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Morhardt saw Jeff Trout's kid for the first time at a showcase in 2008. The boy, then 16, was a shortstop and pitcher. "When he walked in, he looked like Mickey Mantle," Morhardt says. "He's got the same build. He hit with a little 32-inch wood bat and a compact swing. My son, Justin, was 14 at the time. I turned to him and said, 'Look at Trout. That's a big league player all the way.'"
Trout was invited to the 2008 Area Code Games, a showcase tournament in Long Beach, Calif., for top high school prospects. Angels scouts were assigned to run the Northeast team. Morhardt got to watch Trout for 10 days. "It was a very simple comparison for me," he says. "I knew what [former big leaguers] Shane Mack, Oddibe McDowell, Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro were like at the same age. Mike was better than all of them. He was bigger, stronger and faster."
The rest of baseball was less convinced. Ninety percent of all players signed to a minor league contract never reach the majors. The swing-and-miss rate even for elite players speaks to the difficulty of identifying talent: One third of players drafted in the first round never play a day in the bigs. With failure so abundant, scouts find comfort in groupthink. Many top prospects are identified early in high school through elite tournaments and online media coverage. Trout, who also played quarterback as a freshman and basketball all four years at Millville High, did not court that kind of attention. After the Area Code games, Yankees director of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer invited him to play with an all-star team in Jupiter, Fla. Trout declined, saying he preferred to remain loyal to his local teams, the Tri-State Arsenal and New Jersey Super 17s. "Some guys may look at that and say, 'He doesn't want to play against better competition,'" Oppenheimer says. "Others, like myself, think it shows some loyalty. I thought it was pretty cool."
There were other scouting molds that Trout didn't fit. He hit with the bat held deep in his hands—not in the preferred manner, with the bat across the top of the palm. To some scouts the grip made his swing look stiff.
Another industry bias working against Trout was his home. The summer and fall travel circuits have put the lie to the notion that players from cold-weather states don't face top competition. Yet only 10 position players from New Jersey have been selected in the first round since the draft began in 1965. Half of them (slightly more than the overall average of 33%) never reached the majors.
Scouts want to see players that fit the mold—players like Donavan Tate, who was rated by most teams and scouting services as the best high school outfielder going into the 2009 draft. Tate ticked all the preferred boxes. He came from a warm-weather baseball hotbed (Georgia). He had been on the showcase circuit since he was 14. (He made the 18U USA team for the 2008 World Junior Championships; Trout was one of the last cuts.) He had size (6'3", 200 pounds), speed (he ran a 6.34 60), arm strength (his throws from the outfield were clocked at 95 mph) and an agent who doesn't align himself with just any prospect (Scott Boras). The Padres had been scouting him since he was 15.
Before his senior season Mike made a verbal commitment to play at East Carolina. But when Pirates coach Billy Godwin came to watch Trout play in Millville that May, he got the feeling he'd never get to coach the kid: The stands were packed with scouts. Cross-checkers, scouting directors and even general managers such as Beane and Brian Sabean of the Giants beat a path to Millville. By then Trout was playing centerfield and throwing 90 mph off the mound. He ran a 6.4 60 and set a state record with 18 homers. He was once walked intentionally with the bases loaded.
Still the biases did not fall away. A contingent of Tigers executives asked Trout to switch-hit in a workout. He promptly whacked a few home runs lefthanded. Bill Buck, the scout for Detroit who had signed Justin Verlander, loved Trout, but he sensed the club wasn't as sold. "Jeff," Buck told Mike's dad, "he's going to play 15 years in the big leagues. But I'm afraid my guys are a little hesitant."
Baseball America, in its 2009 draft preview, compared Trout to Aaron Rowand, a career .273 hitter, and wrote that his bat "is not a sure thing." Meanwhile, Morhardt would root for Trout to strike out or pop up every time the kid came up. He was convinced Trout was the best young player he had ever seen, and he didn't want those slow on the uptake to come around. When Beane showed up, Morhardt got his wish. Trout went 0 for 4 with four pop-ups and never was challenged on defense. Beane left Millville without seeing Trout's explosiveness. "You just had to believe what others were saying," the A's G.M. says now. "That's why scouting in high school is very challenging."
One day Bane, along with Angels cross-checker Jeff Malinoff, came to Millville with Morhardt. By then Morhardt's obsession with Trout was a source of amusement in the Angels' front office. Recently, G.M. Jerry Dipoto, who was hired after last season, asked to see the club's original reports on Trout. Morhardt had written, "Best athlete. Best player in the world—period. Best player on the planet."