Mickey Mantle is alive. He’s right out there in centerfield, every day, running down balls in the alleys, taking over games with his offense, defense, and speed. And this is prime Mantle, too—not later-years, shot-kneed, wee-hours-at-the-Copacabana Mantle. He debuted at 19, just turned 25, and he’s been the best player in baseball every year since he—
Sorry, hang on, it’s not Mickey Mantle. It’s Hank Aaron. You can tell by his balanced stance and that rare blend of power and patience—nope, sorry, I’m wrong again. It’s Ken Griffey Jr. No, it’s Willie Mays? It’s definitely one of those legends. Because I’m watching him play, and I’m looking at his numbers, and any player this good, at every aspect of baseball, must be very, very, famous. Right?
It’s hard to quantify how unfamous someone is, but let’s try. What do you know about Mike Trout? He plays baseball. He … is great. That’s probably it, for most people. If you’re a baseball fan, you might know that he won an MVP a couple years ago or even that he has finished second every other year he’s played. You might even know some of his statistics, which for a diehard fan border on pornography and which after only five years in the league could be used to make a legitimate argument that Trout should be in the Hall of Fame. If you are an opposing pitcher, you know that Trout is the very last person you want to see at the plate, because of the sheer number of ways he can humiliate you and your team. And if you are Gordon Beckham, or Jesus Montero, or J.J. Hardy, or any of about a dozen other players who have watched Trout make impossible running-leaping-stretching catches at the wall to rob you of a home run, you know he is an impossible RoboCop monster who has taken notches off your stat sheet and food off your table.
Trout is not anonymous. His jersey regularly ranks in the top five or 10 in Major League Baseball sales, for one thing, and anyone who follows baseball at all knows who he is. But based on the unprecedentedly incredible things he has already done, by age 25, in the game purporting to be America’s national pastime, he should be far more famous. Wherever you fell on the Trout knowledge spectrum, you probably know way more about Peyton Manning. You know what Peyton Manning looks and sounds like and what his favorite kind of pizza is and probably what insurance company he uses. (If you don’t, sing the seven-note jingle in your head—yes, that one—and it’ll come to you.) You probably know what Steph Curry looks and sounds like and that he has a cute, funny daughter, and you might even know her name. You know exactly what Michael Phelps looks like, and he’s a swimmer—he only emerges every four years, for one week, like a minor comet or a lazy groundhog or something, and yet you know him. But what do you know about Mike Trout—a man every bit as good at baseball as Manning was at football and Curry is at basketball. Do you know what he looks like? Sounds like? Endorses? Anything? Do you know if he’s playing in the playoffs, which began Tuesday? Did you even know the playoffs began Tuesday?
Here is what you should know: Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. There’s an argument to be made that he’s had the greatest season ever, for a player his age, in every year he has played. If he stays healthy, he may well end up being the greatest all-around baseball player of all time. So why does it feel like no one cares?
Baseball stardom has something of an East Coast bias. It’s less pronounced in basketball, and not true at all in football, where the once-a-week games are all played at regulated, TV-friendly times. But in baseball, a nightly occurrence for six months, having your games start when half the country is getting ready for bed doesn’t help your chances of crossing over. It’s not impossible—Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey Jr. played in Seattle. But Anaheim is not Seattle. Anaheim is the white-hot center of Southern California: a vague, endless landscape of freeways, subdivisions, and Truman Show sameness.
Driving in Southern California is crazy-making. Any journey, of any length, makes you feel as if you’re in the Flintstones car, crawling along past the same 2-D palm trees, the same construction sites, the same strip malls, over and over. A 40-mile journey from Los Angeles to Anaheim—just as one random example I can think of, off the top of my head—can take you two hours or more, during which you first catalog all of the other, better things you could have done with that time, and then calculate how much faster you might’ve gotten there if you’d literally taken a bicycle.
And Anaheim itself feels accidental—there doesn’t appear to be a reason for it to be where it is. You just drive for a while and then pull off the highway, seemingly randomly, and there’s Disneyland and over there’s where the Angels play, and that’s Anaheim. And it’s hot. It’s so hot, always, all the time. Former FOX and ABC Sports reporter Suzy Shuster Eisen, who covered the Angels for three years, put it this way: “The only good part of driving to Anaheim is the In-N-Out just before you reach the stadium.”
