Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like to play against LeBron James in high school. Did the kids playing against him instantly know he was a once in a lifetime talent? Did his teammates really believe he was “The Chosen One”? After the games did the spectators tell their family members, “Wow, that LeBron kid… is gonna be a superstar” and think it was actually gonna happen? It wasn’t until a 2009 spring afternoon in New Jersey that I finally got my answer. This is my account, of the day I pegged Mike Trout.
I always thought I was better than I was. From the time I was 9, though not deliberately trying to show it, I really believed I was awesome. Whether it was from growing up in a moderately small town with little competition or the constant “you’re the greatest” speeches from my dad, I’ve, for as long as I can remember, had a heightened view of myself as a baseball player. This, as you can probably tell, was a gift and a curse. For one, I was never afraid of anyone, no matter where we played or who we played. This at times was a positive (I went into every game trying to prove to myself I was right, that I really was good), but most of the time it was a negative. Some games I would overhear the kids (or even the coaches) in the dugout as I was on the mound saying things like, “Who the hell does this kid think he is? Let’s give him a reality check boys!” In baseball you never want to give a team extra motivation. I don’t think I ever got that memo.
By the time I was 16 my baseball skill had begun to diminish, though I still had a few nice moments. During my junior year I played my first year of varsity baseball (If you can imagine this, the head varsity coach wasn’t very fond of me during my first 2 years of J.V. and never moved me up. What a shocker). I started the season 3-0, one of my victories coming via a complete game shut-out against one of our biggest rivals, a private Catholic school that took some of the best talent from our area. After the game, my father came into my room, kneeled on the floor next to my bed, and on the verge of tears whispered out “I told ya so”. This, I thought, was the best day of my life.
My dad was once kicked out of my brother’s soccer game for screaming at the referees. Sounds normal right? We’ve all had or seen a parent get a little overly upset about a call and say one too many bad words. The reason I bring up this story about my father’s ejection is that my dad literally couldn’t tell you one rule of soccer. Let’s just say he isn’t your typical “Son, you’re a winner in my book no matter how you play” kind of dad. He’s more of the, been-banned-from-every-field-you’ve-ever-played-at, hiding-in-trees-across-the-street-so-mom-doesn’t-see-or-hear-him type of guy. If he ever did sneak to one of my games it was always sure to be interesting. No matter how far away he stood you could always hear him barking from the little league field 200 yards away; “Come on Blue! Open your fucking eyes! Wake up! Let’s go!” My teammates would come to me in the dugout giggling; Dude, you’re dad is awesome.
The day I pegged Mike Trout it was really nice out. Definitely not your normal cold, shitty, damp spring day in New Jersey. Even at school the windows were open during first period and some of our teachers let us walk around outside instead of doing our lessons. I remember walking on the track that day, a few of my friends from the team coming up to me to pick my brain about how I was gonna pitch to Trout. “Maaannnnn I heard he hit a home run off a 0-2 Jimmy Van Dyke curveball in the dirt. And you know how nasty Jimmy’s deuce is. The pitch fuckin’ bounced, and Trout still hit it 400 feet. He’s definitely juicin’.”
After the final school bell rang we put on our uniforms and headed over to the field. We did our normal stretching and light tossing to get ready for the game. Today’s no different than any other, I thought. As we were loosening up, someone from our team called out, “Look, there they are”. We all looked towards the street to see a big yellow school bus turning towards the field. My competitive juices started boiling. I was ready. They got out of the bus in perfect, one by one formation; their all white, perfectly clean uniforms (even hats) made me think that they looked like an army of chefs. This made me laugh. Of course, mid-chuckle, there he was, Number 1, a cold, focused death stare in his eyes. He looked like a baseball-playing-murderous-blood-hungry-chef-robot from a far away galaxy known as “The Baseball Factory”. We made eye contact. Okay, today may be a little different.
