NEW YORK — As part of a campaign to sell tickets for the Phillies-Angels series that opens Friday night at Citizens Bank Park, a billboard on I-95 near the sports complex featured Bryce Harper and Shohei Ohtani, the reigning MVPs in the National and American Leagues.
Not pictured: Mike Trout.
It’s cool. Trout never minds being outside the spotlight. He would rather blend in with the crowd at an Eagles game than discuss his role in a silly fantasy football feud among major league players. (More on that in a bit.) In the offseason, he likes coming home to Millville, N.J., where he says he can go around town without being treated differently than anyone else. He prefers it that way.
“I enjoy it,” Trout said Wednesday before the Angels were rained out at Yankee Stadium. “I think I need it. There’s a lot of stuff that comes along with this game. Going back and hanging out with friends and family, even if it’s just going to get something at a local Wawa, it means a lot to me.”
But as he plays in Philadelphia this weekend for the first time since 2014, don’t mistake Jersey Mike for anything less than what he has been for most of the last decade: the best player in baseball.
Trout, 30, missed most of last season with a calf injury. But entering Thursday’s doubleheader in New York, he ranked second in the AL in slugging (.636), tied for third in homers (13), third in runs (37), tied for fourth in on-base percentage (.402), and fourth in total bases (103). He was batting .302 and had a 196 OPS+, meaning he was 96% better than league average.
Oh, and in case anyone doubted his value to the Angels, Trout had more wins above replacement (3.0) than any player in the majors. Ohtani is the modern day Babe Ruth, a hitting-and-pitching wonder. But Trout remains the Angels’ Batman.
“He’s quietly having an outstanding year,” manager Joe Maddon said. “People are talking like they always do, but you start extrapolating out again what he’s doing right now, by the end of the season, I’ll take it.”
The Angels have extracted as much as a team possibly can from one player without winning a playoff game. They were swept in three games by the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 division series and haven’t made it back, tying them with the Detroit Tigers for the third-longest active postseason drought behind the Seattle Mariners (2001) and, of course, the Phillies (2011).
In many ways, the Angels are the West Coast Phillies, with a star-laden and high-priced roster that is too top-heavy and riddled with holes to keep from caving in on itself year after year. Just as Harper chose to sign with the Phillies, Trout opted to stay with the Angels by agreeing to two contract extensions, including a 12-year, $426.5 million pact in 2019.
So, Trout need not have grown up 43 miles away to have a visceral appreciation for the torture of being a Phillies fan.
“Oh, for sure,” he said. “I went through it rooting for the Eagles, and then they won the Super Bowl. I know how passionate they are. They just want the team to win. That’s all I want to do here — win and get to the playoffs and see what happens.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Major League Baseball and its television partners, who would like nothing more than to feature the three-time AL MVP and greatest player of his generation on a national stage in October.
Maybe this will finally be the year. The Angels opened on a 24-13 roll that has been blunted by a six-game losing skid. Questions persist about their starting pitching, But Trout maintains it’s “just a little rough patch.”
Even so, Trout would rather discuss the Angels’ struggles than be stuck in the middle of a fantasy football-fueled feud between San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson and Cincinnati’s Tommy Pham. In case you missed it, Pham slapped Pederson across the face before a game last Friday — and got a three-game suspension — because Pederson had the gall to stash a healthy player on injured reserve and taunt Pham with a GIF in a group text.
Pham later revealed to The Athletic that Trout, of all people, is the steward of the league, which has a $10,000 entry fee. Pham called Trout “the worst commissioner in fantasy sports.”
“I talked to Tommy, I talked to Joc, everybody that was a part of it,” Trout said after initially saying he wouldn’t discuss it. “Just passionate about fantasy football. A lot of people put their hearts into it. I do, too. I lost that league.”
Will Trout resign from the league’s commissionership?
“I haven’t made that decision,” Trout said, mustering a smile. “Every commissioner I know always gets booed.”
Trout was eager to change the subject, but not before weighing in on his beloved Eagles’ offseason moves, as though he was “Mike From Millville” calling into sports-talk radio.
“I love what they did,” Trout said. “Obviously a big, big trade, getting [A.J.] Brown. We’ll see what they can do.”
Did Trout order a Brown jersey already?
“I did not,” he said. “I like the whole draft.”
And he’s eager to come home this weekend. Trout got a standing ovation before his first at-bat at Citizens Bank Park in 2014, a reception that he knows is rare for anyone in opposing colors.
“It was special going back there and playing and seeing how they treated me,” Trout said. “I know how passionate they are. When the schedule came out, these are the three games that I circled. I love coming back and seeing everybody.”
Eight years since his last visit, he’s still the best player in the sport.