"I'm a weather guy," Mike Trout said. "I like to see a little snow, see a little rain."
He had arrived 10 minutes earlier in a black Mercedes-Benz, the kind you'd expect any 21-year-old to drive if given the means, except escorted by a couple of Millville police cars as it rolled down the empty street. Trout emerged from the driver's side, and his mother emerged from the passenger side, and together they walked toward the door of the nondescript building on the edge of the high school's campus. The Millville Thunderbolt Hall of Fame is really just an all-purpose room with a blue-and-white tiled floor and a collection of plaques and newspaper articles adorning the wall, but on Tuesday it seemed the perfect setting to conclude one of the most remarkable seasons in the history of Major League Baseball.
The story of Mike Trout's magical season means a lot of things to a lot of people. To the statisticians, it means one of the most perfect offensive seasons of all time, a beautiful combination of contact (a .326 batting average) and power (30 home runs and a .564 slugging percentage), of base-reaching ability (a .399 OBP and 129 runs) and speed (49 steals). To the purists, it means the birth of a superstar, one whose ability in the outfield and on the basepaths is every bit equal to the mastery he displayed at the plate.
Back home, though, Mike Trout is a Millville story, a reminder that all great athletes come from somewhere, and that when they do arrive in our national consciousness, the aspirations they carry are not limited to their own.
Here, they all call him Mikey, just like they did when he was tearing up South Jersey baseball diamonds as the pride of the Thunderbolts. Over at Jim's Lunch on Main Street, they sip their coffees and eat their gravy-covered burgers while a portrait of Trout hangs on the dining-room wall. The story is not just about a local boy making good, but about a local boy shattering the conventional wisdom that often governs the national pastime. It was less than 4 years ago when Trout was playing against teams like Hammonton and Bridgeton and Egg Harbor Township. Most of his classmates are seniors in college. In small towns across America, folks will swear that their local kid has the stuff to make it big. In Millville, they were right.
"Every once in a while we have to pinch ourselves," said Trout's mother, Debbie.
The general managers who passed on Trout in the first round of the 2009 draft would probably like to do something else to themselves (the Los Angeles Angels selected him No. 25 overall, with the second of two consecutive picks) . Really, there isn't much they can do except admit that they missed. The concern about the level of competition that he faced in high school proved unfounded. And while you won't hear many regrets from the Nationals, who drafted Stephen Strasburg, or the Mariners, who took Dustin Ackley, Trout thus far is the best of the bunch.
"It means a lot to me, my family, the town," Trout said. "It's putting them on the map. Coming from a small town, going out there and proving some people wrong, showing them that the East Coast can play as well."
On Monday, Trout was named the American League Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America. On Thursday, he is one of two leading candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player, a hotly debated contest that pits him against Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Whatever happens, though, he will still be Millville's son. On Tuesday, Trout's parents watched from the back of the room as he fielded questions from local media, a number of whom covered him during his high school days. The mayor was among the local dignitaries who turned out to watch.
Trout turned 21 on Aug. 7, and his perspective on the whole situation is fitting of his age, a combination of pride and awe tinged with the tiniest hint of disbelief. Not long after he returned home, he walked into a convenience store that featured a life-size poster display. According to Trout, the clerk looked at him, then at the display, then back at him.
"That's you?" the clerk said, gesturing to the display.
Yeah, Trout responded ruefully, that's me.
"It's been a crazy year and a crazy ride for me," Trout said. "I go down the street to the Cumberland Mall or the Texas Roadhouse or Longhorn and walk in and all eyes are on you. It makes you feel good inside. It's been fun so far."
He is planning to purchase a home in the Millville area, the lure of home too strong to keep him in Southern California year- round. Home is where his friends have his back, and where his mom will still needle him to take out the trash. Home is where it isn't sunny all the time and the winter nights are long. But it is home.