Though it’s a Tuesday night and the baseball season is just six weeks old, seats are hard to find at Sidelines, a sports bar deep in South Jersey. Men and women are draped in jerseys, and the comely bartenders smile from beneath their ball caps. All conversation stops when the reason they’ve gathered together appears on the high-definition TVs and digs into the dirt in the batter’s box. With his team holding a 3-1 lead in the third inning, he takes a big cut, slugging one deep to left field. He runs like someone’s chasing him and slides safely into second. Judging by the crowd’s reaction here, you’d think this was a playoff game. They’re still Phillies fans in Millville, but these folks are dressed in Los Angeles Angels gear and rooting for their hometown hero, Mike Trout.
“I can’t wait to see him charge the mound one of these days and give someone a real South Jersey ass-whuppin’,” says Tim Shannon, whose house is pockmarked with dents from when Trout would launch stones a hundred feet with a Wiffle ball bat. The guy hoping for a bench-clearing brawl is also Millville’s mayor.
Welcome to “Anaheim East,” as one patron calls it. Deep in the heart of Phillies territory, Millville is the only two-team baseball town in the Delaware Valley. That’s solely thanks to the historic ascendance of 21-year-old Trout, who redefined “phenom” last year. No one in the history of Major League Baseball put up numbers like he did in his rookie season: .326 batting average, 129 runs scored, 49 stolen bags and 30 home runs. He was named the American League Rookie of the Year and lost the AL Most Valuable Player title only because Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown in 45 years—and plenty of baseball analysts still think Trout deserved the MVP honors. All that from a kid barely out of high school.
Of course, the locals wish he was roaming the outfield at Citizens Bank Park, especially since the typical first pitch in L.A. is at 10 p.m. on the East Coast. “We don’t sleep,” says Bob Reed, whose son played with Trout in high school. “It’s doubleheaders every night. You watch the Phillies and Mikey.”
As Trout’s star has ascended, he’s shared a sliver of the national spotlight with the working-class town near the Jersey Shore that he still calls home. (The All-Star spent the winter in his parents’ basement.) Sleep deprivation aside, everywhere you turn in Millville, Trout’s impact is felt—in ways as big as the billboards he now graces, and in others that are much harder to perceive.