Mike Trout, the perfect catch (cont.)
Even as draft days go, June 9, 2009, was unusually stressful for the Angels' scouting department. Its members -- including Bane, Morhardt, Malinoff and Ric Wilson, the other national cross-checker -- were worried, first, that their prize would be gone by the time they had their first of two consecutive picks, at No. 24. They knew that many teams ahead of them, including Billy Beane's A's, liked Trout very much, and that the Yankees -- who, thankfully, would not pick before No. 29 -- loved him. "Scouts are old gossip hounds, and I think Damon Oppenheimer with the Yankees was the only guy who had Trout up like we did," says Bane. "I'd let Damon know there's no chance, in a little private conversation. 'If you're thinking about Trout, you're not getting him.' He wasn't very happy."
The Angels' scouts' second worry was whether they would be able to sign Trout. The franchise did not pay picks bonuses higher than those recommended by MLB's slotting system. At dinner three weeks earlier, Jeff Trout had told Bane that his son would agree to his slot amount, but later Bane was hearing whispers that he would demand more. "Eddie called me about three hours before the draft, because the numbers were flying on Mike, and he wanted me to reach out to Jeff," says Morhardt. Morhardt called his old teammate, and reported back to his boss: "He's ready to go."
This, Morhardt reveals now, was not exactly true. "I actually had to lie to Eddie," he says. "He wasn't ready to go."
In fact, when Morhardt reached Trout's father, he could tell that "people had been getting at him" -- that is, trying to convince him to hold out for more money. "I said, 'Trouter, what's going on?'" Morhardt recalls. "Trouter was terrific, like he always is, telling me as much as he could. His main interest is his son and his family. So I told him, 'Trouter, if he gets there, we're going to take your boy. Six years from now, he's going to be getting $20 million a year.' Then I hung up the phone and called Eddie."
As the first round went on, Bane had another cause for concern. Prospects had for the first time been invited to attend the draft in person, at the MLB Network studio in Secaucus, N.J. "The knucklehead Trout actually showed up, when no other kids did," says Bane. "He's standing out like a sore thumb, just sitting there with his family. You're hoping that doesn't alert other clubs."
It didn't. With the 24th pick, the Angels submitted their name: Randal Grichuk, who was also a high school outfielder, but from Texas. "Morhardt almost fainted," says Bane. "That was kind of cruel of me, but I thought it was funny." Grichuk is currently hitting .271 for High-A Inland Empire. With the following pick, Bane took Trout. Of the 24 names called before his, 12 were of college players and 11 were of warm-weather high schoolers. The other, Jacob Turner of Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, was a pitcher with a skill that was easy to contextualize, no matter where he played, or against whom: he could throw 98 miles per hour.
Bane didn't know it, but Morhardt had a different reason to feel light-headed. He had put his career on the line for Trout based on a split-second decision he had made, born from a 15 year-old friendship, that Trout's father would do what he said and have his son sign for slot.
"I thought, 'This guy's got a chance to be a Hall of Fame player, and I'm not going to pass it up, and if I lose my job because he doesn't sign, I'm good with it,'" Morhardt recalls. "Sometimes, as a scout, you've got to roll the dice. There's only a few times you're actually in the middle of something, all the arrows were pointing toward this being a very special athlete, a very special person raised by two terrific people, and I'm going to put all my chips in there."
About a week later, Jeff Trout called Eddie Bane. "Can we just get this done?" Jeff asked. "I need to get him out of the house and back on the baseball field, because he's driving us crazy." Within a month, the Angels had signed him, for his slot-suggested bonus of $1.215 million. He hit .352 in the minors that year, the start of a blazing ascension up the franchise's ladder, which included a promotion to the Angels last summer, and ended for good with his call-up in April.
Bane and Morhardt have had many past successes, and long careers ahead of them -- Morhardt with the Angels, Bane with the Tigers, for whom he is now a scout. "Every one of us has judged players we thought were going to be terrific, and then the guy got out there and didn't quite do it," says Morhardt. "There are no geniuses in scouting. We're all just working hard." Still, no matter what else they have done, and no matter what else they will do, they will always be known first as the men who drafted Mike Trout.
