For more than a month, from the end of May to the middle of July, baseball was without its best player. Mike Trout, the 25-year-old centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, slid into second base one afternoon, tore a ligament in his thumb, and went on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Gone were his airborne catches at the outfield wall, his piston-footed stolen bases, his home runs scattered to every part of the park. Gone too was the visible sense of mastery that always hangs around Trout, regardless of momentary success or failure: the comma of a swing, the strangely unhurried speed.
Trout re-joined the Angels after the midseason All-Star break, and in his time back, he’s been his usual self, doing everything a ballplayer can do about as well as it can be done. He has also reclaimed his old spot in the daily attention of baseball fans worldwide—which, curiously, is not at the top. Despite his brilliance, Trout appears in fewer commercials than Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Correa; The New York Times called him “Baseball’s Best, Without the Brand.” His even-keel bearing might have something to do with this, but the chief culprit is the mediocrity of his team. While the Dodgers, Astros, Nationals, and Red Sox ready their rosters for the postseason, the Angels figure to fall short again, for the sixth time in Trout’s seven seasons. The one year they did make it, they lost the division series to the Kansas City Royals in three straight games.
This information is usually presented as a problem to be solved; articles lamenting Trout’s relative low profile are a cottage industry. Some writers note that, given the realities of baseball, one player can do only so much to help his team, and others speculate about when he might be able to move on to a contender that could make better use of his talents and raise his Q score. But while it would certainly thrill to see Trout play meaningful games deep into October, such forecasting overlooks the appeal he holds right now, on a middle-of-the-pack club without realistic title aspirations. Plenty of superstars demonstrate what it looks like to rise to occasions and embrace big moments, but Trout fills in a neglected corner of sports’ emotional spectrum. He tolerates and hangs in; he does his best, even without much chance for ultimate glory.
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This is an athletic era of overblown narrative, of hyper-Hollywood endings. Last year, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers knocked off a seemingly unbeatable Warriors team in the NBA Finals. In February, Tom Brady brought the New England Patriots back from a 25-point Super Bowl deficit. In between, the Chicago Cubs ended what may have been history’s most famous championship drought. Anybody who watched those games has a collection of moments they can recall on demand: James materializing to block a late layup, Kris Bryant smiling as he threw to first for the final out.
Trout has had no such moments and won’t for the foreseeable future; his current contract runs through 2020. He plays with a mix of past-prime stars and fill-ins, and his home stadium features a pile of ersatz rocks behind the outfield wall and, usually, a bunch of empty seats. The Angels start their games at 7 o’clock Pacific time, when much of the baseball-watching population is nodding off on sofas. Even in this uninspiring atmosphere, though, Trout astonishes. Baseball aficionados treat his statistics like a holy text—he has led the American League in the catch-all category Wins Above Replacement, which summarizes a player's total offensive and defensive contributions, every year for a half-decade—but the sight of him on the field renders those gaudy numbers somehow underwhelming. Trout’s acumen is such that it seems impossible for him to have a truly bad game. He has a millimeter-fine understanding of the strike zone, a missile-launching bat, and an innate sense of the various strategies at work with each pitch: These traits never leave him all at once.
“He does it the right way every single day,” said Bryce Harper, the closest thing Trout has to a peer, before the Angels and Harper’s Nationals met for a July series. “He’s one of the best in the game at being himself and never changing.” What was unsaid but implied was how tempting it might be for any other player in Trout’s circumstance to lapse into bad habits. Harper himself has alternated MVP-quality seasons with down years, and he has had the adrenal pick-me-up of playing for a contender. Nobody familiar with the 162-game haul of the baseball season would begrudge Trout the occasional off night.
Trout’s unflagging demeanor, then, is as noteworthy as his skill. Eyes darting, toes tapping, a smile on his face, Trout looks as if the idea of being disenchanted on a baseball field has never occurred to him. This, too, keeps him off front pages and away from the top of SportsCenter—there are no locker-room tirades or trade requests to make him newsworthy—but it enamors him of purists. There is a tendency, when talking about Trout’s accomplishments, to refer to the habitual instead of the specific, to note that whatever spectacular thing he did is just one more instance of what he always does. So it was when Trout stole third base with a daring, multi-part slide one evening last September. Asked about the play after the game, Mike Scioscia, the Angels’ manager, deemed it standard. “Mike plays the game one way,” he said. “Full out.”
The recent run of massive comebacks, historic showdowns, and legacy-sealing plays across the major professional sports has been a gift to fans; it seems as if no stretch of three months goes by without some new championship-round installment of the impossible. It has also, though, played into a growing trend of seeing the biggest games as the only ones that matter. Seasons start, and the chatter immediately centers on who will prevail at the end. Anything that happens in the meantime is preamble, useful only insofar as it informs the important stuff to come.
At their best, though, sports operate on not only a mythic scale but also a daily one. They reveal long-haul determination in addition to clutch heroism. Today’s inclination is to feel sorry for Trout, to wish him into a condition suitable to his gifts. But he’s already in one. No World Series walk-off home run could tell us any more about him than we can learn watching him play on a weeknight in a half-full park, going about his remarkable routine.