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Mike Trout: Baseball's Best, Without the Brand

The New York Times logo The New York Times 6 days ago By TYLER KEPNER

Teammates celebrated with Trout after he scored in a game against Oakland last month.

Teammates celebrated with Trout after he scored in a game against Oakland last month.
© Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was Mike Trout bobblehead night at Angel Stadium on Tuesday, but if you missed it, don’t worry. There are three more on the Angels’ schedule. Trout’s face appears on billboards throughout greater Los Angeles, and you can also find him pitching sandwiches, sports drinks, SuperPretzels and shoes. A recent Twitter post, to 2.25 million followers, promoted a video-game app he endorses.

And yet …

Stop.

There should be no “but,” no qualifier, not when it comes to the best player in baseball. Trout, whose Angels will start a three-game series with the Mets at Citi Field on Friday, is everything good about his sport. He plays with a joyous abandon, explosively and elegantly. He is engaged to his high school sweetheart, Jessica Cox, and still lives in Millville, N.J., where he was raised. He signs lots of autographs and is unfailingly cordial. Fame does not faze him.

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“It makes you feel good when people come up to you,” Trout said Tuesday in an interview by his locker before batting practice. “You want to have your privacy, have your own time away from the field. But I’ve always told myself if you don’t get recognized, that means you’re not doing anything.”

On the field, yet again, Trout is doing absolutely everything. He has played five full seasons, each time finishing first or second in voting for the American League most valuable player. This year may be his best yet: Trout, a center fielder, leads the league in on-base percentage (.451) and slugging percentage (.752), while hitting .341 with 13 homers and eight steals.

When he arrived in New York, he had homered in five of his last six games, and this week he became the youngest player in major league history to reach 150 home runs and 150 stolen bases. Trout has more wins above replacement, already, than the Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett, Jim Rice, Lou Brock and many more. And he is only 25.

“What he does on a daily basis, it’s just awesome to watch and be a part of,” Angels starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker said. “There’s always something brand-new he’s done in baseball that no one’s ever done.”

Trout is LeBron James in spikes, Tom Brady out of shoulder pads, minus their championship rings. Also missing is something that barely matters to Trout but is so important to other athletes in his echelon: a brand.

For all the products he endorses, Trout has passed on many other opportunities. For all his success in the All-Star Game (two M.V.P. awards), he has never taken part in a home run derby or a World Baseball Classic. For all his Twitter followers (more than any other baseball player has), he does not use the platform to pontificate on the issues of the day, beyond the doings of his beloved Philadelphia Eagles.

“There’s some endorsements you have to do, but for me, I try to minimize it,” Trout said. “During the off-season, I try to get my mind off baseball as much as I can. You don’t need those endorsements and photo shoots; it kind of brings it back. Maybe down the road I’ll get more into it, but right now, I’m just a baseball player. I come to the ballpark, try to get better each and every day and help the team win.”

That is the essence of Trout’s approach to his fame: less an image-making strategy than a representation of his values at this stage of his life. His father, Jeff, was a minor league player, and Trout seems to intuitively understand the sanctity of the daily grind, the need to prepare, play hard, stay humble and move on quickly to the next day.

Trout has no visible tattoos, no showy hairstyle, no distinctive way of wearing his uniform. Nothing cries out for attention, except his extraordinary play.

“We look at it like this: Whatever he’s doing, it’s working,” said Craig Landis, Trout’s agent. “I have high school and Little League coaches approach me all the time: ‘We tell our guys to watch Mike Trout and carry themselves like him.’ Part of that is that he’s not out there being self-promotive. He doesn’t worry about that.”

Worldwide acclaim, then, is not a priority. But even within Major League Baseball, nine players ranked above Trout in jersey sales last year. Various polls show James, Brady, and numerous soccer players have far more widespread appeal than any baseball player.

Yet shouldn’t once-in-a-generation baseball skills and a wholesome personality be enough to put Trout in that class?

“You would think,” Angels infielder Danny Espinosa said. “I don’t know if people want drama or something, but I don’t think Mike’s ever going to bring that to you. He plays the game with a smile on his face.”

That smile, said Todd Frazier, the Chicago White Sox third baseman, is Trout’s version of swagger. “As cheesy as that sounds,” said Frazier, another New Jersey native who has been friends with Trout for years.

Trout, he said, has an endearing charisma that draws in opponents. He is impossible not to like.

“He’s rounding third, he got out, and he’s looking at me smiling,” Frazier said. “I don’t know what about, he’s just freaking smiling. You can’t not smile back. That’s just how he rubs off on you.”

