Greatness creates its own charisma. Which is lucky for Mike Trout.
Pregame, the best player in baseball is holding court around the card table, hooting at his luck at pluck (which is a little like hearts.)
The clubhouse is its own ecosystem. The guys at the top of the food chain breathe in all the oxygen. They’re allowed to be loud. The further down you get, the quieter you’re expected to be.
This is a function of experience and excellence. More years usually trump better numbers, but not in this case.
Trout is only 22, but he’s the biggest presence in this room. Reliever Michael Kohn is walking around in a Mike Trout T-shirt.
Teammates cannot just pass by him. They have to stop and watch for a respectful moment. Even Albert Pujols pays court for a few seconds before wandering off, whistling. (As in prison, whistling is discouraged in the locker room. Unless you’re Albert Pujols.)
Now that he’s established himself with a pair of MVP-calibre seasons, the next phase in Trout’s development is becoming the Face of Baseball. This year is the torch-passing moment, as that title presumably drifts from a retiring Derek Jeter to the young Los Angeles Angel.
Do you think about that at all?
“Nah,” says Trout. “I don’t think about it too much. It’s writers like you who write about it. I just try to go out there and have fun, be a good role model, stay out of trouble and play the game respectfully.”
Trout is standing there with his arms crossed protectively over his chest. He rhymes this line off like he’s said it a million times, and he’s probably getting close.
He’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.
Is that your second cover?
“Yeah,” Trout says. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
Trout is a nice kid, but he doesn’t have it. Whatever it is. Not yet, at least.
Jeter had it. It came off him like heat. Whenever you spoke to him, there was a moment during which you were keenly aware that Derek Jeter was looking at you.
Jeter made baseball modern – a multiracial spokesperson for the game, an old-world gentleman and a new-world obsessive. Being in New York didn’t hurt. Nor did the string of famous girlfriends.
By contrast, Trout is dragging baseball backward. Every sport gets the star it deserves and baseball – hidebound by tradition – gets Trout. He’s a throwback to a “gosh, golly, shucks” era. Even the brush cut screams Stan Musial.
He is handsome in that bland, baseball way that makes it difficult to pick him out in a room. He looks as if he were designed in the Basballinator9000.
His greatness lies in doing everything predictably well. He is metronomic in his excellence, which makes him just a little bit boring.
He lacks the electricity of the anti-Trout, L.A. Dodger Yasiel Puig. Every time Puig charges a ball in the outfield, you know there’s a fair chance he’s going to rifle it into the stands. That tension makes him the most exciting player in the game.
Puig lives on the edge of control, and frequently loses it. Trout does not make mistakes. He is constantly in control. One wonders whether he really thinks Puig is playing baseball “respectfully.”
Like the game he plays, Trout is essentially conservative. When trying to explain what made Jeter special, Trout leans on his clichés (“… plays the game the right way …”) and then says, “You never really saw him in the news anywhere, committing any crimes.”
No felony convictions – that’s a low bar for greatness.
Trout just signed the dumbest $144-million (U.S.) deal in sports history (i.e. it’s not that dumb). In taking the up-front money, he turned down the chance to bet on himself and the $400-million or so deal that awaited him in three years time.
Taking the money was the prudent thing to do. We don’t think of the greatest stars as prudent people. At least, we don’t any more.
This is why Trout will never be an iconic player. Doesn’t matter how well he hits. Doesn’t matter how many rings he wins. That’s part of it, but it should bolster your credentials, rather than define them.
By the numbers, Jeter wasn’t the greatest player of his generation. Not even close. But there was an ineffable quality that made him more than championships or batting titles.
Trout will never be that guy. He needs a foil. Puig seems purpose built. Those two young men (Puig is 23) could combine to become the yin and yang of the game.
Though baseball may love Trout’s appeal to old-timey values, it also badly needs to replace their fading Yankee star. Once you start to think about it, you realize that were Trout and Puig combined, the result – in terms of personality, at least – would be one Jeter.