The Angels won the World Series in 2002—the franchise’s first and only—and for a while it seemed that new owner Arte Moreno might just wrest control of Los Angeles baseball away from the Dodgers. Moreno went so far as to try to rename the team the Los Angeles Angels—“The The Angels Angels,” for you non–Spanish speakers—but a clause in his stadium lease mandated the word “Anaheim” had to be a part of the team name. So Moreno did the only logical thing—he renamed the team The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a strong contender for worst franchise name ever, along with the Utah Jazz and the Mighty Ducks, also of Anaheim.
Although attendance surged, and the team won several division titles in the mid-’00s, the franchise has never quite recaptured that 2002 glory, and they’ve made the playoffs only once in the past seven years. (The Dodgers, after muddling through their own ownership drama, have four straight National League West crowns and are now firmly back in control of the city and its fans.) There is no question that performing in the postseason, in any sport, helps with countrywide popularity, and Mike Trout hasn’t really gotten the chance to do that yet. (Tellingly, all of the other top jersey sellers in 2016 are from teams that made the playoffs this season.)
So here’s Mike Trout, his generation’s best player, sitting in his clubhouse before a meaningless final weekend game against the Houston Astros. He is impossibly solid-looking but doesn’t make a very big footprint in the room—he’s like a super–laid-back Captain America. His job tonight is the same as it has been since his first game, five years ago: to man the outfield for a mediocre team, playing in the SoCal heat, in front of SoCal fans. Technically, tonight he will be the team’s designated hitter, because the game is so meaningless, there’s really no sense having him run around and put more mileage on his knees. But he has to play, because watching Mike Trout is one of a very few good reasons the Anaheim Angels can give their fans to get them to buy tickets.
The cliché about Southern California fans is fairly accurate—they have a penchant for meandering in late and leaving early, to beat the traffic. Trout, a New Jersey native who rooted for the Phillies, shrugs off the “fan intensity” gap between the Northeast and SoCal. “I don’t know that it’s that different, really. You want to have the stadium filled, for sure.” And to be fair, The The Angels Angels do just fine in that regard—they drew 3 million fans this year, to that hot stadium in the middle of nowhere and 3 million last year and the year before that. So at least Trout is appreciated locally. But something is muting his potential fame, and that thing may be the neither-here-nor-there city in which he plays. Eisen, for one, would agree. “There’s only room for one star in Anaheim,” she says, “and it’s Mickey Mouse.”
Because: How He Lives?
The famous story goes like this: The Yankees’ star centerfielder is hungover, again, so he’s sitting this one out. Coach sends him to pinch-hit, so he struggles to the plate, head throbbing, and somehow hits one out to win the game. He rounds the bases, wincing at the loud cheers, and as Mickey Mantle gets back to the dugout he looks to his teammates and says, “Boys, you’ll never know how hard that was.”
Mantle’s fame was part talent, part New York, part Yankees, and part wild-man night-owl personality—he also famously said, toward the end of his life, “If I’d’ve known I was gonna live this long, I would’ve taken better care of myself.” Doubtful Mike Trout will feel the same, decades from now. There are no famous stories about wild behavior, no crazy nights at whatever the 2016 equivalent of the Copacabana is. Trout’s main off-field passion seems to be … the weather. He loves weather and weather reports, even appearing on the Weather Channel a few times, to guest-announce the weather. That’s right. His true passion is the thing we all talk about to fill awkward silences on elevators.
Despite having grown up a Phillies fan, Trout most idolized a guy who played elsewhere. “Jeter was my guy. I was a shortstop … and they always aired the Yankees on ESPN. I just liked the way he played, the way he carried himself.” There’s a logic to this—Derek Jeter had the same private vibe, even when out in public. He stayed outside of the limelight, as much as a superstar in New York can. His play, and the Yankees, and the tireless work of his many hagiographers, made him famous.
So Trout is not Mickey Mantle. He’s not Bryce Harper, either, with his bro-y fauxhawk and calls to make the game more fun and calling out reporters for their clown questions. Trout is not cartoonishly Popeye-ish, like Mark McGwire. He doesn’t get into Twitter fights like Curt Schilling. He limits his media exposure and his endorsements. He doesn’t do anything—for better or worse—that would propel his stardom to the next level. As he puts it: “That’s just kind of how it’s been. I’m one of those guys who likes to keep stuff to themselves. People ask me questions, I answer.” However, many athletes at his level become stars simply by playing as well as he plays. Personality helps, but extreme greatness itself can beget fame, even if the person inside the personality isn’t larger than life. (If you don’t believe me, listen to Michael Jordan trying to record one simple line for a Gatorade ad. The guy wasn’t exactly a dynamo off the court.)
