We’re supposed to be watching the American League wild-card race, which strikes me as six punchdrunks flailing at each other in a dive bar, watched by a few people on stools drinking warm Schlitz. It’s all for the right to exhaustedly advance to a one-game playoff, the winner of which will have zero chance against a rested team of Boston behemoths whose beards by then will be Abe Lincoln-length.
“I’m not anticipating us just to go out there and be Minnesota Fats,” said the adorable Tampa Bay manager, Joe Maddon, invoking the billiards legend who used to run the table. “I don’t see it, so it’s just going to be back and forth. You’ve got to deal with it.”
Actually, I don’t have to deal with it. Because I’m having too much fun watching some real history in the works, created in these final days of summer by Mike Trout. The nation isn’t really noticing, obsessed as it is with the NFL and Johnny Football. Hell, southern California isn’t even noticing, preoccupied as it is with the Dodgers, Kobe Bryant’s Achilles and the electric chair being prepared for Lane Kiffin. But tucked away down there off an Orange County freeway ramp, as he suffers with a woefully underachieving high-resources franchise with no front-office brainpower, Trout almost invisibly is doing things never done before in baseball.
I used to be at war with WAR, the Wins Above Replacement metric that symbolizes the sabernerds who’ve turned a poetic game into a Multivariable Calculus class. But now I love WAR, because it’s the one stat that quantifies Trout’s dominance, clarifies his true value and underlines why he’s the game’s greatest all-around player at a mere 22 years and six weeks. His WAR number this season is 9.0. No one else in the major leagues is even in the 8s. Last year, his WAR was 10.9. According to ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark, Trout would be only the sixth player in the post-1961 expansion era to have successive seasons of 9.0 or better WAR.
The others: Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Carl Yastrzemski and Albert Pujols.
Wrapped tight like a mummy at 6-2 and 230 pounds, he is obliterating the traditional ideal of a five-tool player. Trout has eight or nine tools, maybe more that we haven’t seen, and best of all, he has yet to show any signs of being a tool off the field — or using tools considered illegal. If he has a glaring flaw, it’s that he’s not especially fond of talking about himself, which allows us to do that for him.
“I really don’t think about that stuff,” he said earlier this year. “I go out and play, and whatever the numbers are at the end of the year, they are.”
Seems DIsneyland has a new address, in the outfield at Angel Stadium. Rarely have such breathtaking measures of speed and power been placed in one human body. Even rarer is the idea Trout could piece together two of the most productive seasons ever at such a young age. If the Angels were anywhere near a playoff berth this season and last, he already might be looking at double Most Valuable Player awards, which, given the epic two-year offensive production of Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, is a magnificent notion. This week, Trout entered the record books as the first AL player to produce 25 home runs, 30 steals and 100 walks in a season. He leads the league in runs and walks, ranks second behind Cabrera with a .330 average, and ranks second in hits, on-base percentage and triples. He’s third in slugging and OPS. He’s fifth in doubles. He’s sixth in stolen bases. Oh, and the ball he hit Monday night still would be soaring toward the Berkeley Hills if not halted by the concrete of the Oakland ballpark. While there’s a sewage problem in the Coiiseum, this is no b.s.
They called it a 452-foot home run. “That ball was still in the air at 452 feet,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia balked to the media. “I don’t know what the criteria is for measuring how long a ball is projected to go, but there’s no way that ball was anything short of 500 feet.”
You know who used to pull these feats? Mickey Mantle.
And you know which team already is foaming at the mouth to sign Trout in four years, assuming the Angels continue their management bumbling and don’t secure him with a whopper long-term deal: The Yankees, there in the Bronx, not far from the Trout family home in New Jersey where Mike actually slept in his old bed while visiting last winter.
Cabrera probably will win the MVP again, though he’s tired and ailing and will fall short of Baltimore’s Chris Davis in homers and perhaps RBIs in a bid for an unprecedented back-to-back Triple Crown. He will vigorously applaud Trout when he wins the award at some point, probably multiple times. “I’ve got to be thankful that I can see what he can do in baseball, and he is great,” Cabrera said at the All-Star Game, where they were teammates.
Nor does Trout begrudge Cabrera. “Other things they put into it, WAR and whatever, you can’t take away from a guy whose team is in first place by seven or eight games and is pushing for another Triple Crown,” he told CBS Sports.com. “We’re both having fun, and whatever happens at the end of the year, happens.”
Note to Scioscia: Trout has done signficant second-half damage while batting third, moving there from the leadoff or second spot after Pujols left the team with season-ending plantar fasciitis. The embattled manager also has tinkered with Trout in left field. Look, this is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He plays center field, and he bats third, and leave him alone until the Cooperstown ceremony.
Sure, Trout would prefer to be playing in the AL wild-card derby. But he clearly thrives off the radar screen, where he doesn’t have to talk about the MVP race and his remarkable exploits. “It seems like every game in September last year people were talking about it after the game. It’s definitely hard to keep your mind off it when people are bringing it up every day,” Trout told USA Today. “I’m just going out there playing my game and being myself.”
I might be the only one watching. In fact, the producers of Angels’ telecasts can take the camera off other players and just keep it focused on Trout every night. The Mike Cam actually could become the Mike Channel, and no one would complain. He is that wonderful.