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It’s like that annoying song you hear on the car radio and can’t get out of your head. Mike Trout reports to spring training after another year in which the Angels failed to reach the postseason, and the three-time American League most valuable player is greeted with the same tiresome question:
How much does not making the playoffs weigh on you?
“I mean, I hear it every year,” Trout said Monday in a video call before the team’s first full-squad workout in Tempe, Ariz. “The only way to change that is to get to the playoffs. … I’m tired of hearing people say, ‘Hey Mike, is adding this guy or that guy gonna help?’ ”
Trout is 29 and entering the 10th full year of a Hall of Fame career in which he has established himself as the best all-around player in the game.
The star center fielder is among baseball’s highest-paid players, having a signed a 12-year, $426.5-million extension two years ago. His wife, Jessica, had the couple’s first child last summer, a son named Beckham who “has definitely changed my life,” Trout said.
Trout seems to be a young man in full, blessed with fame, fortune, personal happiness and professional success, but there are gaping holes on his resume that could tarnish an otherwise stellar career.
He has not played in a World Series. His teams have not won a playoff game. And it has been six long years since the Angels even reached the postseason, their last trip ending in a three-game AL division series sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals in 2014.
Trout is still in his prime and signed for 10 more years, but that window to capitalize on his most productive years and win a championship with him — a burden Angels president John Carpino admitted feeling pressured by last October — won’t stay open forever.
“It would be almost like a mortal sin on the Catholic faith, you just can’t miss out on that kind of an opportunity, where you have that kind of generational talent,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Ernie Banks never played in a World Series, right? There are a lot of great players who never played in a World Series, and I don’t want that to happen to [Trout]."
Maddon knows a thing or two about ending championship droughts. He was the Chicago Cubs manager when the long-suffering franchise won its first World Series title in 108 years in 2016. He was the Angels bench coach when they won their first title in 2002, four years after the death of long-time owner Gene Autry.
But as he enters his second year as Angels manager, Maddon is not taking a win-one-for-Trout approach.
“I want to win for everybody,” Maddon said. “It’s like back in the day when Mr. Autry was here. Everybody wanted to win for Mr. Autry, and we did. But I wanted to win for the secretaries, the clubhouse guys, and everyone else. It’s an entire organizational event.
“From the perspective of baseball fans wanting to see the most elite player in the game [in the World Series], of course we want to get there so Mikey has that opportunity to show that off. But that can’t be your motivation.”
Trout said one of the reasons he signed what amounts to a lifetime contract with the Angels in 2019 is that he believes in the vision of owner Arte Moreno and the moves then-general manager Billy Eppler had made to improve the club.
Eppler was fired last September after the team’s fifth straight losing season and replaced by Perry Minasian, whom Trout got to know over several off-season phone calls and a 45-minute conversation when he arrived at camp.
Just as Moreno and Carpino consulted Trout before hiring a new GM, Minasian kept Trout apprised of the team’s winter moves, which included the acquisition of starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Alex Cobb, a new closer in Raisel Iglesias, a new shortstop in Jose Iglesias and a new right fielder in Dexter Fowler.
“The vision is definitely there,” Trout said of Minasian. “The energy is there. I like what he’s doing.”
The Angels went 26-34 in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but Trout was encouraged by a three-week stretch in which they went 13-6 from Sept. 3-23.
“We needed to come out hotter at the start, but the last few weeks of the season, we played good baseball,” Trout said. “Add a few guys this offseason, we can build on that.”
Trout had a solid but not spectacular year by his standards, batting .281 with a .993 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 17 homers and 46 RBIs in 53 games and finishing fifth in MVP voting, his lowest in nine seasons.
By his own admission, Trout had a “bad year” defensively, ranking last among 15 qualified center fielders with minus-nine defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs.
With so much focus on COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols, Trout said he neglected some of the batting-practice drills that helped him get better jumps and to charge balls in front of him.
“With everything going on, I wasn’t really staying on top of it, and at the end of the year, it showed,” Trout said. “I started seeing the numbers, and I knew going into the offseason I had to improve. I have to tighten up a few things. I’m trying to win a Gold Glove, that’s the goal.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to win a World Series, and to do that the Angels must make the playoffs. But could Trout be running out of time?
“I’m getting older, for sure, but I’m still young, I still feel great,” he said. “It’s a lot different now. This year, I’m a dad. Maybe it will change our luck.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.