LOS ANGELES – Beneath the debate about him and Bryce Harper lay a young man who often enough lulls himself to sleep with the movie "Happy Gilmore."
Behind the smile and bubble gum is more smile and bubble gum, a 20-year-old Jersey kid who spends his winters down the hall from his parents' room, in a bed surrounded by remembrances from high school, pictorial odes to Derek Jeter and stuff that reminds him of baseball.
Above the tools that put him at the top of the order and in center field for the Los Angeles Angels resides a spirit that, when asked once by a minor-league coach, "Do you want to be a big-league player or an impact player?" answered without a wisp of arrogance, "I am going to be an impact player."
Mike Trout – "Happy Gilmore" aficionado, homebody, ballplayer – carries himself like he's been everywhere before. His stride is short, wide and easy. His shoulders are hunched, coiled. His shaved head bends slightly forward, so it leans into the rest of the world.
Two-hundred-and-eighty-eight at-bats as a big leaguer and two months from his 21st birthday, Trout has been, on many nights, the best ballplayer on the field. This season, 41 games in, he is batting .345 with a .406 on-base percentage, six home runs, 26 RBIs and an American League-best (with Cleveland's Jason Kipnis) 15 steals.
The son of two teachers – a father, Jeff, who also played minor-league ball and coached at the local high school and a mother, Debbie, who encouraged it all – Trout will serve the remainder of his youth in three-deck ballparks, against cold-hearted pitchers, tailed by what everyone expects him to be.
It doesn't seem to bother him.
"The best way I can explain it to you," said Garrett Richards, Trout's regular roommate since they were drafted 17 players apart in 2009, "the kid treats every big-league game like it's a backyard Wiffle Ball game. He's so confident about everything."
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Asked, after these few years of various apartment and asphalt pickup games, what he's better at than Trout, Richards paused, grinned, and said, "Probably nothing, really. Maybe some video games. I give him a run for his money."
Trout sat Tuesday afternoon in the first-base dugout at Dodger Stadium, his face still glowing from early batting practice under a hot sun. He said he doesn't drink, doesn't chew tobacco (his mother forbids it), listens to country artists Luke Bryan and Brad Paisley, eats a lot and sleeps more. He has a girlfriend from back home, Jessica, who just graduated from college with a degree in education, so she can be a teacher, Trout said, "Just like my parents." He has a sister, Teal, who is married to a New Jersey policeman and has two children, and a brother, Tyler, in law school, which Mike thinks is much like his own job.
"I tip my cap," he said. "I wasn't really a school guy. I mean, I got good grades, but it wasn't my thing. I wanted to be outside. He was always studying. He's been at school now for six years of college. That's a lot of commitment. You can compare it to baseball. The commitment, being away from the family, it's hard work every day. All this stuff is going to pay off for him."
Trout's own education – brief stays in places such as Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Little Rock, Ark. and Salt Lake City – lasted barely 300 games, not including the 40 spent with the big club last summer, when he debuted as a 19-year-old. He was batting .403 in Triple-A when he was called up in late April. Within hours, the Angels began a run of 26 wins in 41 games. On Tuesday morning, I received an unsolicited text message from Eddie Bane, the team's former scouting director who championed the selection of Trout three years ago.
"Wanted to give you a heads up," it read. "I think this Trout kid might be all right."
Then another: "I think he will play like he does (hard) his entire career. That is just the way Debbie and Jeff brought him up. Dad played that way."
Trout had homered, singled, walked, stolen two bases and scored the winning run the night before at Dodger Stadium. Facing veteran lefty Chris Capuano, Trout had struck out on three sinkers in his first at-bat. He had taken a curveball for ball one in his second at-bat, and on the fourth pitch flied to left. In his third at-bat, on the third pitch, he got another curveball, recognized how it popped just so out of Capuano's hand, and launched it into the seats in left field.
It's how the nightly lessons go, one stranger pitching after another, Trout searching for something to put on his bat barrel, or something to run down in a gap, or a tell in a lefty's move to first base. Sometimes they come and sometimes they don't, and then the next day comes and so does another stranger.
"When Mike steps on the field, he steps on the field with a purpose," said Angels minor-league field coordinator Gary DiSarcina, the former shortstop. "It's a high-school innocence in a big-league player. That's Mike Trout. It's a beautiful thing to watch. It may come across to some as cocky, but it's not. It's just very confident."
And why wouldn't it be? He hits for average and power. If he's not the fastest player in the league, he's within a breath or two of whoever is. There are rugged nights ahead, of course, nights such as Tuesday's, when Trout was hitless in five plate appearances, his second oh-fer since May 25.
He's played through those, too, when he hit .220 over those 123 at-bats last season, and went home unhappy that he'd made it bigger than it was – the sounds, sights and stage of the only league he can remember wanting to play in. He knew that wasn't him.
"It's tough, you know?" he said. "You get caught up last year. You get up here at a young age, you want to do so much. You want to hit that grand slam with nobody on base. I don't know if it was being nervous or just being up here that made me play like that. Just take a deep breath and play my game.
[Mike Trout on Y! Sports Radio: Phenom discusses Angels and Bryce Harper comparisons]
"My goal now is to win a World Series and be myself. That's the hardest thing in the game for me, to stay within myself and not try to do too much. Stay with the approach that got me here. For me, that's just being out there, having fun, getting on base. Getting an opportunity to play. You can't take it for granted, for sure. Someday – it could be today and it could be 25 years from now – you never know what can happen. There's a lot of crazy things that could happen."
The game seems to breed those things, even for the prodigies – maybe especially for the prodigies. So Mike Trout plays the game around the comparisons, the predictions, and the impatience beyond his own. He looks fastball and adjusts to everything else, and runs hard, and leans into the world, and on those days when the game makes it less than possible and the sleep won't come, well, there's always "Happy Gilmore."
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