BALTIMORE — On a Friday night in June, after another display of habitual brilliance, Mike Trout walked through the double doors at the home plate entrance at Camden Yards. He had family in town, and he was in a hurry to see them. A golf cart, driven by a clubhouse attendant, awaited. “Not in front of the cart!” the attendant yelled at a pair of autograph-seekers. There was almost nobody else there. Trout hopped in, and the cart ferried him about 40 yards across the pavilion to an idling black Ford F-150 STX. Trout transferred from cart to truck, and off it zoomed.
The method of escape had been worthy of the best player in baseball, a 26-year-old already building a case as an all-timer, a two-time MVP still seeking — and reaching — new apexes. That night against the Baltimore Orioles, Trout had homered, scored from second on a single, drawn an intentional walk and robbed two doubles in center field. Some players relish those nights, so rare in a game drenched in failure. For Trout, they pile up like sunflower seed shells on a dugout floor.
The crowd he navigated outside the ballpark, though, spoke to his level of stardom. Trout has elevated himself sans flash or celebrity. He is revered by Los Angeles Angels teammates, respected by peers, worshiped by statistical evaluations and lionized by hardcore fans. For all other constituencies, to the mild dismay of Major League Baseball, he has the profile of an athlete who can walk into a sticky-hot Friday night and be greeted by less than a dozen pen-wielding fans.
At Tuesday night’s All-Star Game, Trout will be the best player doffing his cap along the foul lines at Nationals Park. No major North American sport — not even the NBA with LeBron James — leaves less room for argument about the identity of its best player. At his current pace, some advanced metrics have Trout threatening the greatest season ever produced. He is a meteor doing laps in the sky, freshly astonishing and yet metronomically consistent.
As thrilling and productive as he can be on a diamond, he also represents an obstacle baseball faces. Trout captures and exceeds the imagination of baseball’s adherents, but owing to his prerogative, mitigating individual circumstances and the inherent nature of the game, he has not broken through in any broader way. MLB must grapple with an uncomfortable, perhaps unavoidable dilemma: Trout is the ultimate all-star, and yet he is not a star.
“In general, baseball does not do as good a job as other major sports in the U.S. as far as promoting their stars nationwide, especially compared to NFL and NBA,” said Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores, a firm that measures consumer appeal of personalities. “He’s basically not a well-known commodity among the general population.”
Trout scored a 22 in Q Scores’ awareness category, Schafer said, which means a little more than one in five Americans even know who he is. The closest NBA player to Trout in terms of awareness among the general population, per Q Scores’s research, is reserve forward Kenneth Faried, who was traded by the Denver Nuggets to the Brooklyn Nets last week in a salary dump. If that’s to be believed, it means that if you stopped a random person on the street, they’d be about as likely to be familiar with a power forward who averaged 14.4 minutes last season as the hands-down best baseball player on the planet.
“That’s like, what’s wrong with baseball?” Schafer said.
Trout is in so many ways the answer to, what’s right with baseball? During batting practice on that Friday night in Baltimore, Trout spotted a kid in a roped-off area behind the cage. Gavin Edelson, 6, held a sign reading, “I WANT TO BE LIKE MIKE TROUT IS MY IDOL.” Trout didn’t know Gavin, had never seen him before. He waved him over and handed him his bat. While Angels took their hacks, Gavin took a swing outside the cage, the bat nearly dragging him to the ground on his follow-through. He and Trout discussed the hot weather. Gavin beamed and handed Trout a letter he wrote to him.
“This has been his dream forever,” said Gavin’s dad, Jason.
Trout is the ideal player to emulate, a complete constellation of skills in an athletic package nearly impossible to duplicate. He has tree-trunk thighs and sewer-pipe biceps — he would not look out of place in an NFL linebackers meeting room. He runs the bases like a leopard. He owns the 11th-highest slugging percentage in baseball history and still walks more than he strikes out. His defense, once considered a relative weakness, has improved to the point that his manager, Mike Scioscia, touts him for a Gold Glove. He has compiled more wins above replacement than Vladimir Guerrero and Yogi Berra did in their entire careers. Trout is the best in the majors at some things, among the best at everything else.
“The only thing I haven’t seen him do well every single time is park in the parking lot,” teammate Kole Calhoun said. “Sometimes, he’s a little crooked. That’s about it. Everything else is pretty much perfect.”
