Mike Trout, Millville's low-key hero

In his senior season at Millville, Trout batted .531 with 45 RBIs and hit a state-record 18 home runs.
In his senior season at Millville, Trout batted .531 with 45 RBIs and hit a state-record 18 home runs. (Inquirer file photograph)
Posted: April 01, 2013

Few public places remain in Millville, N.J., where Mike Trout goes unbothered. He still has Jim's Lunch, a popular luncheonette on East Main Street. He eats his six burgers - sauce, no cheese - at a back table without interruption. Rochelle Maul makes sure of it.

Maul works the cash register. She's a de facto   security guard. Customers stare at Trout because that's what baseball fans tend to do when perhaps the finest baseball player in the world eats lunch right in the middle of town. If they ask if that's Trout, she fibs and says it's his brother.

"Rochelle and everyone in there keeps it low-key," Trout said from the Los Angeles Angels' spring training clubhouse in Tempe, Ariz. "Doesn't let anyone bother me."

Trout has become a Millville treasure. Those who watched him from Little League to the big leagues appreciate the way Trout represents Millville, and how he keeps returning. After winning the rookie of the year award last season with the Angels, he spent his offseason in Millville at his parents' home.

"He's put Millville, N.J., on the map," Maul said.

Maul has known Trout since he was a baby. He first came to Jim's Lunch with his parents, then continued through Little League and high school and the minor leagues and his historic rookie season, when Trout went from top prospect to MVP runner-up. Trout balances being accommodating with being 21 years old, but there's no changing what has happened this past year - in Millville, in Southern California, and anywhere else he goes.

"I look at it as, you're only going to get all this attention for a couple years," Trout said. "Someday down the road, it might not be there, and you can look back and say, 'I should have done this.' I don't want to be that person."

The story of Mike Trout in Millville is similar to the story of Joe Flacco in Audubon or Jameer Nelson in Chester, and other standout athletes from prideful towns throughout the country. What makes Trout's story different is how quickly it happened. In three years, he went from a high school senior teaching his physical education teacher how to text-message on a class trip to the first pick in fantasy baseball leagues.

"I think about it sometimes," Trout said, "but nothing too crazy."

Moving up fast

The drive through Tempe approaching Diablo Stadium, the spring training home of the Angels, is adorned with banners serving as reminders of the Angels' excess of all-stars. There's Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, each of whom received contracts that pay more than $75 million. Then there's Trout, maybe the most popular of them all, who will earn $510,000. Baseball's salary scale skews toward veterans.

And make no mistake: Trout is still a kid by baseball standards. His talent (he batted .326 with 30 home runs, 129 runs scored, and 49 stolen bases last season) and physique (he's 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds) belie his inexperience, but he's the only player on the World Series-contending Angels to not have experienced the 1980s.

"I think people are lying if they said they expected it to be this fast," said Millville baseball coach Roy Hallenbeck.

Angels pitcher Garrett Richards was drafted in 2009 and spent each minor-league stop with Trout. Richards similarly gushes about Trout's talent, but also  admitted surprise in the rate of the progress.

"At every level, really, a different piece of his game adapted," Richards said. "At low A, his speed stood out. Then he starting hitting the balls in the gaps, stealing bases. But I will tell you this: I never thought he would hit 30 home runs. The power numbers are what surprised me as far as his game. But his speed, his jumps on balls in the outfield, his ability to get a jump to get a bag, he always had that."

At a March spring training game against the White Sox, Trout led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run deep to left field. He doubled in the third inning, and drove in a run on a fielder's choice in the fourth before stealing second base. He scored a run on all three at-bats. It was an offensive display of rare versatility. He's also a skilled defensive player, although the Angels plan to start him in left field this season instead of center.

"There's certain guys in this league that can excel at certain aspects of the game. There might be a handful of guys that can excel in all aspects of the game," said Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells, who spent last season as Trout's teammate with the Angels. "And those are the ones you really enjoy watching, because no matter where they are on the field, defensively or at the plate or on base, they're going to do something that makes you shake your head. That's the beauty of watching [Trout] play the game of baseball."

