Homecoming for Millville's Trout

Posted: May 14, 2014

THE VICE MAYOR of a 28,000-person South Jersey town has been a Phillies season-ticketholder for 15 years. Sixty-eight years old, Jim Quinn's die-hard fandom dates back much longer; he was among those to suffer through the epic collapse of 1964.

It's been some time since Quinn anticipated a game as much as he is tonight's against the Angels. Probably since the 2008 World Series, he guesses.

"This is something really special," he said one afternoon last week in his hometown of Millville, N.J. "I'm getting goose bumps thinking about it."

The Angels' first trip to Philadelphia since 2008 coincides with the homecoming of baseball's best all-around player. Mike Trout, the pride of Millville, makes his Citizens Bank Park debut tonight, the first in a fleet, two-game series that concludes with a matinee tomorrow.

For Trout, who made his major league debut in 2011, tonight marks his first time playing against the team he grew up rooting for. For thousands of Phillies fans, it is their first chance to see the 22-year-old phenom play live. And for the centerfielder's nearby hometown, it's an event circled on the calendar since the unveiling of this season's schedule.

"It's going to be fun," Trout told the Daily News after a recent game against Washington at Nationals Park. "It's going to be pretty special seeing everybody in the stands and seeing family and friends, being so close to home."

Before he became the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year and a two-time runner-up for AL MVP, Trout as a kid attended games at the Vet and Citizens Bank Park.

Chase Utley was his favorite Phillie. As a teenager, Trout watched in Reading as a burgeoning Ryan Howard smashed two home runs and then earned his big-league call-up a day or two later. When Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske on Oct. 29, 2008, Trout and his buddies celebrated in one of the tailgate lots outside the ballpark and then trekked down Broad Street toward City Hall, high-fiving other fans along the way.

Growing up about a 45-minute ride from the stadium complex, Trout was a "4-for-4 guy," according to Ken Williams, a Millville High School baseball assistant who's known the Sports Illustrated cover boy more than 15 years. Millville head baseball coach Roy Hallenbeck, an upstate New York native, knew Trout's Philly fandom all too well. Back in 2007, as Hallenbeck's Mets folded and the Phils surged, Trout and his high school teammates capitalized on the opportunity to rub proverbial salt in the wound.

"Mike and some of the other guys on the team would take great pleasure texting me that fall as the Mets' bullpen was blowing leads," Hallenbeck recalled the other day.

Much has transpired since those days. And while Trout still roots for the other Philly teams - he's a huge Eagles fan, a season-ticketholder even - his allegiances lie with the Angels, who 6 weeks ago signed him to a 6-year, $144.5 million extension, the most ever for a player his age and with his amount of service time. To the dismay of fans of baseball's 29 other clubs, Trout, who spends his offseasons in Millville, isn't set to become a free agent until after the 2020 season.

"I had the great fortune of playing with [Ken Griffey Jr.] '96 through '99. Mike Trout is the closest thing I've seen to that level of player, of being so good so fast so early," said Raul Ibanez, the former Phillies outfielder who's in his first season with the Angels. "He's a once-in-a-generation-type player, I think."

Trout, listed at 6-2 and 230 pounds, took baseball by storm in 2012, registering an astounding 10.8 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and inciting mass debate over the MVP race. The Daily News' 2012 Sportsperson of the Year led the majors once again last season with 8.9 WAR.

Trout kicked off this season where he left off the previous two, homering in his first at-bat post-contract extension. He hit .321 with six home runs, eight doubles and 18 RBI through April, but has slumped this month. Plagued by an increased strikeout rate, he entered last night's game at Toronto hitting .273 with seven homers and 22 RBI. His 2.3 WAR still ranks second in the AL.

According to Mike Scioscia, the longtime Angels manager from Springfield, Delaware County, "you really have to go deeper than statistical analysis with Mike Trout."

"One of the reasons why I think he's going to be able to adapt and adjust to the test of time is he's not playing this game focused on numbers," Scioscia said. "He's playing this game focusing on helping his team win at that moment that he's doing something in the game, whether it's on the defensive end, whether it's base-running or whether it's in the batter's box."

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg called Trout "one of the more young, exciting all-around players in the game."

"I like the way he goes about his business," Sandberg said. "[He] also plays the game the right way, plays hard and he's got all the tools."

Trout is beloved in his hometown, which welcomes visitors with a big sign of its favorite ballplayer. When the Angels have visited Baltimore, New York or Washington, many from Millville traveled to marvel at the "Millville Meteor." Hallenbeck and Williams have attended both All-Star Games in which Trout has played.

But previous traveling parties won't come close to rivaling tonight's. Upon the schedule's release, Quinn, the former town mayor and current vice mayor who's known Trout since the superstar was 5, decided to organize "Millville Night." Mayor Mike Santiago will throw out the first pitch, the high school's marching band will perform after Angels batting practice and members of the school choir will sing the national anthem.

And if spectators at tonight's game glance up at the 400 level, they'll see almost entirely Millville residents. Nearly 4,000 from the town bought out almost all the $30 seats from sections 412 to 429, spanning from first base to third. It's one of the largest single-group efforts to reserve tickets in the ballpark's 10-year history.

That doesn't include those who purchased tickets outside the group. Millville's varsity baseball team has seats in centerfield, just behind Trout. In all, about 6,000 Cumberland County residents will attend the game, Quinn estimated.

"I'm looking forward to the standing ovation that he's going to get the first time he comes up," Quinn said. "I'm just going to look at the people up there and see people throughout the stadium. You'll see an awful lot of Mike Trout fans. I think that will be the highlight for me that evening, just to watch the people show their appreciation for Mike."


On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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