ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Angel Stadium and the crowd slowly trickles in to watch the Los Angeles Angels take on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Face by face, smile turns to frown as the word spreads. It has cast pallor on this gorgeous day, the blue sky now turning the faintest gray. The hot dogs have cooled off. The girl singing the anthem has a frog in her throat.
On this day, Mike Trout will not play.
The fans find out through word of mouth, kids staring up at their fathers with inquisitive eyes and quivering lips. He’s not playing? What? Why? A bruised knee? Noooo.
They’ve come to see him, their new crown jewel, quite literally a gift from above, the Angel Michael. He is their favorite, with fresh No. 27 Trout T-shirts being seen throughout the ballpark.
Albert Who-Jols? Torii Huh-nter? Something Greinke? Oh, he’s making his first start?
No, something fishy has taken over this city, and it even forgives the worst of puns.
“We found out on the way here,” Tim Chauser, a fan from Laguna Niguel, Calif., says of the left knee contusion that Trout suffered the day before. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t we just turn around?’”
That’s what Trout has done to this town.
Angel fans have fallen for the kid, become enamored by his hustle and his talent and his humility. He leads the American League in batting average, stolen bases, runs and scraped knees. He crashes into the wall leaping for a home run and the fans love him for it. He stretches a double into a triple and they’re ready to hand over their daughters.
He just turned 21 and he hasn’t even been in the major leagues for an entire season. Yet they already adore him. More, they cherish him. He is their Angel and theirs alone.
The world can have Albert Pujols, the greatest hitter of his generation, a known quantity, a household name in 42 languages, the Angels’ offseason whale. It can have Torii Hunter, one of the game’s foremost spokesmen, a 1,000-gigawatt smile that can’t be bottled up.
But they want Trout all to themselves.
“It is adoration,” said Eric Bartlett of Ladera Ranch, Calif., a two-year season-ticket holder at the game with his young son, Ben. “He’s once in a lifetime. For somebody to come up like that and perform at his level, with no signs of backing down? The whole world sees it. I’m a little hesitant these days to point to a hero in sports, because you never know what they are personally, but everything I’ve seen and heard -- I’d be willing to sign him for 50 years.”
This is not about a fear of losing their young prodigy.
Angel fans’ love affair with Trout is not based on jealousy. It is not a dread of the inevitability of professional sports, the paranoia that some other team, at some point, will come up with an ungodly number and pull Trout away in his prime. They’ll cross that bridge when they get there, heaven forbid.
No, this is simple pride, an entire fan base coming together behind the homecoming king. Trout is so young and so full of life that he reminds them of their star quarterback, the kid who made them proud of their hometown.
They call him a young Mickey Mantle, and it’s not just because of the way he plays; it’s because of the way Mantle made kids feel in 1954, like they were rooting for the ultimate big brother.
“He seems like a good ol’ boy, an old-school, throwback player,” Bartlett said. “I’ve seen the Angels down by eight runs and he’s still stealing second and third base. He plays every game like they’re winning. The fact he lives at home. The fact that all the ladies like him because he’s a nice-looking man. What do you think, Ben?”
Ben nods and smiles.
“He’s the MVP!”
Is he your favorite player?
Ben nods vigorously. His smile widens. He has shades on so he can’t see the impending gloom. He is oblivious to the pain that will soon befall him.
No one has told him yet that Trout is out.