -- running off the field, he looked just like a little kid who was going to get a free snow cone after the game," says Bane. "And every time he hits one out himself, he just about knocks the on-deck hitter's elbow off."

But his joy is evident on almost any old night, such as on July 5, when he turned in what has become a quotidian tour de force. That night, playing the Orioles, he ripped an RBI lineout exactly 98 seconds -- I timed it -- after he had fouled a pitch directly off his extended and planted left shin, right off the bone. It was the type of blow that has broken the legs of many players, and would cause most to roll around in agony for a few minutes or more. Trout smiled as he jogged off the field, not even gingerly, and slapped five with his bemused teammates. You might have thought of his father, playing through a broken hand in Jacksonville nearly three decades ago.

After the Angels won the game, the TV cameras quickly found Trout, as they usually do in the moments after the team wins these days. He had gone 2-for-2, with two RBI's and three stolen bases. Here he was, jogging in from the outfield, loose-limbed now, his head bobbing, that same little smile on his face, looking forward to the chance to express himself by doing similarly improbable things the next night, and the next, and, it seems likely, every night for the next decade and a half.

"He plays the game like everybody remembers playing it when they were a kid -- he just enjoys it," says Morhardt. "He plays how we hope most people would play."

"God is going to take credit for Mike Trout, not anything we've done," the Angels' manager, Mike Scioscia recently said, but Scioscia was only partially right. The credit for his character, which allows him to maximize his divinely wrought skills, might go to his parents. The credit for the fact that he is an Angel goes to the club's scouts, who saw what he could do and believed in it more than they believed in what anyone else could do. The rest of the credit for Mike Trout -- and the mesmerizing way in which he puts it all together every night -- belongs entirely to him.

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