Sports column: Mike Trout – big catch, or one who got away?
Here he comes, just at the start, and he’s a beauty.
I wish it were the old days, when baseball in August was just heating up, prelude to the pennant run and the Series, and not a concession to the colossus that is football these days.
What a great baseball season in the Majors we have, this summer.
Sure, the Red Sox are down — how can they not be, with all those injuries: 26 players on the “disabled list” this summer, the most of any team in the last 25 years. Now, Middlebrooks.
But the Pirates are up, after 19 consecutive losing seasons. Can they hold on, make the playoffs?
There is no better story this year than Mike Trout, the marvelously talented Angels outfielder. He will quite possibly be selected the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the American League, a double achieved only twice before, by Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki (2002).
Trout’s leading the National League in batting with a .343 average and in stolen bases, with 39. He has 24 homers, and he just turned 21 two weeks ago!
What will happen to Mike Trout? We see him now at the glorious beginning of his career. Will he go on to a grand success — or will he crash and burn, beset by injuries or fateful fall?
The athlete’s career is a race against time. He can take nothing for granted. In the blink of any eye, it’s over. The athlete is a shooting star.
Young at 25, he’s a grizzled vet by 30, and old at 35, when the rest of us are just starting out.
Will he be Ted Williams, who also came up at age 20, and was called “the Kid”? All he did in his first season, 1939, was hit 31 homers, drive in 145 runners and bat .321. He went on to be considered the greatest hitter in the game, ever.
Another “Kid,” Ken Griffey Jr. came to the Majors at 19 in 1989 and hit 16 home runs in his first year. The next season he batted .300 and hit 22 homers. He enjoyed an extraordinary 22-year career, despite injuries, and is now three years from an inevitable Hall of Fame induction.
Maybe the best kid hitter of all time was a Red Sox player who started in the outfield for the big club in 1964, a 19-year-old local boy from St. Mary’s High in Lynn. He hit 24 homers that first year. The following season, 20 years old, he led the American League in home runs with 32.
That was “Tony C,” Tony Conigliaro, who hit 100 homers by the age of 22. Only Hall of Famer Mel Ott got to 100 faster (he hit 42 homers in 1929 at age 20!).
Tony C is not in the Hall of Fame. In August 1967, he was hit in the face with a pitched ball and desperately injured. He missed a year, came back and had a couple of pretty good seasons, but was never the same. He suffered a terrible stroke in 1982, remained in a vegetative state for eight years before dying at age 45.
Twenty-year-old Kerry Wood of the Cubs, in the fifth start of his major league career, struck out 20 batters (one hit, no walks) in a single nine-inning game in 1998. By the end of that first summer, he had a sore arm, underwent surgery the next year, and never realized his early promise.
The only other pitcher to equal his age in strikeouts in a game was the great Bob Feller. In 1937 he struck out 17 batters in a game when he was only 17, and in his second year in the Majors. I would vote for Feller as the preeminent prodigy in baseball’s long history. He had over 100 wins for the Indians by age 22.
In December 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, Feller enlisted in the Navy and served with distinction as a gunnery captain on the battleship USS Alabama in the South Pacific and North Atlantic.
Feller lost most of four years, 1942 to 1946, to the military, in the prime of his career and in the bloom of youth, ages 22-26.
In the Negro leagues, Roy Campanella, “Campy,” Dodger catcher, three times the MVP in the National League after integration, was playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants at 16 (1938), and Willie Mays, the “Say-Hey Kid,” by many estimates the greatest baseball player of all-time, was also playing at 16, for the Birmingham Black Barons (1947).
Finally, we have the cautionary tale of the Mets pair of gold dust twins, Dwight Gooden, who won 17 games as a 19-year-old in 1984 (and 24 the next year) and Darryl Strawberry who hit 29 homers at 21 (1983).
It sure looked like they were on the express to Cooperstown, as talented players as any who ever drew on the raiment of ballplayer, but they were derailed by temptation and weakness.
So what about young Mike Trout, the latest prodigy — what does his fast start in the big leagues foretell?
Stay tuned. Time will tell.
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