November 13, 2012

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. Please vote for your Inspiring Performer, Photo of The Year, and Moment of The Year on our Facebook page.

It is not at all difficult to make a quantitative argument that Mike Trout, the rookie centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, ought to be SI's Sportsman of the Year for 2012. His numbers, most of which he compiled before he turned 21 years old in August, were remarkable enough to stagger absolutely everyone who cares about such things; proof that there is at least one piscine phenomenon in the world that can lead the statistical community's traditionalists and its progressives to lay down their rods in awe.

He batted .326, he hit 30 home runs with 83 RBIs, he scored a league-leading 129 runs and he stole a league-leading 49 bases on 54 attempts. According to the website Baseball Reference, his Wins Above Replacement (10.7) was the best for any player since Barry Bonds -- his veins pulsing with performance enhancing drugs -- posted back-to-back seasons of 11.6 in 2001 and '02. Had the Angels not dallied until late April in calling him up from Triple-A, Trout's WAR might well have exceeded 12.1, placing him in the company of one other man: Babe Ruth. Had the Angels not dallied, they might well have made the playoffs, and who knows where Trout would have taken them from there. (On Monday, Trout was the unanamous pick as the youngest AL rookie of the year winner.)

I believe that now and then an athlete emerges from a season with numbers so extraordinary that he or she could be named Sportsman of the Year based upon them alone, and that such is the case with Mike Trout in 2012. But anyone who watched Trout play this year, for any length of time, knows that the strength of his candidacy extends far beyond his virtually unprecedented statistical résumé.

You couldn't help but take notice of his talents -- his ludicrous speed, his precocious strength -- but what was truly special about him was something more than that, something more rare. It was the relentlessness with which he deployed his gifts, and the sheer and obvious pleasure he derived from deploying them. His exploits not only amazed us. They seemed to amaze him, too, in a way that was entirely genuine.

Watching Trout play was like being treated each night to the best moment of every superhero movie, the montage that always comes, ten or so minutes in, in which our protagonist first comprehends the potential of his newly acquired powers, and then starts to test himself, before any villain has arrived, merely to see what he can do. Can he propel himself almost entirely over an outfield wall to steal a home run away from a batter, who has already begun to trot? Yes, he can. Can he generate a run for the Angels by virtue of only his fearless aggressiveness on the base paths, without the luxury of a hit? He can do that too. What's next?

Mike Trout in 2012, in other words, was the embodiment of joy and of possibility, and for many people the experience of watching him play was not just intellectually satisfying -- so that's where those numbers come from -- but deeply emotional, too. Professional scouts are paid to dispassionately analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the hundreds of players they watch each year, but every one I talked to about Trout this season couldn't help but describe not just what he made him think, but what he made him [ital.]feel[ital.].

"He plays the game like everybody remembers playing it when they were a kid - he just enjoys it," said one, in a feature about Trout I wrote for in July.

After that story was published, I received an e-mail from a man whose father was dying of cancer. Each night this summer, father and son would watch Trout play for the Angels on TV, the father outside on his deck, soaking up as many twilights as he had left, the son at home. Afterwards, they would call each other. They would talk about whatever absurd feat Trout had pulled off that evening, and how the joy with which he had done it had reminded them of their own love for baseball, and of the connection it had given them during their time together. More often than not, the man wrote, they would cry.

Mike Trout was only just a rookie, and he in all likelihood has plenty of time left to have all sorts of awards bestowed upon him, a future Sportsman of the Year among them. But you never know what can happen. There is no reason to wait. He is, at 21, not just a young athlete who has the potential for greatness within him. He is one who is already, simply, great.

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