TEMPE, Ariz. – Five months since his last ballgame, Mike Trout on Monday morning sat hunched over a chicken sandwich, a minor obstacle he'd wolf down in about four bites. The bus was leaving for Peoria, his stuff was scattered in front of his locker, he wasn't in uniform, coaches were walking toward the door, like suddenly the day was running off in double-time.
A teammate walked by, tapped Trout on the shoulder.
He looked up and grinned.
"Nervous, man," Trout said.
He wasn't really.
It was game day – the Los Angeles Angels' third, his first – and it was time to go. Trout nodded at a clock. The bus was waiting. The Seattle Mariners were waiting.
"What?!" the teammate shouted in mock astonishment. "They don't send The Beatles on the road! Wear a wig, man."
Trout took the ribbing with a smile and a nod, flipped what was left of the chicken sandwich in the trash, half-jogged to his locker and slid his road grays from their hanger.
"Finally," Trout said. "Been a while. Gonna be good to get things going. Live pitching, gonna be interesting."
He'd come to this camp, his first as a big-leaguer with a roster spot and a position and a place in the batting order, thicker and leaner. Quiet and earnest a year ago, he'd opened this spring's batting practice referring to fellow Angels by their nicknames and sharing inside jokes. Vernon Wells was "Vern." Alfredo Griffin was "Freddie."
Since they'd last seen each other, he'd become Rookie of the Year and lost a spirited MVP balloting to Miguel Cabrera. Long before that, he'd earned his way among them with a remarkably sound and productive season. They'd loved his talent, of course. But Trout had played with fearlessness, a relentless resolve that made him different. Torii Hunter, now a Detroit Tiger, called him a "dawg," praise Hunter dispenses in moderation. Ballplayers who aren't threatened by the effort, by the refusal to coast, see greatness in it.
The game, the game, the game… Trout glanced at the clock again.
He woke up Monday morning, got to the ballpark, plugged along through baserunning drills and batting practice. It felt different than the other days in camp. It felt different than the winter mornings in New Jersey. Different from any other day since last fall, when the Angels packed up and went home. Even in February, game day is just different.
Trout threw what he could in a duffel bag. Before he zipped it and threw it over his shoulder, he took a breath and scanned the floor, the area, his locker. He narrowed his eyes to make sure he had everything.
It was starting again. Really, this will be Trout's first full season. He'd shown up April 28 and by the time he was done had 30 homers and led the league in steals and runs and hit .326. He was an All-Star. Beyond that, he was – at 20, then 21 – a source of pride (and revenue) for a league losing these kinds of athletes to other games. Fans fawned. Reporters chased. And Trout put his head down and pushed ahead. Straight ahead. Every day was game day, his favorite, and another chance to push ahead.
"I see absolutely no change in his personality or work habits," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said earlier Monday morning. "They've always been off the charts."
Now they'll ask if he can do it again. Or do it better. Can he still be Mike from Millville when the crowds get bigger and the pressure builds? When the pitchers come with their new strategies, who will he be then? When the slumps come? When he's absolutely killin' it?
"I don't think he would have been ready for the challenge if he was ever wide-eyed and intimidated," Scioscia said. "You can't control how the public thinks you play or pressures you. The exciting thing about Mike is, I don't think he's ever chased numbers. … I think he's going to have a great year without chasing numbers. He's going to help us win."
In spring training last year, David Eckstein was Trout's partner in a team language competition against Kendrys Morales and Alexi Amarista. In tests in the others' native language, the sides tied. Eckstein shrugged.
"It's always better to win," he said.
As a guest instructor, Eckstein got a decent look at Trout before the breakout. A year later, the man had become a star.
"I just love the energy and the youthfulness and the naiveté of coming to the park and playing the game," Eckstein said.
On Monday afternoon, after a 30-minute bus ride, Trout would lead off and play left field. In his first at-bat, he'd single. In three plate appearances, he'd also walk and score two runs. He'd familiarize himself with a new place in the outfield.
First, though, he stood frozen in that clubhouse. Glove, bats, spikes, jersey. Check. The game, the game, the game…
On his way out, he paused. It's not that complicated. It was time.
"Baseball game's a baseball game, spring or whenever," he said. "It's baseball."
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