Trout’s rise began at an unlikely baseball outpost, fueled by his exceptional capacity for improvement. He grew up in Millville, N.J., about 45 miles outside Philadelphia, the son of a fifth-round pick, Jeff Trout, whose outstanding college career derailed in the minors after a spate of injuries. Location played a crucial role in Trout’s origin story. Scouts overlook kids in the northeast, who play less frequently and against lesser competition than peers in hotbeds such as Florida, Texas and California. It allows Trout to say, with barely any delusion: “A lot of people doubted me. I just try to prove them wrong each and every day.”
Roy Hallenbeck has been the baseball coach at Millville High for two decades, long enough to develop an understanding of how prep athletes mature. Every kid has one offseason in which he makes a vast leap, he believes, which establishes the level of player he’ll be.
“Mike did that every single year,” Hallenbeck said. “From freshman to sophomore, I said, ‘Well, that’s his jump.’ Next year, he was not even same kid. And then he did it again.”
Trout started his high school career off the radar of scouts, and by the start of his senior year, his family thought maybe he’d be picked in 10th round. East Carolina Coach Billy Godwin recruited him hard and won a commitment during Trout’s junior year. But as he polished his game, Trout gained notice as a senior. At one point, Jeff Trout told Hallenbeck he figured Trout may be a fifth-rounder. Godwin returned to re-recruit Trout and ward off the pro scouts who would try to convince him to skip college.
At a game Godwin attended, Trout hit a flyball to deep center, which the center fielder misplayed. “As the ball lands, Mike was on top of me at third base,” Hallenbeck said. “I just kind of wave my hand, make myself look important. He had a stand-up, inside-the-park home run on a ball that didn’t make the fence.”
From the scout’s section, Hallenbeck saw two reactions. First, scouts scurried to find colleagues who had the homer on tape, so they could double-check their stopwatches — they could not believe how fast Trout had run around the bases. Second, Godwin walked past Millville’s bench, toward the exit, shaking his head.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Hallenbeck asked him.
“Man, that’s the best high school player I’ve ever seen,” Godwin replied. “He’s not coming to me.”
By the end of the season, the Trouts realized Mike would be a first-round pick, and the Angels grabbed him at 25th. The northeast stigma had convinced almost every team to pass on Trout.
It clung to him even early in his professional career. Bill Mosiello, then the manager at Class Low-A Cedar Rapids, first saw Trout in a 10-game cameo, a few months after Trout signed as a 17-year-old. Mosiello viewed Trout as a decent player with unpolished tools whose speed and makeup would someday get him to the majors.
The next spring training, Mosiello saw the product of Trout attacking weaknesses over an offseason. “I’d never seen a better player,” Mosiello said. “He improved so much just from that year before. It had a lot to do with his intelligence and his work ethic.”
As Trout laid waste to the Midwest League as an 18-year-old, Trout regularly performed feats Mosiello had never seen. He turned routine grounders to shortstop into singles. He would hit a ball into the left field corner and race for a triple. Mosiello told prospect writers, off the record to avoid saddling Trout with expectations, that Trout was going to be the next Mickey Mantle.
“I do take some pride,” said Mosiello, now the associate head coach at TCU. “I had told people, ‘You think I’m crazy, but he’s got a chance to be the best player who ever played.’ It was just a power-speed thing that had never been seen before.”
Improvement remains the most vital element of Trout’s career. “When he got drafted, he wasn’t a power hitter,” said Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs, a close friend who lived with Trout in the minors. Since he established himself, at age 20, as a full-time major leaguer, Trout has been the best player in baseball. And yet, he decisively improved every season.
“He’s set the bar so high already and continues to figure out a way to raise it,” Calhoun said. “There’s been so many times he’s had MVP-type seasons, and then to come out and continue to top that season again and again and again, it just blows you away.”
Trout led the league with 184 strikeouts in 2014. In the offseason, he dedicated himself to stop chasing high pitches, and his strikeout totals plummeted the next two seasons. Eric Hinske, the Angels’ first-year hitting coach, said his low chase rate is what impresses most about seeing Trout daily.
Early in his career, Trout realized scouts questioned his throwing arm. He asked Calhoun to play long toss with him before the first game of every series, a routine he still keeps four years later. Evaluators now regard his arm strength as above-average. “He’s a guy that people think twice about running on now,” Calhoun said.
At the start of last winter, Dino Ebel, the Angels’ longtime outfield coach, showed Trout analytics from the team’s front office that suggested Trout’s defensive range in center field was below average. Trout performs agility drills in a workout room. During batting practice, Scioscia hits him fungoes so he can read balls off the bat and focus on his first step.
