The urge should be resisted, not only for your sake and my sake but for Mike Trout’s sake. Haven’t two decades of celebrating and falling in love with athletes, only to see them tarnished by scandal, reminded us not to push the too-convenient projection that Trout is Derek Jeter’s heir as baseball’s Captain America? It is a torch-passing we’d all like to see, a transition baseball needs as it bumps along in self-congratulatory denial, believing the sport is in terrific condition financially when, in truth, it’s struggling to maintain high relevance in a football, basketball and — dare I say? — soccer nation.
Still only 22, Trout has more going for him than even the so-called five-tool package because, by all accounts, he is not a tool. Oh, he can crush a ball 500 feet, dash to first base quicker than your beer gulp and leap for a catch that will stay atop SportsCenter’s top plays for weeks. What we’re captivated by most, though, is his grin, a joy for the game that oozes from a uniform that says ANGELS, quite appropriate for the narrative. The complete, breathtaking package was on display for a nation at the All-Star Game, where Trout won MVP honors with two extra-base hits in the American League’s 5-3 victory. His first-inning triple scored Jeter, who had doubled on what apparently was an Adam Wainwright groove pitch, and considering this was Jeter’s final Mid-Summer Classic, it seemed the succession plan already was in progress.
Never mind that it’s unfair to place such a burden on Trout, presumptuous to expect that he’ll carry himself as Jeter has since the mid-1990s. I am not the only one preaching restraint.
“I think let Mike be Mike,” Jeter said. “I don’t think people have to necessarily appoint someone to a particular position. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. I don’t know how much better he can get, but if he consistently does what he’s doing, then he will be here for a long time — if he continues to do the things that he’s done, he has his head on right, he plays the game the right way, he plays hard. The challenge for him is going to be like the challenge for most people, to be consistent year in, year out.”
The popular comparison remains Mickey Mantle. That is a heavy enough encumbrance for a kid who graduated from high school only five years ago, and it’s weightier than that because of the stereotypical implications: Trout as the game’s Great White Hope, if you will. Asked to assess the Trout phenomenon by ESPN.com, outgoing commissioner Bud Selig said he spoke recently to a veteran baseball scout about it. Said Selig: “I said, `Compare him to somebody.’ He thought for a second, and he was dead serious, and he said, `Mickey Mantle-type ability.’ And that’s breathtaking. Really breathtaking.’’
It’s also cautionary. Mickey Mantle’s career ended prematurely, and his life tragically, as an alcoholic. Did he live up to his promise as a phenom? He did. But what enters the mind first when pondering Mantle’s place in sport and life? The sadness of it all. Trout was born in New Jersey four years to the month before Mantle’s death, so he has watched him only in old clips. But he did grow up watching Jeter only a few hours south of Yankee Stadium.
Naturally, he admired him.
“Growing up, I was setting goals to myself that if I ever got the chance to get to the big leagues, that’s how I want to play,” Trout said. “And the way he carries himself on and off the field, how he respects the game — always hustling, it doesn’t matter what the score is. If they are down 10 runs, he is always running the ball out. That’s how I want to play.”
At least through 2020, he’ll be in Anaheim playing out a $144.5 million deal that already is a megabargain. Astonishingly, he isn’t nearly the sensation in Hollywood that he is nationally, part of the cultural moat that separates Orange County from all things Los Angeles. Yasiel Puig, who by comparison was a flop at the All-Star Game, is the rising star in lights. Yet Trout is not a victim of the local attention discrepancy as much as a beneficiary. He likes life in the relative peace of Newport Beach, which is too big a gas bill for the paparazzo, and his idea of a night out is a night in. If he’s The Future Of The Game, the pressure of that designation will be eased by his surroundings.
Jeter never had that advantage, yet he managed to pull off a career where some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment had no problem appearing in a gripping Nike commercial — “RE2PECT’’ — and tipping his cap to him. He may, in fact, be the last athlete who truly belongs to the people, which is a paradox given his reticence about public life. Not once has he ever sought our approval, but he received it like few athletes of his generation — our admiration, our reverence, our fascination — during a complex time when America grew to distrust many of his peers. This is a man who played in New York, where media knives could have carved up the eligible baseball prince with a harem of ladies, and somehow pulled it off for 18 seasons without the slightest hint of scandal. This is a man who played for the Yankees, a wobbly franchise when he arrived, and restored class and pride to the pinstripes while winning five World Series championships. This is a man who played in the era of performance-enhancing drugs, a plague that brought down gifted teammates such as Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, and not once was he suspected of taking more than a vitamin.
Derek Jeter has been a sporting miracle, an inextinguishable candle amid baseball’s darkness. “In the 21-plus years in which I have served, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador,” Selig said. “Since his championship rookie season, Derek has represented all the best of the national pastime on and off the field. He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his — or any — era.”
Said Baltimore’s Adam Jones: “I don’t think we’ll ever find anyone again that private. In today’s era of social media, nothing is private. It kind of [stinks]. You have nothing to yourself any more. Everything is out there. People want to know everybody about our lives. It’s the end of an era. A great era.”
The operative word is humility. The Nike ad probably embarrassed him, though he never would say so. The best thing about it: How after everyone paused and tipped their caps in his direction, he kind of said “Whatever’’ and continued with the at-bat. When the Minnesota fans gave him a lengthy standing ovation, which was followed by applause from Wainwright and all the others in uniform, Jeter gave one smiling thank-you wave, then quickly returned to the batter’s box, urging the moment to end so he could … play … the … game. As he told his old teammate, Aaron Boone, in an ESPN interview: “First off, I wouldn’t call myself great. The thing that I prided myself on in my career was consistency. I feel as though I have a job to do each and every day, every year, and I take a lot of pride in being consistent. I want the organization to pretty much know what to expect when I take the field. … For the most part, I think they’ve known what to expect.”
After the game, he admitted to being sheepish about the hubbub. “It’s not about one particular person. You know, I’ve always been uncomfortable, so to speak, when the course is on me. And I felt as though the focus should be on everyone that’s in this game,’’ Jeter said. “When you play this game, you try to have respect for the game. You have respect for your players, both your teammates and your opponents.’’
In 2 1/2 months, he will be gone, with the Yankees expected to miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It has been a rough farewell season for Jeter but, as anticipated, he left a fond memory for the national audience. What’s next? He is serious about a career as a book publisher — hope Jeter Publishing has an e-book division — and he has written a novel for middle-school-aged kids called “The Contract,’’ to be released Sept. 23. His mission is “to develop a wide-ranging catalog of interesting books’’ that “teach children fundamental life lessons through engaging and fun content.’’ This is more than a heartwarming niche. Books aimed at young adults are among the biggest sellers in a struggling industry. That’s Jeter, shrewd as ever, countering his publishing interests with his investment in a men’s underwear line.
He says he doesn’t want to manage a team. I don’t see him as a general manager, either, though the Yankees might love to see him replace Brian Cashman someday. Where I do see Derek Jeter — like his business partner, Michael Jordan, the last one to tip his cap in the ad — is in the owner’s box. If he wants immediate ownership, he might get involved with the owners of the Rays, in Tampa Bay, where he lives. At the moment, the franchise has fractious lease issues in a bad ballpark on the wrong side of the bay. Might Jeter help get a ballpark built? Might he help save baseball in that area? Might it be his perfect entry into ownership?
For now, as he says, it’s difficult thinking too far ahead when there are games to play. Before his final All-Star appearance, he spoke to his teammates in the clubhouse and thanked them.
“We,’’ Mike Trout said, “should be thanking him.’’
Let’s hope, in 17 of 18 years, that we can have the same sort of precious night for him.
Hope and pray.