Frazier’s favorite player as a teenager was Manny Ramirez, a flamboyant character who produced like Trout on the field but was his opposite in almost every other way. Would a player like Trout have appealed to the young Frazier? Maybe not, he said.

“He’s a quiet kid, he’ll do anything for you, and he doesn’t expect anything out of anybody,” said Frazier, who pivoted back to Ramirez’s recent contract with an independent team in Japan. “You hear the deal Manny got over there? All the sushi he wants, a free car and a guy to drive it!

“I can’t see Mike asking for that,” Frazier continued. “If he did, I don’t think anybody would say boo, because he deserves it. But it’s different.”

Trout’s contract is not an issue. He is very well paid, but not overly so, given his talent, with a six-year, $144.5 million deal that ties him to the Angels through 2020. He signed it in 2014, just before he won the first of his two M.V.P. awards. (The other was last season.) Washington’s Bryce Harper, the National League’s answer to Trout, can be a free agent after next season, and his future team and price tag are regular sources of intrigue and debate.

Harper, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, has been famous longer than Trout. He plays — and sometimes speaks — with an edge. Espinosa, a friend and former National, said it was hard to compare the stars. “As far as personality,” he said, “they’re completely different people.”

Espinosa also pointed to the differences in their markets.

“We get five to 10 media people in the clubhouse; playing in D.C., you get 30,” Espinosa said. He later added: “Everybody’s awake for the East Coast games. You don’t get to watch Mike Trout if you’re an East Coast kid. That’s just how it is.”

It is true, of course, that many Angels games start after 10 p.m., Eastern time. ESPN does not help Trout’s exposure, either; no Angels games are currently scheduled for its “Sunday Night Baseball” showcase this season.

But the TV explanation goes only so far. A generation ago — long before every fan could watch highlights on a cellphone — a young Ken Griffey Jr. played for a more obscure West Coast team, the Seattle Mariners, and was essentially ubiquitous.

Griffey, whose father, Ken Sr., was still playing in the majors when he debuted, had a chocolate bar named for him; appeared on the first card ever produced by Upper Deck, at the height of the baseball card craze; guest starred on “The Simpsons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”; and had his own video game with Nintendo, which owned the Mariners.

“He kind of crossed over into pop culture,” Brian Goldberg, Griffey’s agent, said. “He had some swag. He was cool without trying to be.”

Trout, the first player since Griffey to have a signature shoe with Nike, is squarely in his class on the field. On Baseball-Reference.com’s list of players statistically similar to Trout at the same age, Griffey ranks second, between Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron. Mantle and Aaron, though, both won the World Series by the time they were 25 — as did Derek Jeter, perhaps baseball’s last true crossover star.

The Angels, whose only title came in 2002, have not given Trout the same chance. They finished at 74-88 last season, entered the weekend one game over .500 and have reached the playoffs just once with Trout, in 2014. They were swept by Kansas City in the first round, as Trout went 1 for 12 at the plate.

Trout said he rarely thought about that series; it went by so fast. His better postseason memory is from Oct. 29, 2008, when he was a senior in high school. He tailgated with friends outside Citizens Bank Park the night the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

“The city, it was all about baseball when they won in ’08,” Trout said. “Just as a fan, seeing the city come together and cheering them on — as a baseball player, you want to be in those shoes. You want to be on the field celebrating.”

Given his status in the game, Trout could be excused if he were to publicly express impatience with the Angels, or if he were to try using his clout to cajole them into making some roster upgrades. The Angels have just three other players who are signed past 2018: designated hitter Albert Pujols, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and outfielder Kole Calhoun.

The general manager, Billy Eppler, said the Angels, as a big-market team, have the resources to compete for free agents. But to win consistently, he said, the team — which has a low-rated farm system — must also commit to building from within, growing more players to complement Trout.

“When we do things via trade or free agency, the day-to-day transactions, he has a general enthusiasm about those things,” Eppler said. “But as far as opining or asking proactively? No, he doesn’t do anything like that.”

The Angels’ race to maximize the prime of today’s Aaron or Mantle could be a much bigger story — if a different type of person were at the center of it. In Trout, baseball and the Angels have a tranquil oasis where there could be a storm.

“If you’re edgy or controversial, you run the risk of alienating fans,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing executive who has never worked with Trout. “Is that worth doing or not?”

For Trout, of course, the answer is no. His job is to play baseball, which he does better than everyone else. He is not the most recognized or popular athlete on the planet, but he also has no detractors. That counts for something.

Who needs a brand when life is this good?

“If you were Mike Trout,” asked Landis, his agent, “would you really wake up in the morning and say, ‘I’ve got to start changing things’?”

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