The ping-ping-ping began every summer night about the time Craig Atkinson sat down with his family for dinner at their home in Millville. The neighbor kid, Mike Trout, no more than 5 or 6 years old, tossed up a rock and hit it with an aluminum bat. Ping! Then another. Ping!
“For hours,” Atkinson says with a smile, some 15 years later.
The youngest of Jeff and Debbie Trout’s three children was known then as Mikey. These days, Atkinson and another neighbor, Tim Shannon, now the mayor of Millville, still slip and refer to the young batsman by his childhood nickname, even though he is now 21, big, strong and famous.
Atkinson and Shannon, not to mention Jeff and Debbie Trout, teachers at Millville Senior High School, have been asked a lot about Mike Trout recently, thanks to his eye-opening rookie year as an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Trout, who turned 21 in August, was called up from the team’s top minor-league affiliate, the Salt Lake Bees, one month into the 2012 season. Unlike most newcomers to the major leagues, he had an immediate impact, compiling a .326 batting average with 30 home runs, 49 stolen bases and 129 runs scored.
He was a unanimous choice for the American League Rookie of the Year award in November—the youngest player to win it—and finished second to Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The journey began in Millville.
“Craig and I saw him play in an all-star game where he was the littlest kid on the field, and he hit a home run,” Shannon says of watching Trout early on. “And we sort of looked at each other, shook our heads and said, ‘Whew.’”
Shannon offers another story. Trout was 10, playing against boys 11 and 12, at a game in nearby Folsom. “He hit this monster, I mean monster home run out of Folsom,” Shannon says, “which had a Little League field with a 10-foot-high fence and pine trees. And behind the woods was a cemetery. That’s where the ball ended up.”
As he enters his second big-league season, Trout, a cheerful, polite, former honors student at Millville High who prefers hunting and fishing and staying out of the way, has been asked if he will be able to do it all over again, avoiding baseball’s much-feared sophomore slump.
“I hear it all the time,” he says. “I don’t believe in that stuff. I just go out and play. You go into a slump, you just got to get out of it. That’s the way I look at it.”
Trout is truly a product of Millville, a working-class Cumberland County town (population 28,000) of mostly wood-frame houses and ranches that hunkers on the Maurice River about 35 miles west of Atlantic City and 40 miles south of Camden.
Debbie Trout calls her son a “hometown boy.” Everyone who knows him thinks he will continue to succeed not just because of his skills, but because of his background. He drives a black Mercedes now—his rookie-season salary was $480,000—but for the time being, he still lives with his parents in the off-season, and his mother makes him take out the trash.
Shannon remembers how the 6-foot-1 Trout played basketball at Millville High, saying, “The rougher it got under the boards, the more Mikey thrived. He enjoyed that. He really thrived against that competition, especially going against the better players. It was almost like he stepped up his game.”
The Millville High sports teams are known as the Thunderbolts because World War II pilots trained in aircraft of the same name at Millville Army Airfield. Jeff Trout, now 52, played football and baseball for the Thunderbolts, a 5-foot-9 spark plug.
The elder Trout went to the University of Delaware and was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the fifth round of the 1983 amateur draft. He played four seasons in the Twins organization, reaching Double A Orlando, despite the lasting effects of an injury suffered in high school.
“Actually, on this football field right over here in the last game of the season against Vineland, he hurt his shoulder, and he played with it for years.” Atkinson says, “But finally, it got too bad, and he had to hang it up.”
Jeff Trout became a history teacher and football and baseball coach at Millville High in a town that loves sports and its Thunderbolts. When the booster club wanted to build a new clubhouse for functions and a Hall of Fame, it did not have to borrow a dime. Contributions came from everywhere and easily covered the costs.
Mike Trout grew up playing every sport in season in town. “I’m surprised at how big his success has been so far,” says Debbie Trout. “But Mike has always had a ball in his hands—a baseball, basketball or football—and was always walking around with it.”
Trout played football, basketball and baseball through his freshman year of high school. By sophomore year, he committed himself to the Millville varsity baseball team—even though he could have been a gridiron star.
“Before he even realized where I got in my career—what I did and didn’t accomplish—he was extremely passionate about baseball,” Jeff Trout says. “I think the role my career played is that he got an idea of how difficult the game can be at times in the course of a long season. I think that’s helped him, served him well early in his minor-league career.”
Mike Trout hit 18 home runs, a state record, as a senior for the Thunderbolts, after moving to the outfield from shortstop. But he was not considered to be a truly elite prospect because New Jersey is something of a high school-baseball backwater, with shorter seasons than the warm-weather states like Florida and Texas.
At noon on the morning of June 9, 2009, he put on a suit and left school to drive with his parents to Secaucus for the amateur draft. In the first round, 21 teams bypassed Trout before the Angels called his name. Then he drove back to Millville.
“He didn’t get back here until midnight, and there were still 160 people here to welcome him,” Atkinson says. “We partied until 4 in the morning with him.”
Nearly four years have passed, “in the blink of an eye,” says Mike Trout. As a prospect, he moved through the minor leagues quickly and made his big-league debut at age 19 on July 8, 2011, going 0 for 3 against Seattle. He batted just .220 in 40 games.
He was sent to Salt Lake City for the beginning of the 2012 season but was called up after the Angels released their underperforming left fielder, the former Phillies and Yankees star, Bobby Abreu.
Trout was an immediate sensation, earning a trip to the All-Star Game. “I couldn’t even take two steps out of the hotel before people started bombarding me and my family for an autograph,” he says. Despite Trout’s stellar play, the Angels failed to make the playoffs. This only added fuel to his fire.
As he heads into his second full season, Trout is still working on his game. He would like to strengthen his arm and improve his throwing accuracy, and he needs to cut down on his strike outs. But he would like to think he is pretty much the same person he always was.
People in Millville and neighboring Vineland, where he was born, notice him more when he shops at the Cumberland Mall or goes out to eat with his friends. He tells the story of walking into a convenience store where there was a poster of him endorsing a sports drink. The clerk looked at Trout, then the poster, and said, “Is that you?”
But he loves it in Millville—loves the changing seasons, the chance to lay low. He hopes to build or buy a house nearby, and he plans to continue ordering six hamburgers at a time, with sauce, from Jim’s Lunch on East Main Street. He proclaims them the best. During the season, he had his mom freeze some and send them to California.
“It’s very rare in this society to see athletes like this,” says Tim Shannon. “I think everybody around here is excited just to see what Mikey’s going to do next. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”
David Caldwell covers sports and outdoor recreation for New Jersey Monthly.