The skies over Europe during World War II were filled with more than a thousand courageous young men who learned in Millville, N.J., how to fly an eight-ton airplane powered by a single piston engine and loaded with bombs, rockets and eight Browning machine guns. The airplane was the P-47 Thunderbolt, and those flying aces from the Greatest Generation trained at Millville Army Air Field—or, more specifically, in a Thunderbolt cockpit above the farms and mills of the rural low country of South Jersey. The war was won with the help of more than 15,000 Thunderbolts flying three quarters of a million sorties.
Sixty-six years after Millville sent those P-47 pilots off to war, and long after the airfield turned commercial and the town's namesake mills closed, Millville sent Mike Trout to professional baseball. On June 9, 2009, 21 teams passed on drafting the 17-year-old boy who within three years would become the best player in baseball, doing for the Angels what nobody else in history has done. That summer night Trout and his family and friends celebrated on North Eighth Street at Millville Senior High's booster club, less than four miles from an old airfield called The Thunderbolt Club.
Millville's past is prologue. This time Trout is its Thunderbolt, as apt a term as any to describe his power and speed, the stunning immediacy of his impact upon baseball and, in the vein of Zeus and Thor—never mind Mantle and Mays—the growing mythology of all things Trout. Three years removed from his senior prom, the Angels' centerfielder is already the consensus pick for the player you would take first if you could pick anyone in the game.
"Not even close," says A's general manager Billy Beane. "I will go to a box score every day to see what he's done—and you've got to go to so many categories that it takes a while. I swear, he's the only major league player where I will become an eight-year-old kid again."
Says Angels outfielder Vernon Wells, the $21 million-a-year player who lost his lineup spot to Trout, "If people wanted to build a perfect baseball player in a video game, this is what you'd want your guy to look like. He's on that level, like Mantle."
Trout is so good that his gifts seem to come from beyond his tall, athletic mom, Debbie, and his dad, Jeff, a former minor league infielder. Los Angeles outfielder Torii Hunter suggested as much when he met Debbie last year. "You," Hunter exclaimed, "are the one who gave birth to the golden child!"
This is Mike's bedroom," Jeff Trout says, entering a long, narrow room on the second floor of the family home, where Mike still sleeps in off-seasons. "It was, prior to stardom, a regular bedroom. Now we're just keeping stuff here."
The walls and the floors are filled with Mike Trout memorabilia, photos and awards. A framed picture commemorating draft night, a gift from the commissioner's office. The base from his first major league steal. The ball from his first hit, neatly tucked into a display frame with the lineup card from the game. A blown-up photograph, stretched over canvas to resemble an oil painting, of Mike robbing J.J. Hardy of a home run in Baltimore earlier this season, his hips nearly at the top of the seven-foot wall. Were there a Louvre for great catches, this one would hang prominently. "I was at that game," Jeff says. "We were behind the dugout, and Hardy squared it up, and it took off. The amazing thing is not that Mike got up but that he got there."
There never has been a position player this good this young. Trout turned 21 on Aug. 7, an occasion he marked with his 20th home run in his 88th game of the year. (He spent all but the last three days of April in the minors.) His OPS+ (182), a measurement of on-base and slugging percentages adjusted for ballpark factors and league norms, blows away the previous best by anyone so young, a record set 105 years ago by Ty Cobb (167). He is a slam dunk to win the AL's Rookie of the Year, the favorite to become the youngest MVP.
Now forget his lack of experience. Trout is having an alltime great season for any age. He leads his league in batting average, stolen bases and runs—a triple crown of productivity that has been achieved by only three men: George Sisler in 1922, Cobb in 1909, 1911 and 1915 and Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1945 (when the big league talent pool was depleted by military service). Trout is playing in his age-20 season (.343/.405/.608 with 24 homers and 39 steals) the way Willie Mays did in the heart of his prime (.347/.419/.583 with 29 homers and 31 steals in 1958, when he was 27 and hit for the highest average of his career).