Phil Anastasia: The contrasting fortunes of Mike Trout and Billy Rowell

The Angels' Mike Trout, a Millville High graduate,is a bona-fide phenom widely expected to be a big star. Some consider him better than Washington's Bryce Harper. JEFF GROSS / Getty Images
The Angels' Mike Trout, a Millville High graduate,is a bona-fide phenom widely expected to be a big star. Some consider him better than Washington's Bryce Harper. JEFF GROSS / Getty Images
Posted: May 19, 2012

Billy Rowell's last at-bat for Bishop Eustace Prep was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in high school sports.

Mike Trout's last at-bat for Millville High School wasn't close in terms of theatrical flourish.

Which just goes to show how much one at-bat - and any amount of theatrical flourish - means when it comes to projecting professional success for high school baseball players.

The last two South Jersey players to be selected in the first round of the major-league draft were in the news for drastically different reasons this week.

Rowell's disappointing career officially went off the rails when the Baltimore Orioles minor-leaguer was suspended for 50 games for his second positive test of a "drug of abuse," according to Major League Baseball.

Trout's dynamic career gained even more traction as the Los Angeles Angels outfielder raised his average to .333 through Thursday. The 20-year-old is widely regarded as the American League's answer to Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper - except Trout has a batting average that's nearly 100 points higher, and has more home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases in three fewer at-bats.

Put it this way: If Trout played for Washington, Cole Hamels would have hit him twice.

"He's better than Harper," said Gloucester Catholic coach Dennis Barth, who saw both players as high school athletes. "What I liked about him [Trout] when he was in high school was how fast he could run. I thought he could make it as a singles hitter because he was so fast."

It's easy to say now, since Trout has rocketed through the minor leagues and looks as if he's going to stay in the majors for a long time - while hitting .300 with 30 homers and 30 stolen bases per season - but the kid had a can't-miss gleam about him during his senior season at Millville in 2009.

"I remember seeing him get off the bus and it was like, 'Wow, he's a man-child,' " Bishop Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said.

Trout might be the fastest player in baseball. He was in Sports Illustrated magazine this week in a feature about young players that teams would be wise to lock into long-term deals.

Here's the thing: Rowell had that same can't-miss gleam during his senior season at Bishop Eustace in 2006.

His last at-bat was the stuff of legend. He had already been drafted ninth overall by the Orioles on Tuesday and he was playing his last high school game on that Saturday, in the Non-Public B state title game against St. Mary's of Rutherford.

There was a huge crowd at Toms River North High School as folks from all over the state wanted to see the kid who had been selected so high in the draft. He never got into the batter's box through four innings because he went straight from the on-deck circle to first base with three intentional walks.

St. Mary's finally decided to pitch to him in the fifth. He took three straight balls - none even close to the strike zone.

It was clear one of the best high school hitters in the country wasn't going to get a chance to swing, not even once, in the last game of his career.

But the 3-0 pitch was a strike.

And Rowell hit it so far it looked as if it was going to bounce off the boardwalk in Seaside Heights.

"Rowell rhymes with Wow," I wrote that day.

What did I know? What did the scouts who projected him as a future major-league star know?

Rowell has spent most of his six minor-league seasons in single A. He hasn't hit for power or average. He was in extended spring training, looking to convert to a pitcher, when his suspension was announced Monday.

Rowell is 23. If his career isn't over, it's in serious jeopardy. It's possible that his final at-bat in high school will stand as his defining moment.

Trout is 20. He's a starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter in the major leagues. Barring injury, he has something like 7,000 at-bats ahead of him.

I'm thinking there will be some theatrical flourishes in there.


Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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