TEMPE, Ariz. — This is just so awkward.
Mike Trout lowered his head in an unassuming way and studied the tops of his shoes, to let the thing breathe a little.
He’d never say he is the best player in the game. He just wouldn’t. Not out loud. Maybe not even when he’s by himself, up in one of those deer stands or driving home from another three-fer or shoveling the driveway. Maybe he doesn’t even think it. In his diary, if he had a diary, he’d write, “Played with the fellas again today. Did my best. Had fun.”
On March 26 in Houston (of all places), the Los Angeles Angels open their regular season, and Mike Trout, if he is in the lineup, will become Hall of Fame eligible, it being the first game of his 10th season. The first criterion for Cooperstown is to have competed in 10 seasons. The rest of them are to be really great.
All he has to do is get to Houston. The voters, one day, probably 15 years or so from then, will do the rest.
He will step onto that field a .305 hitter with 285 home runs and 200 stolen bases, as the active leader in on-base plus slugging, as the holder of three AL MVP awards, as a player recognized as the best of his era by those in analytics caves and dugouts and clubhouses and press boxes.
The guy never even knew what pitch was coming. He had to, like, think about it. Guess sometimes. React. Try to pick up tells. Ask around. Study.
He had to play baseball, every inch of it, everywhere he went. At home. In all those road cities. Nobody ever helped. He stood alone in all those batter’s boxes, the only thing in his ears the fuzzy sound of a crowd with him or against him, the hiss of a fastball, a grunt escaping from inside him.
He was not alone, of course. Well, probably. Other guys showed up and tried hard and became great, too, all on their own. Nobody, lately, quite like Trout, however.
The point being, one morning not so long ago Trout woke up and learned that some of the players he’d been held up against had help. Some had quite a lot of help. Some flat cheated.
And he was still better. Most of the time, he was still better.
Which Mike Trout would never, ever say out loud. Or think.
Which doesn’t make it untrue.
He said Monday, his first day of camp, that he’d heard from some of the Houston Astros this winter, some of whom he considered friends. They tried to explain, to sort the facts from the wild rumors, which, in retrospect, seem to match up pretty well.
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Anyway, here they are, there he is. He’s never won a playoff game and they’ve been to two World Series. He has 12 playoff at-bats from almost six years ago. They have a banner and a trophy and rings. They have the breathtaking experiences of playing to the end of two Octobers. They have the big postseason reputations, which, until a couple months ago, was a good thing. And they have the rest of their careers to defend.
He said they have not paid enough for their crimes against the game.
“It’s sad for baseball,” he said. “It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing. It sucks, too, because guys’ careers have been affected. A lot of people lost jobs. It was tough. Me going up to the plate knowing what was coming? It would be fun up there.
“A lot of guys lost respect for some of the guys … I lost some respect for some guys.”
These are not new sentiments. They do, however, come this time from Mike Trout, who, over nine seasons, has only shown up, kept quiet and played the game better than anyone else. He has tended to the game with care and dignity. He has suffered the dark Octobers for an organization that has paid him but otherwise failed him. He has signed on for more, because he is loyal. The money’s great, too. But, he could’ve gotten at least that anywhere.
The game can be unfair. Even cruel. Then, if you’re lucky, it lets you come back and try again tomorrow. That’s the deal. Or should be the deal.
“I don’t know if you take the trophy away or take the rings away, but they should definitely do something,” he said. “I don’t know what. To cheat like that, it’s sad to see.”
He did admit to being somewhat oblivious.
“I didn’t notice the banging,” he said of the now infamous trash can. “I noticed the banging off the bat from center field.”
“It seemed like they weren’t missing pitches,” he said. “It’s frustrating because you have guys coming in here battling every day and working on stuff and they make a nasty pitch down and away, I can’t tell you when this happened, but I’m sure it did. I can’t imagine what the pitchers feel like.”
It’s so bad Mike Trout feels sorry for pitchers. That’s what it had come to.
Then he said thanks and goodbye on Monday morning, because it was time to go prepare for another season, his 10th, and, you know, if he didn’t start now he won’t be ready to be better than everyone else come late March. It’s a lot of work. A lot of preparation for the unknown. That’s the hard part, of course. Usually, and for most, there’s a lot of unknown.
But, well, that is the game.
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