By 3:45 (the game started at 4) the field was packed. The street the field was on was completely crowded (this never happens). Most people who came to see the game, better yet, to see Trout play, had to park in a lot across the street. You could hear the beeping and cussing as the fans tried to squeeze into every available spot. The people who made it down to the field gawked at the center fielder taking I/O. Most of my teammates watched too. Holy shit, did you see his arm? He’s gotta freakin’ cannon. Yo guys, if the ball is hit towards him, don’t even think about trying to test him. It’s not worth it. While my teammates watched, I sat on the cold bench in the dugout, my head down, body slouched, listening to my iPod. I visualized throwing a perfect game, striking out Trout 3 times on 9 pitches. At 3:50 my pitching coach tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the game ball. He looked at me and said, Good luck buddy. Don’t even think about him. Just pitch your game. We’re confident in you. And to be completely honest, I was confident in myself. During my bullpen I threw every pitch as hard as I could. I had a real bounce in my step. If all these people came to see this kid play, and that’s all he was to me, some kid, they’re gonna have to watch me too. And I’m not gonna disappoint.
The game didn’t start the way I planned, obviously. I walked the second hitter I faced and up came Mr. Trout. The humongous crowd got eerily quiet as he stepped into the box. It was like they wanted dead silence to appreciate the magnitude of watching this young prodigy take his hacks. He walked into the box calmly; he had his own sort of swagger without trying to show anyone up. He knew he was good. He carried himself like he was good. But he didn’t show it. I never understood how he did that. I probably never will. I over threw the first pitch badly, a slider, and it landed in the dirt. It rolled to the backstop and the runner took second base easily. Now Trout was ahead in the count, something that I didn’t want to happen, and had a man in scoring position, also something I didn’t want to happen. I threw another slider, this one much better than the first. It landed right on the outside corner at the level of his knees and evened the count. Obviously he wasn’t looking for a slider on the outer half 1-0, so he took it nonchalantly. He nodded his head up and down. At the time I didn’t realize what that gesture meant; I was probably too headstrong and excited to realize it at the time. He knew that at his worst, he could hit my best.
The third pitch of the at-bat he fouled straight back. It was a 12-6 curveball, something I didn’t throw in warm-ups (a trick my father taught me in Little League to fool the good hitters). This surprised Trout. He made the same nodding gesture with his head as he adjusted his batting gloves, the difference this time being that he scrunched up his bottom lip, pretty much saying: “Not bad kid, ya got anything else up your sleeve?” Honestly I didn’t. Or at least I was too stupid to think of it at the time. What I should have done was busted him in with a high and tight fastball. He was already standing pretty close to the plate (everyone pitched away from him in high school) and he was expecting something off-speed again. As I received the ball from the umpire, I heard a voice from a distance. It seemed like it came from the trees. Maybe it was just my conscious. Maybe it was the wind. Or maybe, it was my father… “Give him your best stuff, kid! Let’s go!” Holy crap, my dad’s here. A thousand questions started going through my head. I wonder if anyone saw him. Where did he park? Was he gonna go crazy and cause a scene if Trout hits a homer? I stepped off the mound to refocus. Okay Cheek, just throw him your best pitch. He can’t hit it. And even if he does, he’s just gonna roll over it and hit it to shortstop. You got this. He’s just a kid. He’s just a kid. I took the sign from my catcher. He knew exactly what I was thinking. Slider. Here we go. This is it. I’m gonna get Mike Trout out right here. The ball came out of my hand perfectly. I couldn’t have thrown a better pitch. It was the best pitch I ever threw. It started like it was going right down the middle, then moved so tightly and quickly to the left that it landed a few inches off the ground towards the outside corner of the plate. Trout took a swing. He looked a little off-balanced. When he hit the ball it went straight into the ground to my right. Oh my god it’s going to the shortstop. I watched the ball bounce past me, my baseball career bound to be revived by this one play. I saw the shortstop and third basemen make their way towards each other. Here we go, this is my moment. The ball skipped right between both of them. It was a perfectly placed single through the hole.
The next two and a half innings were a blur. Millville lead 2-0 (they scored another run in the first) and we weren’t hitting at all. Every play reminded me of the hit. How did he do that? How was that hit, a little single through the hole, the worst moment of my baseball career? By the time Trout came up again in the 3rd, the buzz around the field was as high, maybe higher, than it was the first time around; Trout was known to punish pitchers the second time around. There was one out and no one on when the baseball prodigy stepped into the box again. His demeanor hadn’t changed a bit, his mind clearly fresh, totally confident in all of his abilities. I was upset, and it was practically written on my forehead. I could feel my shoulders slouching even as I tried my hardest to keep my chin up. The catcher called for a curveball away. This made my stomach drop. This was exactly what he wanted. He already won. As I began to think whatever, who cares, he’ll hit anything I throw anyway, I looked towards where my Dad was. He was pacing. He looked angry. This changed me. It made me angry too. A good angry. I glanced up at Trout and saw that this time he was standing even closer to the plate than he was the first.
