Mike Trout Refreshing Reminder That Being ‘Product of Environment’ Is Not Always Bad Thing

Mike Trout Refreshing Reminder That Being 'Product of Environment' Is Not Always Bad ThingMike Trout was 16 years old when I knew he would play in the major leagues.

Do not misread that. Nobody saw Trout becoming a Most
Valuable Player candidate in his rookie season or gracing the cover of Sports
Illustrated at 21. Trout's emergence as a professional prospect was one of the
most incredible phenomena anyone in the city of Millville, N.J., had ever experienced,
not only for what happened on the diamond, but for what happened throughout the
community.

Millville embraces its sports, and its sons and daughters
that play them, like no other town. I learned this covering high school sports
in the area for The Daily Journal, the local newspaper in Cumberland County in
south New Jersey, where Millville is located. So when Trout was dominating the
local youth baseball ranks before his age hit double-digits, people got
excited. Trout's father, Jeff, owned nearly every hitting record in the
Millville High School record book and would have led the nation in hitting at
the University of Delaware with a .519 batting average, had Dave Magadan not
batted .525 at Alabama. Trout had the pedigree and the confidence, although
that did not guarantee him a pro career.

Trout was preceded through the area by Darren Ford, a
blazing fast outfielder at rival Vineland High School who made it to the major
leagues as a reserve outfielder and pinch runner, winning a World Series ring
with the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Speed alone is often enough for a player
to earn a cup of coffee in the majors, and Trout had the wheels and a better
batting eye than Ford. I figured Trout would at least be a fourth outfielder
for some team one day. College coaches and a sprinkling of pro scouts were regular
attendees at Millville High games during Trout's 11th grade season, but the
sign that he was truly special, and not destined to merely be a defensive
replacement on somebody's bench, came in the state tournament.

Trout was used to getting intentionally walked by then, but
the Thunderbolts' playoff opponent, Cherry Hill East, took it to the extreme.
Trout was intentionally walked three times, including once with the bases
loaded, taking the bat out of his hands in a game Millville eventually lost.

The strategy was shocking enough. Yet what happened in the
final inning confirmed that Trout was not only more skilled than any other high
school player, but that he was wired a little differently upstairs, too.

With the outcome of the game well in hand, Cherry Hill East
relented and finally pitched to Trout. After being intentionally walked three
times, most teenagers would let frustration boil over. How often do we see
players, even major leaguers, fume and grit their teeth and swing for the
fences in that situation, only to strike out embarrassingly? I expected Trout
to whiff. He was a 16-year-old kid, after all. Instead, he coolly cracked one
of the hardest-hit line drives I had ever seen straight back up the middle,
almost clipping the pitcher's hat right off his head. A 400-foot home run would
not have sent a message as definitive as that one: You were right to be afraid to
pitch to me, because given the chance, I could end you.

The following year he hit a state-record 18 home runs, swept
every individual award in the state and was drafted with the 25th pick in the
first round by the Los Angeles Angels.

The Thunderbolts never captured a state title during Trout's
high school career — ironically, they won it all the year after he graduated
– but in more than four years of knowing him, I never heard Trout utter a
complaint about his less-gifted teammates. In an era of helicopter parents,
Jeff and Debbie never questioned Trout's coaches or threatened to pull him out
of the school and send him to one of the nearby private schools, St. Augustine
Prep or Sacred Heart. (That was such a common practice among families in the
area that the second-most common question I got asked, after "Where do you
think Mike Trout will get drafted?" was "Is Mike Trout going to transfer
to the Prep?")

In general, as high school players become more well-known,
their circle tightens. Parents and coaches limit access to control the message,
lest a potential college recruiter or pro scout discover something they
dislike. The Trouts welcomed everyone into their lives. In private
conversations, scouts marveled to me how willing Trout was to hold extra
batting practice, and how amenable his Millville coaches and teammates were to
the idea. The truth was, even the people who saw him play every day loved to
watch Trout take BP. With every extra look, skeptics became believers.

By Trout's senior year, the awe-inspiring anecdotes were
piling up. But the moment that summed up Trout's success and his relationship
with those around him came in a brief, throwaway conversation with a teammate
of Trout's.

Efren Fernandez, the T'Bolts' third baseman, fancied himself
a pretty good ballplayer, and he was not wrong. If not for Trout, a lot of the
stories I wrote about Millville might have featured Fernandez's name first. Trout's
last high school game was a makeup of a rain delay earlier in the season, and
for all intents and purposes the game was meaningless. The playoffs were over
and the MLB draft was weeks away. Trout had pulled off his latest head-shaking
move, breezing through a tryout with the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium and
not even bothering to take off his cleats before hopping in a car and driving
two hours to Millville, arriving triumphantly just in time to close out his
high school career with a win over Oakcrest.

As Fernandez gathered up his things in the dugout after that
game day, I asked him, with the tape recorder turned off, if he ever got
jealous of the attention Trout received.

"No way," Fernandez said. "Trouty's the best
player I'll ever play with, and one day he's going to be the best player in the
world. You'll see. It's on us to help him get where he wants to go. He'd do the
same for any of us."

Now an All-Star, an MVP candidate and a Sports Illustrated
coverboy, Trout has gotten where he wanted to go, and he managed to do it
without alienating anybody along that way. That may be his most amazing
accomplishment of all.

Have a question for
Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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