How to make Mike Trout look unsettled on a baseball field: Try a fastball on the hands followed by a slider away. He might miss his pitch. He might drill a double to the gap. He might ground out. He might steal a bag. He’ll always carry himself the same way.
“He’s been that way as long as I’ve known him,” said Roy Hallenbeck, who coached Trout all those years ago at Millville High in southern New Jersey. That was long before Trout’s first five seasons in the majors resulted in the following finishes in the American League MVP voting: second, second, first, second, first.
“He’s not a reserved person by any means,” Hallenbeck said. “He’s very outgoing, friendly, a really energetic guy. His entire life, he’s always just downplayed what he’s done. He’s very humble and unassuming. Don’t get me wrong: He’s extremely confident, but it’s never come off as arrogant.”
We have, here in Washington, a 20-hour window to see Trout in person, and who knows when he’ll be back? The Los Angeles Angels don’t visit these parts that often, and Trout’s appearance in the lineup at Nationals Park on Tuesday evening was just the fourth of his career. Baseball isn’t like the NFL, where you’re guaranteed to see Aaron Rodgers throw 30-something times, or the NBA, where you’re sure to see LeBron James take 30-something shots. Trout would get his four plate appearances Tuesday night — going 1 for 3 with a walk in the Nats’ 3-1 victory — then that many on Wednesday afternoon, scarcely enough to paint a full portrait.
“You’ll get a glimpse of Mike and his tools in a couple games, or one game,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said before the series opener. “But to see him do it day in, day out is really where the magic is.”
We are robbed of the magic, though, over this two-day span, not just because it’s only a tiny glimpse of Trout, but because his alpha male counterpart in the other clubhouse, Nats right fielder Bryce Harper, is out with a bone bruise in his knee. Last month, when these teams faced each other in Anaheim, Calif., Harper hit a solo homer with two outs in the top of the first, Trout followed with a solo homer with two outs in the bottom of the first, and baseball’s two biggest stars had, after all these years, a tit-for-tat moment.
“They’re remarkable,” said Angels outfielder Ben Revere, a Nat last year and, therefore, one of the privileged few who has been a teammate of both Trout and Harper. “They’ve got all the tools in the world. That’s why they’re the top two guys in baseball.”
Trout wouldn’t have faced Harper in any meaningful way, because a center fielder can’t stare down a right fielder from the mound. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they are the sport’s central figures, and that one of the game’s most pertinent debates — how a player should handle himself on the field, and how that relates to how players are marketed off it — can be distilled into these two generational stars.
Harper has his own cleat, his own “BH” logo, his own Instagram account about what he and his wife eat. Trout tweets mostly about what city the Angels are traveling to or about his Philadelphia Eagles. Harper has been thrown at by a pitcher, three years later, because he pimped a home run. Trout rounds the bases with his head down, perhaps smiling. They are standard bearers for the game, and they bear that standard differently.
“The numbers he puts up, with all the hype, it’s pretty remarkable,” Trout said of Harper on Tuesday afternoon. “People see him on the field, and some people think he’s a little cocky. But I talked to him a little bit when he was in Anaheim. He’s a great person. He goes out there and plays the game hard. He wants to win.”
Harper has strong views on how MLB should market its individual stars (put directly: more and better). But before we allow this line of thinking to be distilled, too simply, into Trout carries himself in the old-school, just-trying-to-help-the-team-win manner vs. Harper as the look-at-me star of the selfie generation, talk to the people who knew them when and know them best. There are similarities.
“Once Bryce got onto the baseball field, it was a business,” said Sam Thomas, Harper’s coach at Las Vegas High. “It was, ‘I’m here to win. I’m here to make sure that everybody on the team does what they’re supposed to do so we can win.’ But it wasn’t at the expense of not having fun. It was never with the idea that, ‘I’m better than everybody else.’ I don’t want to say he acted like a star, because it wasn’t like that.”
Likewise, Hallenbeck remembers a time when Millville was riding back from an away game, one in which Trout — who dominated spotty competition in New Jersey — had a rare off game.
“The guys were making fun of him,” Hallenbeck said. “They were saying, ‘The headline tomorrow will probably be, ‘Mike Trout’s walk leads Millville to victory!’ And he was just laughing. He was very popular with his teammates. He never showed them up, never big-leagued them in any way.”
And yet, they are undeniably different. When Thomas was flying back to Las Vegas recently, his wife was chatting with a flight attendant about how they had just seen Harper play. The woman’s mother, turns out, lives in Virginia and counts herself as a huge Harper fan. To show she understood who she was talking about, the flight attendant then lowered her head and tossed her hair back — Harper’s move.
“She did the hair flip, and I laughed,” Thomas said. “You talk to anybody else, and that’s what they see. But you know what? Me, I guess it’s because I know Bryce, I don’t consider it flashy. I’m starting my 30th year of high school baseball. I’ve never seen a kid work as hard as Bryce Harper.”
So maybe that’s a great way to think about the entire debate, that what you see depends on who you ask. Whether you’re drawn to Harper’s movie-star magnetism or Trout’s lunch-pail diligence, there is room in baseball for both approaches. Indeed, baseball may need both approaches. Trout reminds the 50-plus crowd of how the game was played when they were kids. Harper reels in a newer generation with an understanding that maintaining the status quo means going backward, losing ground to other sports.
Either way, we can’t directly compare and contrast them this week at Nationals Park. With Harper hobbled, Trout is the only one who can be dangerous. Tuesday, he came up as the tying run in the sixth.
“You just hope he keeps it in the ballpark,” said new Nat Howie Kendrick, who lockered next to Trout from 2011 to 2014, when he was an Angel. Kendrick, who homered twice himself Tuesday, got his wish; Trout merely singled. But he paid Trout the ultimate player-to-player compliment.
“No matter what, whether he went 0 for 4 with four punch-outs or 4 for 4 with three homers, he’s the same guy every day,” Kendrick said. “. . . For a guy that’s a superstar in this game, he’s still just one of the guys.”
One of the guys saw his superstar counterpart, Harper, take a scary spill Saturday night. Trout knows the bone bruise diagnosis was not just good for Harper and good for the Nationals.
“It’s good for baseball that he got out of it,” Trout said.
They are both good for baseball, the best baseball has to offer, even if their similarities are far overshadowed by their differences.