For Trout, difference is in details
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Under different circumstances, if you believe the world works that way, maybe they could have been friends. But as a teenage fan ran onto the field toward Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout during the seventh inning of a recent game, only one thought of any import came to mind: That better be a pen in his right hand.
Trout easily could have outrun the fan. He can outrun every other player in the game right now. And at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds with a build like a linebacker, he could have tackled the fan before the team's security guards got there, too.
Instead, Trout, himself then just 20 years old, stood up from his crouch as the fan moved toward him and had a brief, mostly amicable conversation.
"He came up to me and said, 'It's my 18th birthday; can you sign this, please?'" Trout said. "I was like, 'Not now. Maybe after the game.' We had a little conversation about it."
Trout was neither smiling nor upset as he recalled the incident. In fact, like a lot of things Trout has done this season, it wasn't altogether clear that he realized this sort of thing doesn't happen every day.
"I was bracing myself a little bit when he reached for his pen," Trout said. "But it wasn't too bad."
Over the course of our conversation, Trout used this phrase several more times. Like many young players, he's still a little guarded. Short, but not necessarily shy.
The pressure of living up to his former status as the No. 1 prospect in baseball? "It's not too bad," Trout said.
The adjustment from Triple-A to an everyday starring role in the major leagues? "It's not too bad."
Appearing in the All-Star Game as a rookie? Being recognized around town? The comparisons to Hall of Famers? You guessed it.
It's a cliche, sure. A crutch to fall back on when nothing else comes to mind. But it is not a coincidence.
While the rest of the baseball world is busy deciding whether he's the second coming of Mickey Mantle or Rickey Henderson and debating whether he should be the American League MVP, Mike Trout seems to be taking it all in stride.
As we learned earlier with the autograph-seeking fan, it takes quite a bit to get his temperature to rise.
"I haven't done really anything yet," Trout said. "This is my first full year. There's a lot of years to come."
There is a confidence and a calmness to Trout, as if he can see where it all ends while the rest of us are still projecting it out. As if he's been seeing it his whole life.
Yes, this year has been special. He knows that.
Going into Wednesday, Trout was hitting .346 with 20 homers and 36 stolen bases, a pace that projected out to .346, 31 home runs and 56 steals -- something no big leaguer has ever accomplished.
The Angels' public relations staff has worked overtime to contextualize and keep track of Trout's feats. Each game, it seems, the staff sends a blizzard of new emails with nuggets such as this one from the Elias Sports Bureau on Aug. 1: "Trout has scored 80 runs in 81 games this season. The last rookie to reach 80 runs in 81 or fewer games was Joe DiMaggio in 1936. Joe D. scored his 80th and 81st run in his 76th game that season."
It's been a dizzying, delightful three months for everyone involved.
But a few lockers to Trout's right in the Angels' clubhouse, the most dominant hitter of his generation beats him to the ballpark every day. A man for whom seasons like the one Trout is having have been so common, so expected over the course of his 12-year career, he seems more machine than man.
No matter how he does over the life of the record 10-year, $240 million contract he signed with the Angels this past winter, Albert Pujols is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has long since been recognized and accepted into that company.
On this subject, Trout has a bit more to say.
"Albert is here every day when I get here around 1:30 p.m.," he said. "He's first to the clubhouse every day. When I get here, he's already been in the cages."
These are the details Trout notices.
It wasn't really his place, and after Trout torched the Texas Rangers during a three-game series in mid-July (.500, four runs, three RBIs), it probably wasn't the time, either. Ron Washington said it anyway.
"He's not Willie Mays. He's a pretty good player, but I think the comparisons have to stop," a frustrated Washington said after that series when asked about Trout. "Let the kid play. When he's been here five years, six years, then you can start doing that."
It was the kind of quote that gets picked up all over the country by every paper or website that knows a good headline when it sees one. The next day, predictably, Angels manager Mike Scioscia was asked to respond.
"I think what Wash is saying [is] the same thing we've been saying: 'To reach some of the things those guys, the baseball immortals, have done, it has to stand the test of time,'" Scioscia said.
"You can talk about the type of player Mike reminds you of, the tool set, I think that's where he's getting compared to guys. But what his production is, what he's going to be 10 or 15 years from now, that's the test of time.
"You're only going to be in the same sentence with those guys when you finish your career and you put up the type of career that's worthy to be with those guys."
The curt kid turns into a bumblebee during games. Trout is too busy talking to everyone to sit much in the dugout. He asks pitchers how they would get him out. He asks other hitters what they saw up at the plate. He asks third-base coach Dino Ebel where to position himself in the outfield.
"He's like that kid in the backseat who is always asking, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'" Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said.
"But that's a good thing, you know. He listens. He wants to learn and get better. At 20 years old, I was like that, too. I wore [Minnesota Twins veterans] Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett out. I asked them so many questions they just put their hand up after a while."