All of these things—playing on the West Coast, playing in Anaheim specifically, limiting his exposure, loving weather a lot—might help explain why the best baseball player ever, through his age-24 season, is roughly as famous, right now, in America, as Jimmy Garoppolo. But it doesn’t completely explain it.
Which brings us to the game of baseball itself.
Because: Mike Trout Plays Baseball?
Stats on baseball’s popularity are a little Rorschach-y—if you’re Commissioner Rob Manfred, you can stare at them and see healthy attendance figures fueled by new stadiums and greater parity, billions in revenue, and record-shattering TV rights deals for local markets. But the World Series TV ratings paint a different picture—one where a crummy, meaningless Monday Night Football game in Week 5 of the NFL season can tie or beat the Fall Classic. Baseball’s biggest moments don’t hold the nation’s attention the way they used to. It may technically be a top-two or -three sport in the U.S., but there are so many games, over such a long period of time, it maybe just doesn’t feel special, or something.
This, for what it’s worth, is Trout’s theory on baseball’s struggle to win over casual fans: “There are so many games. [Many] people start watching in September. In those mid-summer months, there’s not a lot of people watching, because there’s 162 games.”
And those who do think it’s special are old and getting older. The median age of those baseball-first fans is climbing. Stars are made by kids, and kids don’t watch baseball the way they used to. And even if they do, there’s the essential problem of the actual game they’re watching: It’s very weird. It may in fact be the weirdest sport we have.
It’s not the most boring sport, as haterz are fond of claiming; there’s more ball-in-play action in baseball than there is in football (though obviously far less than in soccer or basketball). But it is weirder. It’s a team game, made up of one-on-one battles, in which players can go an eternity without touching the ball. More importantly, on TV, only the pitcher and batter are really visible. Even if you want to learn more about Mike Trout, you can watch an Angels game (at 10 p.m. on the East Coast) for 40 minutes and never once even see the best player in baseball. If at any given moment Steph Curry isn’t touching the basketball, he is at least running around and his teammates are trying to get it to him. He is always in the game.
And if baseball the game is bad for star-making, the meta-game—the way it packages and presents itself to fans—is even worse. At the most boring regular season NBA game—I’m talking Suns-76ers in early January—the lineups of the home team will be announced during a 4-D holographic laser–video–light show that could make Nik Stauskas look like Dr. J. Baseball has a public address system and a gameday program you can buy with a tiny golf pencil to keep score. MLB has yet to figure out how to market its best stars, on a day-to-day basis. Maybe because there are just too many players and too many games that last too long, in a too-long season over too many months.
MLB is not blind to its problems. It recently introduced several rules to trim some precious minutes off its nightly running time, which appear to be working and which Trout applauds: “It’s tough to be out there, three, four hours a day. They’re speeding it up to an extent, but it still has to be baseball. From a fan standpoint, the fans leave in the sixth, seventh inning because it’s a long game. As a player it’s worse—you’re beat by the seventh, eighth inning.” But the game, really, is the game: It’s plodding and gradual and deliberate. No matter what happens on the margins, it still has to be baseball. It will never have the constant action of basketball or the explosiveness of football, and as such its stars may simply never truly break through to the extent that NFL and NBA stars do.
Which maybe brings us all the way back around to Anaheim, in a way, and the 3 million fans who fill that hot stadium every year. Baseball, thanks to its everyday schedule, lends itself extremely well to local-market television. Franchises have unlocked massive value by either selling broadcasting rights to local sports networks (FOXSportsThisPlace, FOXSportsThatPlace) or by outright owning them (YES for the Yankees, NESN for the Red Sox). But that Balkanization has led to a sort of fan provinciality—when you have the ability to watch only your team, you end up not watching any others, really. The NBA has its Christmas Day spectacular. The NFL has a weekly national doubleheader, plus Monday and Thursday nights. The MLB has 30 sets of fans living in 30 happy bubbles. Which means Mike Trout is a very big deal in Anaheim, and a silent tree falling in Anaheim, nightly, everywhere else.
This is how you explain the Rorschach-iness of baseball’s robust fan data—it’s a confederacy of fan bases, many of them individually healthy but without the centralized national pillars of support enjoyed by other sports. And in one remote part of that confederacy, we find Mike Trout, who does every exciting thing you can do on a baseball field and does them better than anyone else, and it feels as if it doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, baseball is local, and so are its stars. He is Mickey Mantle, minus New York, minus the Yankees, minus the wild side, plus Anaheim, plus the weather, and minus most of the fame.