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Philadelphia Phillies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Phillies Mike Trout fell in love with did not love him back

How appealing did the Phillies really make themselves while Mike Trout was growing up watching them?

You are born a summer child, the sun in your eyes. You grow up with a tall yellow bat in your hands, chasing wiffle balls into corn fields while the cicadas scream. The local nine play 40 miles from your town in a concrete monument to baseball, and they quickly become your idols.

As you get older, you surpass them in skill and start a ball playing career of your own on the other side of the country. And as you climb to the top of the sport, the rumor becomes that, with the years rapidly passing, you want nothing more than to come home and play for the local nine you grew up watching.

But you think back to those summer birthdays of your adolescent, grass-stained years, and how that team—your favorite team—lost on almost everyone one of them. You consider how the rosters were rarely competitive, filled out with new strangers every year, and the most promising stars were often chased out of town.

And you wonder now, as the league presumes your desires, if every birthday was just another reason not to come home.

***

Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. He is also from Millville, New Jersey. He puts the Eagles before his own emotional well being. And he’s going to be a free agent in 2021.

There’s not much to go on as far as where Mike Trout will sign in that near-distant future. But that hasn’t stopped amateur clairvoyants from assuming that his childhood’s geographic proximity to Citizens Bank Park, as well as his reserved seat at Eagles games, is a two-part hint at his inevitable arrival in Philadelphia International Airport, with John Clark of NBC Sports Philly waiting patiently by the luggage carousal, microphone in hand.

Today’s MLB free agent market is of course dominated by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and the Phillies are the only team consistently listed as a contender to sign both. Having the money, need, and willingness to sign the two biggest megastar free agents of a generation, and then not doing it, would require a point-by-point breakdown from John Middleton on what exactly he was doing while he was getting fans riled up all winter. And yet, some have searched for logic in the Phillies not signing either of them, often landing on the idea that if the Phillies don’t sign Harper or Machado, then they’re playing the long game, and saving their money for when the hometown hero Trout becomes an option in three years.

Putting aside the needlessness of sitting out this year’s pretty important off-season, as well as the risk that a plan will stay intact over the course of two plus years, the winking hints that Trout, with just about any team as an option, will choose Philadelphia in 2021 because it makes the most narrative sense, are everywhere.

For instance, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman mentions offhandedly that Trout had been a Phillies fan growing up, as though that’s evidence that he, as an adult professional athlete, maintains a serious itch to play for them. And perhaps he has. Trout’s childlike enthusiasm for baseball has continued into adulthood, as evidenced in this story from his father about his jubilation over the Phillies signing Roy Halladay, even though Trout was an Angels prospect at the time.

This has been a prevailing sentiment for years now: That when the time comes, Trout will leave the anonymity of Anaheim and come home to Philadelphia.

But why would he?

It is fair to assume that there was, at some point, an end to Trout’s Phillies fandom. Not just because he is a member of a different team, but because he lives his life behind the curtain of Major League Baseball; there’s less magic to it now, and the Phillies aren’t anything special, they’re just 25 of his colleagues at a different branch. By 2012, when he became an established co-worker of all major leaguers, the Phillies were just another team of players doing what he did every day, only not as well, and with Laynce Nix in the lineup.

Besides, he was born in 1991 and he grew up rooting for the Phillies. Think about how terrible of an experience that was. As a summer child, Trout’s childhood birthday parties were held during the height of baseball season, on August 7. Consider how many times the Phillies ruined that experience for him; how they squashed that classic Trout enthusiasm by putting Bobby Munoz or Robert Person on the mound.

So let’s take a look at what Mike Trout—who grew up a Phillies fan, remember—watched his favorite team do on his birthday while he was growing up:

Not cognizant

  • August 7, 1991: Mike Trout is born. Wes Chamberlain hits an RBI single to give the Phillies a walk-off, extra inning win, their eighth of a 13-game win streak.
  • August 7, 1992: Lenny Dykstra and Ricky Jordan both homer in a 3-1 win saved by Mitch Williams.
  • August 7, 1993: Once more, the Phillies win in extras on Mike Trout’s birthday, this time solely because of Darren Daulton, who crushes a three-run shot early, only to have to go and get the lead back after Tyler Green walks in multiple runs, which Dutch does, hitting another home run, only for Gary Sheffield to tie the game and necessitate a Dave Hollins RBI single in the tenth.
  • August 7, 1994: Five days before baseball shuts down entirely, Mike Trout turns three, and Phillies starter Bobby Munoz gets picked apart by Expos in a 6-4 loss.

He’s aware of what’s happening now

  • August 7, 1995: No game scheduled. The Phillies are given a day to lick their wounds after being ritualistically slaughtered for an eight-game losing streak, and a stretch in which they’d drop 15 of 18. The day before, they lost both games of a doubleheader in Cincinnati.
  • August 7, 1996: It’s Bobby Munoz on the mound again. Facing a Braves team from the ‘90s, does he make it out of the third inning? He does not, and the Braves stomp the Phillies into the infield dirt, 14-1. It is the most runs the Phillies give up all season long, and they are now 20 games under .500.
  • August 7, 1997: After winning four games in June, the Phillies are [howling scream from the abyss instead of a number] games out of first place and for some reason still allowed on the field. They pulled this one out, though: An eleven-inning nail-biter won by a Rex Hudler walk-off single. The victory was part of a 17-10 August for the Phillies that said, “We’re back, baby!” No one listened, and they were not back.