* * *
At this point, there might be one person in the baseball universe who has little to say about Mike Trout. That person is Mike Trout.
Everybody wanted to hear from him at the All-Star Game, where he was the star of the stars who assembled in Kansas City. While he gave many interviews there, he rarely said anything of interest. "I just go out there and have fun, and the numbers'll be what they are," he would say. "Dream come true as a kid," he would say. "I'm going to remember this the rest of my life," he would say. (This last thought he delivered during his postgame interview on Fox, which the National League manager, Tony La Russa, interrupted by laying his hand on his shoulder and saying, "Pujols told me all about you.")
Trout's verbal reticence is not a new development. Last year, he conducted a 20-minute, 1,500-word ESPN.com chat in which the most revealing thing he said was that he likes to grill. Gas grills, mostly.
Three days after I'd spoken with Beane, in March of 2011, I interviewed Trout on a picnic bench outside the Angels' spring clubhouse in Tempe. The transcript will never appear in a collection bearing the imprimatur of the Paris Review.
"I guess people second-guessed me because I was an East Coast kid," he said of his slide in the draft. "Maybe. I don't know. I really don't have a clue."
"He says he was good," he said of his father's career. "He said he was pretty good. I didn't see him play, so. I've seen some of his stats. Pretty impressive."
"I'm just a first year guy, so I'm happy I even have one," he said, about having to share a locker with another player during what was his first big league camp. "I would put my stuff in the middle of the floor and sit there, I don't care."
Says Bane, "He's great when he's around people that he's comfortable with. He's got some tried-and-true answers to questions. He's not going to offer up any great nuggets. That's just Mike."
That might be a function of his youth, or of his relative inexperience with the media. But it also says something about the main thrust of his interests, and might help to explain his meteoric rise. He will endure whatever he must -- shared lockers, press conferences, web chats, interviews with prying reporters -- to be able to express himself in the way he does best, which is through baseball.
"Not everybody is Winston Churchill," says Morhardt. "Everybody has different abilities. Mike has great athletic ability, with a terrific perspective on the ability he's been given. And he plays joyfully."
Indeed, the best way to understand Mike Trout is to watch him play, and to observe the sheer joy that his relentlessness brings to him. You can see it when he does the amazing, like robbing Hardy of that home run in Baltimore. "When he made that catch, he was so happy -- running off the field, he looked just like a little kid who was going to get a free snow cone after the game," says Bane. "And every time he hits one out himself, he just about knocks the on-deck hitter's elbow off."
But his joy is evident on almost any old night, such as on July 5, when he turned in what has become a quotidian tour de force. That night, playing the Orioles, he ripped an RBI lineout exactly 98 seconds -- I timed it -- after he had fouled a pitch directly off his extended and planted left shin, right off the bone. It was the type of blow that has broken the legs of many players, and would cause most to roll around in agony for a few minutes or more. Trout smiled as he jogged off the field, not even gingerly, and slapped five with his bemused teammates. You might have thought of his father, playing through a broken hand in Jacksonville nearly three decades ago.
After the Angels won the game, the TV cameras quickly found Trout, as they usually do in the moments after the team wins these days. He had gone 2-for-2, with two RBI's and three stolen bases. Here he was, jogging in from the outfield, loose-limbed now, his head bobbing, that same little smile on his face, looking forward to the chance to express himself by doing similarly improbable things the next night, and the next, and, it seems likely, every night for the next decade and a half.
"He plays the game like everybody remembers playing it when they were a kid -- he just enjoys it," says Morhardt. "He plays how we hope most people would play."
"God is going to take credit for Mike Trout, not anything we've done," the Angels' manager, Mike Scioscia recently said, but Scioscia was only partially right. The credit for his character, which allows him to maximize his divinely wrought skills, might go to his parents. The credit for the fact that he is an Angel goes to the club's scouts, who saw what he could do and believed in it more than they believed in what anyone else could do. The rest of the credit for Mike Trout -- and the mesmerizing way in which he puts it all together every night -- belongs entirely to him.