History will duly note that the first installment of the Mike Trout and Bryce Harper Show aired live on April 28, 2012. The Trout portion of the program unfolded in nondescript fashion, with an 0-for-4 afternoon in Cleveland. The Harper segment began more promisingly, with an eye-opening throw from left field and a double over Matt Kemp's head in full view of Vin Scully, Mom, Dad and 54,240 other enthralled patrons at Dodger Stadium.
Eleven months, two Rookie of the Year Awards and 430,000 combined Twitter followers since they arrived in the major leagues for good on the same day, baseball's designated wunderkinds are ready to pick up the storyline where it left off in October. If things play out according to plan, we'll be writing, talking and obsessing over them as a dual entity for at least the next 15 years.
Harper, fresh off a hard winter of preparation in his Dick's Sporting Goods garb, is hitting .431 in the Grapefruit League with the Washington Nationals. Trout, cheery new pitchman for the Subway sandwich chain, is batting .383 in the Cactus League for the Los Angeles Angels. The quest for greatness has no "pause" button, even when the games mean little and everyone starts fresh on Opening Day.
The signs of change and growth are subtle, yet readily apparent. Harper seems more relaxed in the box and more comfortable taking the outside pitch to the opposite field. He looks stronger, more authoritative and ever-so-slightly more like a young Larry Walker. Inspired by veteran teammate Jayson Werth, he also has a nice-looking beard for a 20-year-old.
Trout was the focus of a mini-drama early in camp when he showed up weighing 241 pounds, or 10 to 15 more pounds than he weighed last season. But Angels manager Mike Scioscia immediately downplayed the story, and Trout put the debate to rest in an early spring game against Oakland, stretching a single into a double, advancing to third on a grounder to shortstop, beating out an infield hit and stealing a base. So much for the theory that the new, bulked-up Millville Meteor (that's one of his nicknames since he went to high school in Millville, N.J.) might have lost a step.
It's not easy being a budding superstar these days, with wall-to-wall expectations borne of so much media coverage and the pressure to produce for everybody's fantasy league team. But Trout and Harper do it in a way that impresses fans, scouts, front-office people, opposing managers, teammates, beat writers and veteran players who are conditioned to be skeptical about the Next Big Thing.
Cleveland DH Jason Giambi signed his first professional contract with the Oakland A's in July 1992 when Trout was 11 months old and Sheri Harper was entering her final trimester with Bryce. Giambi has been around long enough to cut through the clutter and distinguish between hype and reality. The look in his eyes and the enthusiasm in his voice make it clear he has bought into the Harper-Trout dynamic.
"It's fun to watch them play the game and see all that talent packed into two bodies," Giambi says. "Harper has that Pete Rose hardness about him. He runs out everything hard, goes into the bag hard, runs into the wall hard, does everything hard. Trout is the effortless one. Everything he does looks so easy. He just flies down to first base, and then you look at the stopwatch and you're like, 'Oh my God, 3.9 [seconds]. Are you kidding me?'
"What they're doing at their ages is mind-boggling. They'll always be linked, unless, God forbid, one of them has an injury. I want to see them develop because they both have the fire and they both play the game right. You can tell your grandkids, 'I played against those guys. I got a chance to watch them play."'
Since the inception of dual AL and NL Rookie of the Year awards in 1949, three winning tandems have gone on to make the Hall of Fame. The list includes Frank Robinson and Luis Aparicio (1956), Tom Seaver and Rod Carew (1967), and Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray (1977). At some point in the future, it's a virtual certainly that the 2001 pairing of Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki will join them in Cooperstown.
Pre-World War II, New York's Joe DiMaggio and Boston's Ted Williams set the standard for breathless comparisons of young ballplayers. DiMaggio broke into the majors three years before Williams, but the New York-versus-Boston rivalry fueled the debate, and it gained an inexorable momentum in 1941 when DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive games to win the MVP award over Williams, the first player in 11 years to bat .400.
The two played off each other nicely, with DiMaggio's detached, almost regal persona a stark contrast to Williams free-wheeling and occasionally bombastic personality. At one point rumors swirled that they might be traded for each other. It made for a nice little interpersonal-rivalry storyline, but DiMaggio always thought that aspect was overplayed.