These are the formative years

  • August 7, 1998: Randy Johnson. Phillies lose 9-0.
  • August 7, 1999: Helpless against Andy Benes of the D-Backs, the Phillies strike out ten times and lose 8-2.
  • August 7, 2000: In Desi Relaford’s long-awaited return to Philadelphia with the Padres, Relaford gets the last laugh as Robert Person buckles under the mighty San Diego offense.
  • August 7, 2001: In a rematch of The Relaford Game, the Phillies once again face the Padres on Trout’s birthday, only without Desi Relaford this time, who was left on waivers and spirited away in the night by a haunted street carnival representing the New York Mets. Brandon Duckworth survives a three-run Mark Kotsay bomb and the Phillies win, 7-3.
  • August 7, 2002: Again, the Padres. The Phillies turn to Vicente Padilla to get the job done and then turn away from him when he gives up ten hits and five runs in five innings.
  • August 7, 2003: Holding a 3-1 lead for about four minutes, the Rockies tie it up and take the lead off Kevin Millwood. In the final two innings, the Phillies offense can muster no more than a Tyler Houston single in a 4-3 loss.

Oh god he’s a teenager

  • August 7, 2004: Starter Paul Abbott allows nine walks and five hits in five and two thirds and the Phillies very gradually lose to the Dodgers, 6-3.
  • August 7, 2005: All the Brewers need is a two-run Rickie Weeks double in the third to beat the Phillies, who suffer a four-hit shut-out, striking out nine times against Milwaukee starter Tomo Ohka at home.
  • August 7, 2006: The Phillies throw a five-run fit at the center of a 9-6 win over the Braves. Arthur Rhodes pitches in this game. For the Phillies. In all the excitement, Mike Trout is thinking only about his learner’s permit.
  • August 7, 2007: Jamie Moyer starts and J.D. Durbin finishes a brutal 11-1 gutting of the Marlins.
  • August 7, 2008: Another four-hit shut-out (This time against the Marlins). Another Arthur Rhodes appearance (This time for the Marlins). Phillies lose 3-0.

There’s a legal adult watching

  • August 7, 2009: In an attempt not to repeat last year’s 3-0 loss to the Marlins, Ben Francisco hits a two-run shot in the seventh to make it 3-2 after the powerful Florida triumvirate of Nick Johnson, Dan Uggla, and Cody Ross have built the Marlins’ lead. Nothing else happens. The Phillies lose.
  • August 7, 2010: A Johan Santana-Cole Hamels pitchers’ duel in South Philly is won for the Mets by a Jeff Francoeur solo shot.
  • August 7, 2011: A month after Mike Trout’s big league debut in Anaheim, a Tim Lincecum-Roy Oswalt pitchers’ duel in the Bay Area is won by a pair of Jeff Keppinger/Orlando Cabrera sac flies.

The Phillies have gone 7-13 on Mike Trout’s birthday from the day he was born until the year he made his big league debut. Of course, they did win a World Series in there and embark on one of the most glorious five-year runs in franchise history with a roster including Chase Utley, a player Trout worshiped, but he was fully grown by then. The pain of watching the Phillies’ mid nineties to early aughts teams was already there, living inside him, as it lives inside of all of us. And Chase Utley doesn’t work here anymore.

Sure, Trout loves—and would play for—the Eagles, but that’s because football is still football; it’s not the job he’s been doing for six years, just in a different uniform. And he’s well aware of what it’s like around here; how quickly he’d be judged for not pulling his weight if he succumbed to injury or took a play off.

It may be a town he loves, but it’s not a town he’s from. Philadelphia is the closest big league baseball market to Millville, NJ, but there’s still a discernible difference between the two, as a recent piece by Jayson Stark confirms:

But the tug of playing for his hometown team, in front of his family and lifelong pals, could be a powerful magnetic force – assuming the dollars on the check are large enough.

“You know, Mike doesn’t consider himself to be from Philly,” one longtime friend reminded us. “Mike considers himself to be from Millville. He’s all about Millville. But he does love Philly.”

No one is writing about Mike Trout this winter with much of an idea as to what he’ll do. But one of the things we do know was that he grew up a Philadelphia sports fan. And what everyone seems to be forgetting is how much of a reason that is for him to stay away.

The Phillies, when Trout was at his most vulnerable, quite often gave him a yearly reminder of how painful it is to watch a Philadelphia sports team, let alone play for them. Combine that with all the scrutiny and coverage of a big market team in the northeast, the blistering, fickle weather, the judgments screamed from car radios and mused about in columns; and maybe Southern California, the land of eternal summers, is the place Trout now calls home.

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