This week, we saw footage of Mike Trout being unkind to a golf ball. He sent it into near-earth orbit with ease as a crowd of cackling onlookers has the only reasonable reaction. If he were a superstar with superstar exposure, this would have been quite the branding opportunity for Topgolf. Instead, it became an opportunity for the baseball world to debate the greatness of his feat.
Mike Trout hitting rockets isn’t exclusive to the baseball field. pic.twitter.com/tuEyIzxqQ5
— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) March 2, 2020
What did he really do, some asked. Anything more than what a skilled golfer could have done? And shouldn’t Mike Trout be able to do that? Why would we be surprised that he could? Enjoying something, even an 18-second clip of a dude whacking a ball, is passé, and on a more vibrant, upbeat planet, we would have absorbed the footage, whistled quietly, and moved onto the various other 18-second segments that would make up our day. Maybe it’s the well-earned cynicism of today’s baseball fan or the sea of writers looking for topics [waves aggressively at you], but that’s not how we do things anymore.
Other players have wielded a golf club with lesser results. Vince Coleman once bashed Dwight Gooden in the shoulder blade while practicing his swing in the Mets clubhouse. Ted Williams agreed to and easily lost a driving contest with track star and golf champ Babe Didrikson Zaharias in 1948. Golf has met baseball on its own turf, too; Sam Snead whacked a drive over the 89-foot scoreboard from home plate at Wrigley Field in 1951 as part of an Opening Day celebration.
So perhaps our nerves are a bit worn down from seeing shows of monstrous golf strength and/or incidental Met-on-Met violence over the years. But mostly what it might be is the utter normalization of Mike Trout’s massive talent.
Trout’s drive wasn’t normal to the dozen or so other Mike Trouts reacting to it in the video, all of whom were presumably born at the Trout Hatchery cloning facility in Millville. But Joe Posnanski, writing a series of essays about the best players of all time for one hundred straight days, recently suggested that, in regards to Trout, we could simply be “bored of greatness.”
“See him do it every single year and what’s left to be excited about? We all know it shouldn’t be that way, but we can’t help ourselves. We’re human. How many gorgeous sunrises do we watch, anyway? We get bored, even with greatness.”
And yeah, we have all the excuses. East coast fans don’t watch him a lot, he’s barely ever been on the national stage in the playoffs, and he’s famously disinterested in fame. MLB seems especially driven this spring to keep anyone from watching the sport that should, if they’re doing it right, probably make up the majority of their broadcast schedule. But it’s not Trout’s fault we are drawn so much more easily to violent drama on the field, as Astros players step into less of a batter’s box and more of a shooting gallery this spring, or painful ignorance off of it, as the sport of baseball tries ravenously to eat its own head.
It’s not really his fault at all if his talent has simply been absorbed as part of the everyday game. No just or reasonable god would allow this, either. That’s why I blame the Angels.
Trout’s not wearing his Angels uniform in the clip, but how often do you really imagine him in it, anyway? Any time I picture him, he’s wearing jeans and an Eagles hoodie. Maybe a rubber dog mask. The only team he’s ever played for and the team with whom he signed a 12-year extension has failed in every attempt to turn him into the nucleus of a postseason powerhouse, or even some years, a watchable team.
How hard is it to build around the best player in the world? How hard is it to want to? There have been other good players on the Angels since 2011, and we all want to see what Shohei Ohtani’s final form looks like, but it’s not unfair to suggest that Anaheim has not been up to par in assembling a winner around Trout.
It was an act of balance that he landed in Anaheim; a place where he’d be left alone to elevate a stagnant franchise to a series of 85ish-win seasons. Can you imagine him in New York or Boston or Philadelphia, places where he’d have a weekly call-in segment to a sports radio show so that a host could tell him that he wasn’t doing enough to help the team win?
In New York we’d have had another Great Yankees Player to never appreciate quite enough and then eventually spend a full 162-game schedule saying goodbye to as every franchise handed him a clock radio or a homemade rocking chair. In Boston, he’d have been traded to the Dodgers by now. In Philadelphia, he’d have retired to try out for the Eagles’ practice squad.
So maybe it’s good he’s the lowest profile best player of all time of all time. Because otherwise we’d probably hate him.
The solution is, of course, for the Angels to submit to us new footage every week of Trout performing feats of strength across every sport. Punting a football out of the stadium. Dunking over a mail truck. Blasting an opponent’s croquet ball off the course and flipping his mallet in the air as some Victorian-era aristocrats belligerently fan themselves.
Instead, we just look at him like a museum exhibit. Wondrous, curious, and thought-provoking; but we know it’ll always be there, so we only really go see it when people are visiting or when it occasionally makes the news.
We stopped comparing Trout to modern players years ago, correctly putting him alongside those who were broadcast almost exclusively in black-and-white, and the talents of those historic contemporaries had to have become normal to their fans as well. In early March 60 years ago, the Yankees weren’t bored by Mickey Mantle, but they were certainly open to negotiating about just how incredible he was, if only in an attempt to try and pay him less.
Mantle was standing at the edge of an $8,000-wide gap across from the Yankees. Talk of a holdout had begun as Mantle resisted the call to Florida for spring training, hesitant to take the 20% salary cut the Yankees were offering him.
He’d been an All-Star and received MVP votes in 1959, but the team didn’t like the dip in his slash line (an unacceptable .285/.390/.514), or that he had led the league in strikeouts for the second of three consecutive years. Even so, Mantle’s numbers taking a dip were still better than mostly everyone else on the team, including Yogi Berra, and Mantle played in 144 games that season, easily the most on the roster.
Mantle went golfing on occasion, too. And it’s not on video, but he probably could have crunched one into the dark, Trout-style:
“The seconds tick, tick, tick. Suddenly, Mantle tenses, as if a chest-high fastball has entered his vision. Every muscle in his body begins to twitch. The club swings back. The great Mickey Mantle erupts.
‘It seemed a lot farther than 358 yards,’ remembers [Mantle’s friend] about Mantle’s blast from the first tee that day, a distance not reached on the hole even by Tiger Woods and the other big hitters on Tour during last year’s PGA Championship.”
And that’s what’s awesome about Mike Trout slapping a golf ball into a gopher hole seven miles away: That that’s what it seemed like happened.
In reality, sure, his drive was within the human scope of physical ability. Trout is a human being, after all. But legends are built up so high that they go beyond our full understanding, and in both Mantle and Trout’s cases, there was a lack of exposure that contributes to their mysticism: Mantle, playing ball (and golf) in an age in which not everything was broadcast into our faces 100% of the time; and Trout, loving life on the west coast, away from the scalding spotlight and obnoxious questions of the mainstream. Why doesn’t he want us to be a part of his experience? Probably because he doesn’t do that and people still drum-up 1,500 words on him hitting a golf ball.
In about a month, Trout will be back on the diamond, doing incredible things that will not be normal. Maybe in 10 years, when he’s in the last stage of his contract extension, some team will release footage of their elite young player in his prime setting a new record on a zero gravity obstacle course on the moon. Maybe we’ll see it and be unimpressed because the kid has been shattering lunar sports records for a few years now. And maybe a not-even-40-yet Trout will see it, have a reasonable reaction and whisper “that was awesome” to himself, and then easily lace a ball down the line for extra bases.
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.