Mike Trout, the perfect catch (cont.)
So, no, Mike Trout was not Mike Piazza, a 62nd rounder who out of nowhere became a future Hall of Famer. Had one pick somewhere ahead of him been different, a subsequent selector might have chosen him before he reached the Angels. Had the Angels passed on him, he likely wouldn't have lasted long. As Beane suggests, most every scout could pick up on the young Trout's athletic gifts, and most every scout did.
The next step was believing in those gifts, and believing in them more than in anybody else's, even those players who didn't play high school ball in New Jersey, where a full season can consist of 16 games, three of which are snowed out. Believing that once Trout was no longer playing against New Jersey teenagers, but the best players in the world, that his gifts would remain so evident, and believing in that so fervently that you were willing to stake your job on it. The Angels had people who believed, starting with an area scout named Greg Morhardt.
Morhardt was the Twins' second-round pick in 1984, and he spent most of the next three seasons with their Double-A affiliate in Orlando. In each of those seasons, he played alongside a slightly older infielder he admired, and who quickly became a close friend. That man's name was Jeff Trout.
Greg was there on the day that Jeff's mother happened to sit in the stands next to a woman who had a nice, pretty daughter named Debbie. Debbie was soon to become Jeff's girlfriend, and then his wife. Greg and Jeff laughed together about their fiery manager, Charlie Manuel, who greeted Greg on his first day with the team by saying, "Hey, son, we ain't got no trainer, so unless I see bone, you're playing." Manuel's style suited both players. One late-season night in Jacksonville, Jeff broke his hand, but he stayed in the game. The next day, he came back from the hospital wearing a cast, and played again.
After '86, it was made clear to Jeff -- even though he was a .303 hitter in four minor league seasons -- that he would not be promoted to Triple-A. He decided to go back to Millville, N.J., to become a teacher and coach, to give his expanding family the comfort he couldn't on $1,100 a month.
Greg's playing career ended three years later, before he had reached the majors. By that point, he had fallen out of touch with Jeff -- Trouter, he had called him -- as even very close friends sometimes do, when life separates them.
By August 2008, Morhardt had covered the Northeast for nearly a decade as a scout for first the Mets, and then the Angels. Being a scout in that region can be difficult, as fewer top prospects emerge from there than from places like Florida, Texas and California, where kids can play all year along, and against better competition. But, says Morhardt, "Every once in awhile, you catch a guy like Rocco Baldelli, who was from Rhode Island. It's just you don't get it too often."
Morhardt was putting together a team for an annual East Coast high school showcase game when someone mentioned that one of the roster candidates, from New Jersey, had the last name of Trout. "I said, 'OK, here we go, it's gotta be Trouter's kid,'" he says. It did not take him long to start to believe that even Rocco Baldelli had nothing on his old teammate's third and youngest child.
There was, first, the way the 16-year-old took batting practice. He was a natural pull hitter, and lashed ball after ball to left, but Morhardt asked him to try going the other way, and he hit the second pitch he saw on a rope, down the rightfield line. "I brought my son, Justin, who was 14, and Mike's got this 32-inch bat, this little wooden bat. I said, 'Justin, take a look at that kid over there. That's Mike Trout. That's a big league player, no ifs, ands or buts about it."
There was his athleticism, not just that he was fast, but the way he commanded his body. He could start to dive into third base but then, after seeing the third base coach signaling for him to come in standing, pull up, like a fighter jet aborting a landing mere feet from its carrier, and reach the bag without having dirtied his uniform.
Morhardt also saw in Trout what perhaps he was the only scout equipped to see: his old friend's drive, but paired with more ability. "He just had it," Morhardt says. Many players have the skills necessary to play in the major leagues, but not the drive to exploit them. More have the drive, but not the skills. Morhardt was sure that Trouter's kid had both, and that the Angels should do whatever it took to make him theirs.
Morhardt sent glowing reports back to Eddie Bane, who had been the Angels' scouting director since 2004. Some scouting directors are wary, even unintentionally, of pinning their drafts to even talented players with a greater potential of combusting. High schoolers from the Northeast rank among those, as they've usually played less baseball than most other potential draftees, and against lesser opponents. Eddie Bane prided himself on not being one of those directors.
"In baseball, you're comparing a high school kid from Connecticut with a guy from Arizona State that's won 40 games the past three years," Bane explains. "It's apples and oranges. Sometimes it comes down to, 'We got two guys. One guy's from Jersey, the other's from USC. Who are we going to take?' They make the tiebreaker favor the guy from college, or California, or whatever. In our case, we almost never did."
Bane followed along as Trout began a senior season in which he would set a state record by hitting 18 home runs. But he wouldn't commit to him until he saw him play for himself and sat across from him at a dining table. Bane reminded himself not to judge Trout in the easy ways. "He's facing 75-mile-per-hour pitching," Bane says. "If he rips that all over the place, big deal. You have to look for other stuff."
Trout popped out three times during the game that Bane and Jeff Malinoff, a national cross-checker, attended in Millville three weeks before the draft. Still, they saw in Trout what Morhardt had seen. They saw even more of it while eating dinner with Trout and his parents. By the time Bane and Malinoff walked back to their rental car, Bane's mind was made up.
"We're going to take him with our first pick," Bane told Malinoff in the parking lot.
"Come on," said Malinoff.
"No. We're taking him with our first pick. The problem is that he's not going to be there, because he's too good."
When the Angels compiled their official draft board, Stephen Strasburg sat at No. 1. Just behind him -- and there had been some debate about ranking him so low -- was Mike Trout.