When a batter stands on the plate it tells the pitcher two things: That he’s expecting you to throw outside and that he has absolutely no fear that you could hurt him with a pitch. I thought about my father. I knew he believed in me. I knew he thought I was the greatest and that I shouldn’t be afraid of anyone, not even this baseball machine from Millville, New Jersey. I knew he had my back, even if he was a little nutty. My catcher set up outside, expecting a curveball. I then proceeded to throw a fastball… right into Mike Trout’s back.
After my senior season I got a call from a local DIII coach to see if I was interested in playing for his team. He seemed like a nice guy and we began to talk. He told me that he had heard a story about me earlier in the day. “So I made a call to the Millville coach, who is a good friend of mine, to ask if he ever faced you. When I said your name he instantly remembered you. ‘DeCicco? That jerkoff from Mainland who hit Trout on purpose? You know he was the only kid who hit Trout his senior year? That kids got some balls man.’”
The crowd, all at once, oohed when the ball thumped him. Trout, obviously understanding what had just happened, gave a quick glance towards his bench and began to run to first. I was the only person at that field who acted like nothing happened. I could overhear the voices of the spectators: Do you think he did that on purpose? I know Michael, he wouldn’t do something like that. The next batter came up and I threw him a first pitch slider. He hit the ball to second and we turned a routine double play. Inning over, just like that. In an instant, the momentum had taken a complete 180, and somehow my head was screwed right back on.
I led off the next half inning. I had a feeling I already knew what was coming. My stomach was boiling. I wasn’t afraid. When I stepped into the box I looked at the pitcher. He looked angry. A different kind of angry. The kind of angry you get when someone punks your pack master. It was time for him to get his revenge. I geared up my body, ready to take the punishment. He wound up and threw the pitch. In the dirt, ball one. I stepped out of the box and smiled. I turned towards him so that my chest was facing his. If you’re gonna hit me, hit me! He looked even more angry. First I punk his pack master, now I punk him? I geared my body up again, ready for the second pitch to certainly get me. His face was beat red. The pitch came in, hard and straight, directly at my head. If I didn’t move it probably would have broken my skull. I ducked quickly and the ball hit my bat. Foul ball. The crowd oohed again, this time a less shocked ooh. The boil in my stomach spread through my whole body. I threw the bat against the fence and started walking towards the pitcher. He smirked at me.
My coach and the home plate umpire sprinted and halted me before I got close to the mound. They began walking me back towards the batter’s box. “This is a warning, I’m not dealing with this shit all game, if anything else happens I’m throwing ya all out!” The umpire looked directly at me. My body was trembling, my heart pounding. I picked up the bat, looked up towards the sky and exhaled deeply. I stepped back into the box. We both battled valiantly, our man-hoods and bravados obviously at stake. The count ran full. The last thing I was going to do was strikeout. I wouldn’t let that happen. He threw me a 3-2 breaking pitch that hung over the plate. I smacked it on the nose, directly up the middle, the ball destined to go directly to Trout. On the way there it hit the pitcher. Right in the chest. As he sprung backward he put out his left hand. The ball landed in his glove. (This is seriously, 100% percent true. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it happened. I swear). I walked back to the dugout with an obvious bounce in my step. I smiled.
When you think about superstars, whether it be athletes, actors, politicians, performers, etc. you sometimes forget that they were once kids. You forget that they grew up and went to school. You forget that they had friends and teachers who cared about them. You forget that they’re even real people. When I imagine what it must have been like to play against a young LeBron James, I think about the stories me and my friends have from playing against a kid from Millville twice in the spring of 2009… No matter how God like they may seem on television, how extraordinary their talents are compared to the rest of us, they are still real people, no different than any one of us.
Playing against Mike Trout is a story I’ll always be able to tell. I read a quote the other day by Vernon Wells that made me laugh. Vernon said, “He’s one of those guys who, when you’re done playing, you’re going to say, ‘I played with Mike Trout. I was there when he got started.’” Yep, Vernon, I know exactly what you mean.