"So much was made of my rivalry with Ted, and yet I never felt it was really there," DiMaggio said in a 1994 interview with Peter Gammons. "There was the rivalry with the Red Sox, and frankly, that was what it was about. Winning it shouldn't be him against me. That's just the way the media construed things. He was the greatest left-handed hitter I ever saw. We are different people, and I admire him for being the way he's been."
If there's a better and even more classic precedent for Trout and Harper to aspire to, it goes back to the spring of 1951, when outfield prospects Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle made their major league debuts with the New York Giants and the Yankees.
Lyle Spatz, a writer and baseball historian, lived in Brooklyn in those days and was a 14-year-old Dodgers fan when Mantle and Mays came on the scene. Mantle arrived with the bigger buildup but endured a trying season that included a demotion to Triple-A Kansas City in July. He famously called his father and told him he wanted to quit, but Mutt Mantle responded with anger and tough love, and young Mickey decided to give it one more shot.
Mantle ultimately found his stroke in September to help the Yankees reach the World Series, where they defeated Mays and the Giants in six games. Meanwhile, Mays won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and Mantle's teammate, infielder Gil McDougald, captured the honor in the AL.
"I remember in 1951, Mantle was expected to be great, and Mays, to me, was kind of hidden in [Triple-A] Minneapolis before he got to New York and Leo Durocher started telling everyone how great he was," says Spatz. "I hate to say Trout and Harper are 'naturals,' but as all-around players who can do everything at such a young age, Mays and Mantle might be the only legitimate comparison."
More recently, players at the same position or chasing the same historical achievements have been linked in the public consciousness. You could have generated a lively debate in the mid-1990s by wondering aloud whether Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or Nomar Garciaparra was destined to have the best career at shortstop. And Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa played off each other nicely during their landmark (and, it turns out, sketchy) pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998.
Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds dominated the landscape in the 1990s as perennial All-Stars, Gold Glove winners, MVP candidates and incredibly gifted sons of former major leaguers. Griffey led Bonds in homers (382 to 361) and hits (1,622 to 1,478) for the decade, while Bonds had the edge in stolen bases (343 to 151) and OPS (1.036 to .965). Bonds seemed terminally angry at the world, while Griffey wore his cap backward and smiled with regularity. As it turns out, Griffey wasn't quite as carefree as people thought, but writers clung to the narrative because it was so appealing and too complicated to deconstruct.
Could Harper be the Bonds to Trout's Griffey, or the yang to his yin? Time and their mutual ability to adapt will provide the final answer.
"When you consider the ability of a Griffey and a Bonds, I think it's unfair to talk about Trout and Harper at this point," says Joe Torre, whose professional baseball career spans more than 50 years. "It takes more than one year. But from everything I've seen of both these youngsters, they're not afraid of the responsibility. They're very confident, yet guarded to the point of respecting the game enough to know that it's not that easy.
"How many times have you seen players have good first years, then wonder where they went? Pitchers make adjustments and it's up to the hitters to readjust and sort of tweak what they do. I have a sense these guys are ready for that part of it. There's no question they're special. A big part of it is they just come in with this confidence. You can see the way they stand at bat. They're not looking to impress anybody. They're looking to help their club win. That makes a big difference."
Yes, it's risky and overly simplistic to sift through history and compare modern-day phenoms with Hall of Famers just because they hit from the same side of the plate, or have similar body types, or hail from the same country. But the practice is impossible to resist, even if the names invoked serve as red flags and cautionary tales.
Dawson, now a senior adviser with the Miami Marlins, said Trout's five-tool package is the best he's seen since a "young Cesar Cedeno" broke in with the Houston Astros at age 19 during the 1970 season. Cedeno wowed the baseball establishment with four All-Star appearances and five Gold Gloves by age 25. But a combination of injuries and off-field issues eventually dimmed his star, and he received two votes in his first and only appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1992.
Cedeno, Bobby Bonds, former Cubs outfielder Adolfo Phillips, Eric Davis and Andruw Jones are among the outfielders who have been labeled the "next Willie Mays" at various points in their careers. And Bobby Murcer, Ruben Rivera and Josh Hamilton all broke in with expectations of becoming the "next Mickey Mantle."