Trout tries not to overthink it - the success, the pressure, or any of the other by-products of fame. He's apt to say he just goes out and plays, which can come off as suspect modesty until those who know him insist otherwise.

"It sounds like a cliche, but really, we watched him for four years and now we watched him for his whole career as a professional player," Hallenbeck said. "He really, really [doesn't think about it]. Each day he just plays."

Hallenbeck ate in California last August with Trout and Trout's girlfriend. A hitless outing had pulled his average down into the .330s. Trout's girlfriend joked that Trout needed to get back above .340. Trout glanced at Hallenbeck and said, "Would you tell her how hard it is to hit? I don't care what I'm hitting." By the end of the season, he had one of the best inaugural seasons in baseball history.

"He's not going to get distracted by some of the things that are out there," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He never got distracted last year with the hype, whether it was all-star or rookie of the year or playoff race. He didn't get distracted. He'll be OK."

Millville: Angel territory

The office of Millville Mayor Tim Shannon is adorned with Trout memorabilia. If there were any question that the 21-year-old is Millville's favorite son, the odes to Trout throughout the municipal headquarters serve as convincing evidence.

Shannon talks about Millville's loss of manufacturing jobs and unemployment issues, but Trout offers a respite throughout the spring and summer.

Shannon has an 88-year-old mother who changed her sleeping pattern to watch Trout. Throughout the town, Phillies fans have added the Angels to their daily schedule. Go to the local hardware store, and they sell keys with Angels logos.

"I think most people are watching because of Mike, but the thing is, they'll be able to rattle off who [is on the Angels'] pitching staff as quick as they do the Phillies' now," Shannon said.

Trout tries to fly under the radar in Millville, but Shannon said that's difficult. Everyone who knows him wants to see him. Everyone who doesn't know him wants to meet him. He tries to keep a connection, including appearing at events and rewarding a deserving senior on the Millville baseball team with the No. 1 jersey he wore as a Thunderbolt.

"It'll always be the same" returning to Millville, Trout said. "Just a lot more attention going to places."

Shannon said Trout needed to be snuck onto the golf course or else it would be filled with fans. To alleviate the burden of fame, Trout's hunting club, where he's hunted since he was a child, stopped accepting new members.

Joan Cooper, his physical education and health teacher, saw him at a Millville football game wearing a hat and a hood pulled up. He whispered, "Hey, Mrs. Cooper."

"Mike!" she screamed.

"Shh," he responded.

There are stories of strangers showing up at his home this offseason, wanting to meet Trout or ask for an autograph.

"He just seems like, if he could have everything else and not be noticed, he's fine with that," Hallenbeck said. But even at Jim's Lunch, patrons volunteer to tell of times they heard he was out hunting as if they were describing a presidential visit.

Those who know him got their autographs out of the way early. Cooper told Trout on the day of graduation to go fetch a baseball he played with and sign it so she would have it when he became famous. Shannon's most prized memento is a home-run ball Trout hit in a Little League all-star game that Trout signed on draft night.

Life is different for Trout now, but he still smiles at the thought of Jim's Lunch or a mention of the Eagles. Scioscia, an Upper Darby native, pointed to Trout's accent, Philadelphia sports allegiance, appreciation for Philadelphia food, and tight-knit family as indications of Trout's Philadelphia-area ethos.

"Growing up a Phillies fan, Flyers, Eagles, Sixers, just being a part of the atmosphere," Trout said when reflecting on growing up in Millville. "Just the way life is back home. It's a lot different than it is out there."

He even said he missed the weather, which is rare for a transplant to California to admit. And Trout's foreseeable future will be with the Angels. That means television sets in Millville will continue to be on late at night. Red Phillies hats will continue giving way to Angels hats. Kids can order six burgers - sauce, no cheese - at Jim's Lunch hoping to become like the finest player in baseball, just four years removed from his senior year at Millville and only getting better.

"I've seen the kid from 4, 5, 6 years old grow up," Shannon said. "What's scary is I don't know what he can achieve at this point. Somebody says, 'Can he do this?' I'll tell you what, I'm not going to doubt it. I'm going to let him set the bar. I'm not going to top out and predict what Mikey Trout's going to be. I'm going to sit back and enjoy this ride."

Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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