Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Phils Fans Warmly Welcome the Millville Meteor

Last night in the top of the 1st inning with the Los Angeles Angels batting against the hometown Philadelphia Phillies, the notoriously tough on the opposition Philly crowd did something highly unusual.

As the opponent batter was announced and stepped towards home plate, the crowd rose together as one and gave the handsome young kid in the visiting uniform a rousing standing ovation. There is no doubt that the kid got goosebumps.

The reason that this Phillies crowd was giving the young Angels centerfielder such an unusually warm reception goes beyond the uniform that he is currently wearing. The reception was because of who he is in particular. The player in question was Mike Trout, and the reason for the ovation was that he is a rarity in pro sports circles - he is one of us.

Michael Nelson Trout was born in Vineland and raised in Millville, New Jersey. He has been a Philly sports fan his entire life, still attending Eagles games in recent years. He tailgated at the 2008 World Series, cheering as he watched his hero, Chase Utley, help lead the Fightins to just their second-ever world championship.

But Mike Trout didn't just cheer, he also played the game, and he played it very well. During high school, like many of the best athletes in the game at that stage, Trout was not an outfielder. He pitched and played shortstop, and even tossed a no-hitter during his junior year in a game against Egg Harbor Township.


In his senior year he was shifted to the outfield, and set a New Jersey state record with 18 homeruns. For the player built like an NFL linebacker, power wasn't the only impressive part of his particular game, as Trout could also run like the wind. He was so fast that he was given the nickname "The Millville Meteor", and his rare combination of power and speed caught the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

I remember very well watching the 2009 MLB Draft on television. That was a unique experience in itself, because it was the first time that the event was televised on what was then the brand new MLB Network cable service. While the NFL had already been broadcasting their event, growing it into the spectacle we all experienced last week, MLB was behind in that regard.

For a baseball nut like myself, it was fascinating to be able to watch the process of that first round of drafting take place, and to get to listen to analysts describe the prospects, show video of their amateur playing days, and make commentary on their skills. I had followed this type of coverage online and in print for years, but it was a happy day indeed to see my favorite sport moving into the 21st century.

There was one problem with that first live broadcast and network coverage of the event. Unlike the NFL Draft spectacle, where all the top draftees are present on the day of the Draft, taking the stage happily when their names are called, there were no actual players present for this event. It seemed very weird that these young players and their families, whose lives were about to change forever, would not be present to participate in this event.

It was weird, unless or until you realize that the MLB Draft process is very different from the NFL process. In the vast majority of cases, the players selected in the NFL Draft have no other choice: they will play in the league, or they will not play at all. Oh, they could choose to go play in Canada, or choose another sport if they are good enough. But for the overwhelming majority, it's the NFL or bust.

With baseball, the prospects selected in the Draft almost always have another option. If they are college kids, they are usually in their junior year, sophomore possibly, and can choose to return to school. If they are drafted right out of high school, as Trout was, they can choose to go to college rather than play for an MLB organization.

The other big difference is that whereas in football, the players selected in the Draft are about to compete for actual jobs with the pro sports club and begin play immediately in the NFL, the baseball draftees are almost always only beginning a process of development through the minor leagues that will take a year or two, sometimes more, before they ever play inside an MLB ballpark.

So in retrospect it probably should have not been too surprising to find that no players were actually present at that first live televised MLB Draft. It was simply that their agents had advised them to stay away, because the Draft is only the beginning of a negotiating process with the team that selects the prospect, and the prospect and his family may instead choose to decline the offer and return to school. Thus, why show up and pull on a cap and jersey, when it may all be for nothing?

So at that first televised 2009 MLB Draft, no players showed up. Well, that is, almost no players showed up. One did attend the process. One player who was anticipated to go in the first round sat lonely in a makeshift dugout in the MLB Network studios. That player was Mike Trout.

He and his family didn't care that they had a scholarship to East Carolina University accepted. This was too big an opportunity, too big a deal, and it was being held in Secaucus, New Jersey, a relatively short drive. They had vision, and they attended this first live draft.

The cameras frequently panned inside that makeshift dugout for a look at Trout as the Draft unfolded, especially as one team after another passed on selecting the phenom. It was anticipated that Trout would be selected high in the process, but pick after pick was announced without his name being called.

The supposed prize of that 2009 MLB Draft class, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, was selected with the top overall pick, as was anticipated. Then the process wound through a couple dozen choices, including pitchers like Zack Wheeler (6), Mike Minor (7), Mike Leake (8), Jacob Turner (9), Aaron Crow (12), and Shelby Miller (19), all of whom have tasted some level of success now at the Major League level.