“Every year, he comes to me and says, ‘How do I get better? What do I need to get better at?’ ” Ebel said. “He sees it in front of him, and he attacks it, and he takes it into play. His aptitude is off the chart.”
When Ebel shows Trout the Angels’ advanced stats now, Trout grins. FanGraphs’ defensive metrics say Trout has saved 2.3 runs this season with his range, 17th among major league outfielders.
“I’m getting to them easier than expected,” Trout said. “I’m getting there quicker. That’s the biggest thing. I’m just trying to catch everything.”
Trout’s career-long performance, coupled with his wholesome persona, would seem to make him destined for crossover stardom — except every other factor, both those in and out of his control, work against it.
MLB would love Trout to be a bigger star. It produced a documentary about him for its television network, promotes his achievements on its website and pushes his highlights on its Twitter feed. But it cannot overcome ingrained factors, starting with what television ratings in recent years have revealed: Fans follow baseball far more locally than nationally.
“Baseball is inherently a regional game, which makes it almost impossible to create a national campaign for an individual player,” St. Joseph’s University sports marketing professor John B. Lord said.
The sport itself is star-resistant compared to other games. Even a novice would understand a basketball star’s brilliance at first glance; any one game wouldn’t reveal a baseball player’s impact. If the Houston Rockets are down to a final possession, it’s a lock James Harden will play a central role. It’s a crapshoot if Trout will come to bat in the ninth inning with the game on the line, and even when he does, opponents can neutralize him at will — Trout leads the majors in intentional walks.
Factors specific to Trout hurt, too. The majority of his games begin after 10 p.m. on the East Coast. He plays for the second-biggest team in his own market. The best chance baseball players have to enhance their notoriety comes in the postseason. Trout has appeared in the playoffs only once, and he went 1 for 12 with a homer and three walks during a three-game sweep in the 2014 ALDS.
Trout’s own outlook plays a role. His first and only priority during the season is preparing himself for first pitch. He and his agent, Craig Landis, are wary of overexposure and want to ensure his likability. Even if that wasn’t the case, Trout places so much focus on his craft, it leaves little time for promotional pursuits.
“You got to do what’s right for you,” Trout said. “It’s a long season, a long grind. Here and there, it’s good to do. It’s tough to have a six-, seven-hour photo shoot when you’re playing a baseball game. You got to be ready for the baseball game.”
Baseball’s inner culture, too, suppresses fame. Players, especially young players, can draw ire from within and without their clubhouse by making caustic remarks or appearing in commercials.
“I think this culture is a little bit different, when it comes to your other major sports,” Calhoun said. “You’ve got to go through the grind to get to where you’re at, up through the minor leagues. There’s a lot of humbling experiences going through that. Guys kind of are happy trying to stay content and stay humble and stay grounded, because it almost seems like once you’re not, the game kind of gets the best of you.”
In the offseason, Trout is content to work out and relax. He guested as a Weather Channel host — Trout loves the weather. He posed for the cover of Men’s Health. He took part in a prank video with teammates. MLB has attempted to nudge Trout toward taking on more opportunities. He has declined some that may introduce him to casual fans: late-night shows, competing annually in the Home Run Derby, several national endorsements.
“Part of our analysis is, what is the appropriate pace to set?” Landis said. “If we felt like Mike’s stardom had but one or two more years remaining we might frantically chase every marketing opportunity. That is not the case here. We feel like Mike will play another 13 to 14 years, so he needs to pace himself accordingly, doing endorsements only for a few select, quality companies. We’re looking at his career like a marathon, not a sprint.”
Trout plays golf, hunts, fishes, hangs out with family and roots for the Philadelphia Eagles. He dated his high school sweetheart for 11 years, until marrying her this winter. He’s polite and accessible and happy to answer any question in a pleasantly dull monotone. Aside from his on-field performance, he creates no headlines. It is admirable, but in 2018, it’s also not a recipe for celebrity. Not that Trout even minds.
“I also just think that’s not him,” Skaggs said. “He comes from a small town. He’s very humble. I don’t think he wants the fanfare.”
Baseball may grapple with its dearth of nationally high-profile players. Trout has not transcended the sport, but that is not necessarily a fundamental problem. Watch Trout rumble like a freight train around third base, or carve through center field in twilight, in pursuit of killing a double, and the thrill leaves you with only one thought: That is what is right about baseball.