Old enough to sign a seven-figure contract, too young to order a beer, the ballplayers were barely out of high school, single and carefree when they were dropped in the Arizona desert with nothing but monotony on their hands. Play a game, practice that game and then wait for the next game.
“The time we had there, it was so much fun,” Mike Trout says. “I’ll never forget it.”
“We had an absolute blast every single day,” Bryce Harper says.
Less than three years later, as Trout’s Los Angeles Angels prepare to visit Harper and the Washington Nationals for the first time for a three-game series that begins Monday, one has evolved into perhaps the best player in the game and the other into one of the most exciting. In the fall of 2011, already well known for what they were supposed to become, the two were briefly teammates on the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League. There weren’t pennant pressures, TV commercials or a slew of endorsement deals. The prelude to superstardom was simpler.
“I just remember, you have these two guys — kids, really — and they had all this hype around them. But for them, when they weren’t in the batting cage, they were talking about video games,” says Ken Joyce, the hitting coach for that team. “There was one they were talking about camping out overnight at Wal-Mart when it came out. That was one of those things you had to laugh at.”
That 35-game stint while most of the baseball world was hibernating forged a bond between the two that continues today. It also provided the first signs of a shadow relationship, a linking of phenoms that likely will follow the pair for the remainder of their careers.
It might seem somewhat arbitrary, but age, timing and talent occasionally link athletes of a certain aptitude. Magic and Bird. Mays and Mantle. Ovechkin and Crosby. Trout, 22, is 14 months older. Both players won rookie of the year honors in 2012. Since the time they shared an outfield in Scottsdale, they’ve been connected.
“They’re always going to compare you to somebody,” Trout said before a recent game in Detroit, “even if it’s not a guy playing right now.”
“Everybody is going to do that,” Harper said. “It’s part of human nature. It’s part of life.”
The rest of the baseball world has done plenty of it, especially during their rookie seasons before Trout put some distance between himself and most every other major leaguer. Like many around the game, Hall of Famer Al Kaline says Trout has emerged as the game’s best all-around player. He’s off to another hot start this season, batting. 307 with an on-base percentage of .373 and a slugging percentage of .613, and is tied for third in the American League with five homers. After a slow start, Harper has a slash line of .292/.352/.415.
Both players, Kaline says, should get even better. “If they do, they’re going to go down as two of the greatest players ever,” he said.
Both are billed as five-tool players who play with unbound enthusiasm, but there are big differences — the way they seek attention, the way attention finds them, the way their stars have risen away from the field. Through two seasons, Trout is the bigger ballplayer, Harper the bigger brand.
“I think around the league Bryce is viewed more as a villain because he has a little more flare and seems more cocky,” said Dodgers pitcher Dan Haren, a former teammate and fan of both young stars. “But they both have chips on their shoulders, and that’s one of the reasons they are so good.”
Trout has more power and a neck wide as a NASCAR track, and he seems to have protein shake circulating in his veins. He signed a contract extension last offseason for $145 million, possibly leaving money on the table but also positioning himself to sign an even bigger deal when he’s 29. Harper is locked up by the Nats through 2018 and won’t likely be signing a similar deal any time soon, his agent, Scott Boras, indicated last month.
Haren points out that for the third straight season Harper is the youngest player in the game. He says Harper is as naturally gifted as Trout, but there’s still room for growth.
“It’s really hard to compare the two because I really don’t think Bryce has reached his full potential yet. . . . Trout has obviously had two monster, MVP-caliber seasons, and while he still can get better at certain parts of his game, his career can plateau for 10 years and he’d be one of the greatest of all time,” Haren said. “Bryce has way more room to grow, and I’m sure it’s all going to click here really soon.”
Kaline was 18 years old when he made his debut in 1953 and was spared the hype that has surrounded both Trout and Harper. The key to sustaining a long career, he says, is maintaining focus.
“The only way you can be truly great is if your first priority, particularly for three hours every day, you make baseball the most important thing in your life,” Kaline said. “Sometimes when you have security and other things, you forget how important baseball has to be.”
In Scottsdale, neither player could possibly lose sight of that. They had just completed a long season in the minors before reporting to the Arizona Fall League. Baseball — and video games — was all they had. “They both came in with the attitude that they wanted to actually get better and make the most of their time there,” said Joyce, the hitting coach who now holds the same position with the San Francisco Giants’ Class AA affiliate in Richmond.
Trout was ill for part of the short season and hit only .245 in 25 games with one home run and five RBI. Harper hit .333 with six homers and 26 RBI.
The fall league is instructional, and the goal is to improve. Some of the most important work was done in the batting cage. For Trout and Harper, it was also some of the most impressive work.
“It was one of the beauties of being there,” Joyce said.
Angels catcher Hank Conger was also on that Scottsdale team and says batting practice was often more fun to watch than the games. Trout and Harper would take turns, launching bombs that didn’t land but also spraying darts with uncanny precision.
“It was one of those things where you’re watching it and you kind of just know that both of them were going to turn out to be superstars,” Conger said. “It felt real special to watch.”
Trout and Harper were among the few players under 21. When some teammates would grab a drink after a game, the younger players would make other plans. Trout and Harper could usually be found with Will Middlebrooks, the Boston Red Sox third baseman.
“Basically, a little group we had going on,” Trout said. “Always getting food, messing around, video games — anything that would take our minds off baseball.”
They usually hit the same sushi and teppanyaki restaurant on North Scottsdale Road and would then spend hours playing Call of Duty. Trout doesn’t remember who was better with the video-game controller, but then again, he has no interest in comparing himself with Harper in any way.
Trout and Harper share a mutual admiration. Harper calls Trout an “unbelievable talent,” and Trout says Harper is “incredibly exciting to watch.” They still text now and then, mostly trading good-luck messages. While they see each other only occasionally, Trout still remembers when they packed up and left Scottsdale in November 2011.
“There at the end, when we were leaving, we basically both told each other, ‘Hopefully next time we see each other is in the big leagues,’ ” Trout said.
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.