Millville, N.J. Loves Mike Trout

Who cares if he now plays for the Los Angeles Angels? In this working-class town near the Jersey shore, the blue-collar Mike Trout is not only the best young athlete in baseball—he's a hometown hero.

Everyone here has a Trout story. Unlike most fish tales, these don’t need much embellishment, considering the legendary status that Trouty or Mikey, as he’s variously known, has already achieved. Mayor Shannon’s office at the end of Millville’s business district could double as a memorabilia shop, and he has more Trout stories than most in town. At age 11, the slugger was already talented enough to play with older boys. After hitting his first home run against them, he went home and ran next door to Shannon’s house with the ball in hand.

“You’re my biggest fan,” Trout said. “I want you to have it.”

“Mikey, I can’t take this.”

“That’s okay,” the kid told him. “I’m gonna hit some more.” That ball, autographed the night Trout was drafted by the Angels seven years later, sits on Shannon’s desk.

The youngest of three, Trout was raised by his parents, Jeff and Debbie, who both worked for the school district. His natural swing comes from his father, who still holds hitting records at the University of Delaware and played minor-league ball for the Twins under Charlie Manuel. (A friend recently told the elder Trout that Manuel said he’s still one of the best hitters he’s ever coached. “If that’s true,” Jeff said, “I made up for it as a lousy fielder.”) Parents knew to move their cars from the Little League outfield parking lot when Mike Trout was in the lineup, lest they risk smashed windshields. By the time he graduated from Millville High School, Trout had set the single-season South Jersey record for home runs.

Despite his obvious talent, no one expected him to dominate in the majors so quickly. But today he’s the definition of a five-tool player: hits for both average and power, a blur on the base paths, has a cannon arm and laser-guided defensive instincts. Trout is often compared to Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals enfant terrible who was also a rookie last year. Their games are similar, but outside the lines, the young stars couldn’t be more different. Harper was known in the minor leagues for wearing eye-black streaked across his face and showing up pitchers; he’s a hothead and a hot dog. Trout is all business—Ch­arlie Hustle version 2.0, with The Dude’s offense and Garry Maddox’s acrobatics in the outfield. Best of all, he does it with a smile on his face and zero ego. If there was a factory cranking out the kind of blue-collar athletes Philly fans worship, Trout would be the prototype.

One downside to the Phillies winning the World Series in 2008 was that the team’s success pushed it out of the Trout derby. (Though he lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Phils made their first selection at 75.) As the window for success closes on the Manuel era, a guy like Trout would be the perfect solution for an abysmal lineup that lacks pop. Trout in a Phillies uniform is a dream that even he had trouble waking up from; in 2009, after he’d already become an Angel, he yelled to his father from his bedroom, “We got Roy Halladay!”

As much as the Phillies need a Mike Trout, so does his hometown. Shannon gives me a tour of Millville in his Dodge Ram truck, with the radio set to country music and a pack of Marlboros stashed in the center console. The goateed six-foot-two mayor played football for the Millville High Thunderbolts in the ’70s, and despite his back-slapping friendliness, he looks like he’d still be a menace on the gridiron. Folks here take a certain pride in calling themselves “Millbillies,” and Shannon smiles at the term. “Down here, you brake for John Deere,” he says with a megaphone-loud laugh. I learned he wasn’t kidding when he painted Millville as a world apart. When I told one of the sports-bar patrons that until Trout came along, the last true superstar athlete from South Jersey was Willingboro’s Carl Lewis, she recoiled. “Anything north of Millville,” she said, “is North Jersey.”

Shannon leads me from High Street, the town’s main drag that’s nearly full of shops and anchored by a newly rebuilt $8.5 million theater, to a few blocks away, where the scenery changes for the worse. The first dominoes in Millville’s decline tipped over when the glass factories shut their doors decades ago and Route 55 diverted Shore traffic; a town of industry and tourism lost much of both. Today, unemployment is 12 percent, more than four points above the national rate. On 2nd Street, houses that served as offices for doctors and lawyers when Shannon grew up are now boarded. “As much as we love this city,” he says, “we have our problems.”

Sports have long served as Millville’s escape. The evidence hangs on the walls at Sidelines, where the jerseys of elite high-school athletes are framed, and inside the Thunderbolt Club on 8th Street, where the Trouts and the Shannons celebrated the night Mike was drafted. “It may sound corny,” Shannon tells me, “but all the way down to t-ball, you’re working to become a ’Bolt.”

That frenzy has transferred itself to Millville’s devotion to Trout. A fleet of sold-out buses is headed to the Bronx to watch the Angels play the Yankees in August. A local radio station was granted rights to broadcast Angels games live. Fans buy the MLB’s television pass so they can record Trout’s games and watch his spectacular catches at a reasonable hour the next day. When the mayor’s 88-year-old mother spent a week in the hospital, one of her first questions to the staff there was whether they had the MLB package. The answer was no. Shannon’s wife Leslie describes her reaction: “She wanted to leave. She was pissed.”

The love from his hometown is mutual. Trout has donated $20,000 and funneled another $10,000 from one of his endorsement sponsors to his high-school ball field for a makeover and a new moniker—Mike Trout Field. Shannon stops here to show me where Trout would club mammoth home runs, then swear he didn’t get all of the ball. These days, Trout’s hometown buddies still text him after he goes deep for the Angels, asking “Did you get it?” (The answer is always no.)

As much as Trout’s influence is still felt here, there’s a sense he’s beginning to drift, inevitably, as the currents of fame carry him to places far beyond anyone’s definition of South Jersey. “We’ve watched him play more games as an Angel than when he played here,” says Trout’s high-school coach, Roy Hallenbeck, as his team prepares for an afternoon showdown with visiting Hammonton. Hallenbeck speaks with a sense of pride and awe. “It’s hard to picture him here.”