The difference today is that success and failure are so readily on display, and the instant media crush can make the fall so much harder to endure. When the Trout-related gushing ascended to new and greater heights last summer, Texas manager Ron Washington finally admonished reporters to give it a rest.
"He's not Willie Mays," Washington said of Trout. "He's a pretty good player, but I think the comparisons have to stop. Let the kid play. When he's been here five years, six years, then you can start doing that."
Harper has faced a daunting challenge since he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One" at age 16. He's been demonized, villainized and targeted by virtue of his precocious talent, even though his teammates appeared to like him and his excesses were relatively minor in the overall scheme of things. Fans were conditioned to dislike Harper because he wore too much eye black or swung the bat with too much fury. He was savaged for blowing a kiss at a Greensboro pitcher after hitting a home run in Class A Hagerstown. Only later did reports surface that the pitcher might have precipitated the incident by blowing a kiss at Harper after an earlier strikeout.
Bob Boone, the Nationals' vice president of player development, got a first-hand glimpse of life as Bryce Harper when he went to see the kid play on the farm in 2011.
"I almost got in a couple of fights in the minor leagues watching him," Boone says. "Fans were just vicious. One guy had a 5-year-old kid with him and he was yelling stuff so bad I wanted to punch him. I was like, 'Wait a minute. This kid is 18 years old and all he does is bust his a-- like Pete Rose. He's supposed to be in high school right now. Are you serious?"'
Harper's public image took a turn for the better the night of May 7, 2012, when he took a Cole Hamels fastball in the back as a "welcome to the big leagues" gesture and taught the older guys a lesson about baseball comportment. He calmly took first base and got his revenge moments later by stealing home. Indeed, when Torre met Harper for the first time at an MLB promotional event last winter, he complimented the kid for his professionalism.
"I told him I was very proud of that incident with Hamels and how he handled it," Torre says. "He didn't get bent out of shape. He went to first base and wound up stealing home. He did it on the field, and for a young kid to not get intimidated like that, it was pretty impressive for me."
Trout, similarly, has a knack for defusing potentially combustible situations. When the Angels automatically renewed his contract for $510,000 recently, agent Craig Landis released a statement chastising the team for its lack of fairness. But Trout remained above the fray, telling reporters "I'm just happy to be in the lineup." This is a lesson for all big leaguers to subscribe to: In financial disputes with the club, always let your agent be the bad guy.
The Millville Meteor goes with the flow. He readily accepted a move to left field this season to accommodate Peter Bourjos, even though his advanced metrics in center field were off the charts in 2012. If Trout has a sense of entitlement from all that success at an early age, he does a nice job of hiding it.
"He handled everything with such an unusual degree of humility," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said last fall in assessing Trout's rookie year. "It really stood out to everyone around him. There's that old baseball adage, 'He plays the game the right way.' I would venture to say that every player who played with or against Mike or any staff that came across him felt the same way. You saw it when he made the All-Star Game and went into Kansas City and people were coming to see him -- rather than vice versa. That's kind of remarkable for a 20-year-old guy."
Baseball's two young outfield stars certainly come across as different people. Trout seems uncomfortable in media scrums and lapses into cliché-speak at the drop of a rosin bag. Harper warms to the spotlight, loves to talk baseball history and finds a way to entertain with words as well as deeds. That's no clown observation, bro.
Long-term questions will persist: Can Harper continue to play the game at such a frenetic pace, or will he have to learn to pick his spots for the sake of longevity? Is Trout going to hold up covering all that ground in the outfield with the physique of an outside linebacker? And how will Trout respond if he hits .290 with 25 home runs and 30 stolen bases this season and people start saying he's the victim of a "sophomore slump"?
It's never easy to perform under a microscope, but Trout and Harper appear well-equipped for the challenge. As they track each other's performances from opposite coasts and swap occasional text messages, the friends and former Arizona Fall League teammates just might find that the comparisons and expectations inspire them to greater heights and make the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.
Mike Trout is 21, and Bryce Harper is 20, and the baseball future awaits with all the promise of a line drive headed for the gap. They have games to win, fans to entertain, endorsement offers to sift through, scouting reports to study and lots of All-Star teams to make as fresh-faced young ambassadors for their sport. Health permitting, they will be treating us to 15 more years of appointment baseball, seven days a week.