It's a bit jarring to picture Trout as this eager kid in the front of the classroom with his hand perpetually raised when he's so quiet and guarded with the media.
Hunter has a theory on that, too: "He's trying to get to know you guys. If he says too much, he might get beat up for it."
Then again, when you can play the way Mike Trout does, why say anything?
You forget sometimes how interconnected major league baseball players are. How many players have grown up with each other or shared a minor league clubhouse on their way up.
From the outside looking in, each team can feel like its own country. But really, baseball is a small world. Guys talk all the time. They text and tweet and Facebook message each other all day. Which means that for the better part of three months, every player on the Angels has been telling every other player in the league who asks just how good Mike Trout really is.
"He wanted to know if he's the best player in baseball," Haren said. "I think it was after that game in Detroit when he hit the 450-foot opposite-field home run.
"I wrote him back: 'Yes.'"
Haren has been in baseball long enough to know a statement like that cannot be made lightly. Too much can still happen. The game rewards perseverance, not pizzazz.
"Yeah, right now, right at this moment, I think he is," Haren said. "Who knows what the next two months hold for him. But right now, the things he's doing, no one else is doing."
"I talk to some of the other teams we play, and they have no idea how to pitch him," Angels outfielder Mark Trumbo said. "If you don't throw him strikes, he's going to get on base and then steal two bases.
"There really are no weaknesses with Mike. My game has improved greatly just watching him play."
It's hard to say when exactly it became unnecessary to point out that Trout is just 21 years old every time his name comes up. All I know is that in mid-June, there was a small campaign on the Internet to write Trout's name onto the All-Star ballot and Scioscia wanted nothing to do with it. But a few weeks later, Trout had burned up the AL with such fury, his spot on the All-Star team was a given.
Now there is talk he could be an MVP candidate if the Angels overtake the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
It is lost on nobody in the room that this season, the next 10 seasons really, were supposed to be about Pujols. He was supposed to be the face of the franchise, break all of baseball's hallowed records here and win a few more MVPs along the way.
On this team, though, Pujols has been only the third-best hitter.
In fact, his early-season struggles were the reason the Angels became so reliant on production from Trout and Trumbo, and still find themselves digging out from what had been a nine-game hole in the AL West on April 30.
Pujols has recovered from his disastrous start, hitting .329 and blasting 23 homers since May 15.
But the clubhouse, the dynamic of the team has already shifted so dramatically because of Trout, even the great Pujols can't help but sit back and admire what he's done.
Before Trout's call-up April 28, the Angels averaged 3.7 runs per game and hit .245 with a .666 OPS. Since then, the Angels are scoring 4.9 runs per game with a team batting average of .276 and an OPS of .783. Trout's 7.1 wins above replacement are the most of any player in the majors.
By now you've heard the story about former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa going up to Trout at the All-Star Game and telling him, "Pujols has told me all about you."
It's a great story. It's also true.
"I told Tony how humble [Trout] is and that I'm blessed to be able to share the same field with him," Pujols said earnestly. "He's an impressive kid. Nothing he does surprises me anymore. Every day he does something different to leave you like, 'Wow, that was unbelievable.'"
Pujols isn't talking about the 450-foot home run to right field in Detroit or the unforgettable leaping catches Trout made in Baltimore and Chicago.
Neither are Trumbo and Hunter.
Those plays, the highlights, the plays that make "SportsCenter" and get talked about in clubhouses all over baseball the next morning, those aren't what make Trout special.
All that is pizzazz. The good stuff is in the guts.
"We know he can run," Hunter said. "We know he can play the outfield. We know he can hit. But the one thing I've been really impressed with is his plate discipline.
"That's something that's just in you. You can get more of it over time if you play a little bit. But he's just got it right away. And when you have that, it's special."
Plate discipline is not sexy. You picture sabermetrics wonks getting all worked up over the fact Trout has swung at only 10 percent of the first pitches he's seen this year, far less than the major league average of 27 percent.
But that kind of patience in a young hitter speaks to something much bigger. Something a great veteran player such as Pujols recognizes and appreciates. Something a great young player such as Trumbo can aspire to.
"Even if he gets behind in the count, he never looks like he's lost any of his momentum," Trumbo said. "He still feels like he's in the driver's seat.
"That," Trumbo said, pausing for effect. "That's special."
What we're really talking about is control.
Of the game. Of his place in it now. Of his future in it.
It's impossible to say now where Mike Trout will be in 15 years. What his numbers will add up to. Whether he becomes the next Mantle or Mays.
That all comes into focus at the end. Projecting or predicting it now is wholly theoretical.
There have been other players with ability like Trout's. Not all of them made the most of it.
That calmness, that confidence that just seems to ooze out of him? That patience at the plate? That poise when the autograph seeker runs at him and reaches into his pocket, and everyone in the stadium is thinking, "That better be a pen"?
All that is Mike Trout knowing that whatever the game throws at him, he can handle it.
Nothing's ever going to feel too big.