Those early selections also included 8 position players: Dustin Ackley (2), Donavan Tate (3), Tony Sanchez (4), Grant Green (13), Bobby Borchering (16), A.J. Pollock (17), Jiovanni Mier (21), and Jared Mitchell (23) - none of whom has been able to establish themselves as a star in MLB to this point. Half of them have never reached the Major League level, at least to this point in their careers.

Then the Angels turn came, and they had two selections. Due to the Mets signing of free agent closer Francisco Rodriguez, and the Yankees signing of free agent 1st baseman Mark Teixeira, the Angels now possessed each of those organizations first round picks at #24 & 25 overall. With the 24th pick, the Angels selected outfielder Randall Grichuk. Unlikely to take two outfielders, it appeared Trout was about to be passed over yet again. How far would he slide?

At this point, the casual baseball fan might be asking the question "Why didn't any team pick him sooner?" Frankly, that is a question that a couple of dozen MLB organizations have been asking themselves for a few years now. Part of the problem is a built-in industry prejudice against players from the northeast, who due to the weather here play less baseball than players from places like Florida, California, and Texas, who can often play nearly year-round.

So Trout was still around as the Angels contemplated the 2nd of their first round selections. Having just taken an outfielder in Grichuk, they surprised some when the name "Michael Trout" was announced as their next pick. The cameras panned to his smiling face in the dugout as he was hugged by family. Trout stepped up to the podium and donned an Angels cap. MLB had their first draft star, their only face of that first-ever televised draft process, and man did he turn out to be the right one.

That first season in pro ball, Trout was sent to the Arizona League to play for the Angels rookie-level team. In just 39 games, he hit .360 with 25 rbi and 13 steals, and earned a brief promotion to the 'A' level of the minor leagues to finish the year. He began 2010 at that 'A' level, hitting .362 with 6 homers, 39 rbi, and 45 steals over 82 games. He was also selected for the showcase MLB Futures Game in July, and showcased his blazing speed during that game as well.

Following the Futures Game, he was promoted to 'High-A' ball, and that month, Trout was named by Baseball America as the 2nd-best prospect in the entire sport. After the 2010 season, he would be honored with the Topps Minor League Player of the Year award. The youngest player to ever win the award, he was still just 19 years of age.

Prior to the start of the 2011 season, Mike Trout was named the consensus top prospect in baseball. He would make his Major League debut later that summer, and by 2012 had established that he was in the Big Leagues to stay. Keeping this short, since most know what happened next, he became a serious MVP candidate in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, finishing 2nd in voting both years to incredible seasons turned in by veteran Miguel Cabrera.

So when Mike Trout showed up at Citizens Bank Park last night with the visiting team, the hometown fans knew, appreciated, and had been following the exploits of this local kid turned baseball hero for a few years. They knew that he grew up rooting for their Phillies, that he was still an Eagles fan, that at heart he is still one of us. That is why the fans rose and gave him a rousing ovation.

At least hundreds, perhaps a couple thousand, were on-hand from his hometown of Millville and the surrounding area, representing his family, friends, teammates, and others who had known him or played with or against him locally. It was a true homecoming for the kid who at still just 22 years of age has universally become acknowledged as the best all-around player in the game today.

There was some hope that Trout would one day become a Phillie, running the outfield in the red and white pinstripes. For some, that hope appeared dashed when he signed a 6-year, $144 million contract with the Angels this spring. No one begrudged the deal, as quite obviously a young man offered that kind of money has to think about taking care of himself and his family for the rest of their lives, even if it means putting off a chance to play for the team he grew up loving.

But then you realize, Trout will be just 28 years old when that contract expires. He will be in the prime of his baseball career. The Phillies will be working under terms of a new cable TV deal signed with Comcast by then, pumping tons of money into their coffers. The Howard-Utley-Rollins-Hamels crew will be gone by then, having ridden off to the sunset as World Series-winning heroes. The fan base will be clamoring for the next generation of winners.

If he stays healthy for the majority of these next half dozen seasons, and produces at the levels anticipated by his talents and by his performances thus far, there is no telling how much money Mike Trout will command for that next contract. It is likely to be in the 10-year, $300 million range. If he is still healthy and producing then, which is likely, he will be worth every penny to the Phillies organization.

So Phillies fans can still dream on a day that the kid is patrolling leftfield at Citizens Bank Park, leading his hometown Fightin' Phils back to the World Series in the next decade. For the rest of this one, those appreciative fans will still root for their local hero. And Mike Trout will still root for them, just not on these rare nights when he is playing against them. Thankfully, with the Angels in the AL West division, those nights when he is an opponent come around only once every 4-5 years or so.

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