Jeff Trout, father of Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike:
When Mike was 7 years old, he was playing tee ball. The kids all run toward the ball at that age. It’s a mess. Mike was playing shortstop, and a big kid came to the plate. The kid hit a sharp line drive like you’d see hit off of a tee, and Mike moved two or three steps to his left and dove for it. He was actually parallel to the ground as he caught the ball. It was the kind of play that Andrelton Simmons, the shortstop for the Angels, would make now. I looked at my wife, and she said, “Did anyone get that on video?” Nobody did, but after the game, I just told Mike, “Hey, nice catch, pal.” It was incredible, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it.
I’d been around enough players and kids and sports in my day to know that even at that age, Mike was a cut above his peers athletically. He was a little faster, a little more agile, had better hand-eye coordination and great instincts. But I also knew that there’s already so much built-in pressure to the game itself. You don’t need parents basing their day on how well their kid played in Little League.
Mike was dunking a basketball when he was 5-foot-9 in ninth grade. At such an early age, he was doing things athletically that kind of made me think, “He may be a special kind of kid.”
Even though Mike was talented, he was exposed to all types of things and never pigeon-holed growing up, and I think it has made him a better person and a better player. He’s the youngest of our three kids. My daughter is a Realtor. My other son is an attorney and owns his own consulting business. Mike is the baby. Three successful kids in their own right.
I was not one of these parents who said, “Hey, keep working on going to the big leagues.” It was always about college and education — that was our focus. I think that took a lot of pressure off of Mike. My wife and I just wanted him to play and enjoy the game. And then we thought that maybe one day, it will help pay for a college education. We’re both teachers, so we focused on that.
Our mentality was, let’s go fishing or go get an ice cream after the game. People are so astonished by that because you see how talented and refined Mike is as an athlete, and you’d think he spent 90 percent of his days playing baseball. But not even close. He played all sports, he did art classes, he golfed, he hunted. Too many parents these days push, push, push their kids into sports.
We gave him the opportunities and tools to be the best that he could as an athlete, as a player. Any time he wanted to hit or play catch, I did it. But I didn’t go to him. I didn’t wake him up to go hit. And if he wanted to go fishing that day instead, we went fishing. — As told to Anna Katherine Clemmons
Mike Bryant, father of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris:
When Kris was 5 years old, he wanted to hit after one of my older boy’s practices. We were playing coach-pitch. So I took all the younger siblings onto the field so I could throw some pitches to them.
Everybody is doing their thing — not squaring up, hitting weak ground balls. Then Kris comes up. He’s like 45 pounds. He’s got this huge, 31-ounce bat in his hands. The first pitch I throw to him, boom! He launches it 140 feet into the outfield. He just drops the bat head behind him and, instead of chopping down, he elevates it. I look back to see where the ball landed and think: Holy Christ, my kid can hit.
Then he rips a half-dozen more high fly balls into the outfield. They look like major league popups. By the time he’s 7, he’s launching balls into the outfield during games. By 8, he’s knocking them over the fence.
At 12, he hit 23 home runs in 67 at-bats. He had 20 walks. At this point, I could tell he was pretty good. I told him, “Don’t tell anybody. I won’t either. Just keep doing this.” So then Kris started dreaming about what could happen. My son became good enough to dream. — As told to Robert Sanchez
When he was little, Max said, “I want to be a major league baseball player.” But at one point he also wanted to be a firefighter or a police officer. In high school, he never was about being a pro ballplayer. There was never that one instant when I knew this would work out for him. Baseball is full of potholes. Some bad things can happen. I always preached to him about taking things one step at a time.
Sure, I saw something in Max’s eyes — his enthusiasm for sports, especially baseball. When he was 2, I’d come home from work and find him already downstairs in the basement, waiting for me so we could play.
Max was the cliché. From an early age, he was coachable. He was curious. He liked to learn. You could offer a suggestion, and you could see him thinking, ‘Gee whiz, that’s a good formula.’ Back in the Little League days, you’d see those parents who were overinflated with their kids’ accomplishments. They had short-term goals. I’d point that out to Max. I’d say, “These parents are so worried about how their kid is going to do in sixth grade and how they’re going to fit in high school.” Max saw it too. They had the wrong priorities.
Succeeding at this sport is so much about the right spot and the right training, and Max understood that. You have to say, “What are the steps I need to follow? What kind of training? What do I need to learn?” Max never worried about an entire season. He was concerned with the game right in front of him.
Even when he’d have success, I never got ahead of myself. Neither did Max. He was always looking at the next step. I’m sure there eventually was a realistic goal about becoming a major league baseball player, but that was never a discussion we had back then. He knew getting there meant going through innumerable steps first. Have lofty goals but be realistic about the steps it will take to achieve them. You don’t go from sixth-grade star directly to the majors.
Max had a sore shoulder at one point during his junior year of high school. I was never worried because he had a strong academic background too. When he was growing up, we told him that school helps sports and sports helps school. Even after the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him out of high school, Max was set on going to college. He needed an education first. Even back then, he was creating a life where baseball would be one of his alternatives, not his only alternative. That took a lot of pressure off of him. — Sanchez
Fernando Arenado, father of Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan:
I knew Nolan had it his junior year of high school. His team won a [state] championship. His travel team was playing all over California. He got to go to the Area Code Games. He got to go to Georgia and to Florida, and his team won a big wood-bat tournament. You could see everything coming together.
People thought he was chubby back then, so he wanted show he was prepared to play at a high level. He showed he could compete every day. He could hit and throw, but it was his hitting that got attention. He was finally getting noticed. Good things were happening. His mom and I started hearing rumors that Nolan could get drafted. It was humbling and exciting, but Nolan realized he couldn’t get ahead of himself. He never did.
That whole year, he kept showing up and proving he could play against anyone. He was never overwhelmed. The added pressure of having people watching him was no problem. I knew he had certain skills that other kids didn’t have, even if they might have been getting more attention. He didn’t brag about it. But I knew in my heart that Nolan had something special. — Sanchez
Manny Upton, father of Angels left fielder Justin:
I saw it in Justin when he was 14. He had just finished his freshman year in high school. We were heading out to Long Beach, California, for the Area Code Games with Justin’s brother, B.J., who had been drafted [No. 2 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays]. I was scouting with the Chicago White Sox, so I asked the White Sox guys if they could let Justin play for their team, maybe give him a little time. [Teams are named for major league franchises, with each representing an area of the country.]
Traditionally, the players in the Area Code Games are the ones who will get drafted the following year. But the White Sox team put Justin at shortstop. He was 14, playing short with that kind of talent around him.
Justin wasn’t intimidated at all. He was holding his own. He would take whatever opportunity he was given; he just loved to play. You have to remember that he’d already been working out with his brother and David Wright for several years. He tagged along with them back home in Virginia. Ever since Justin was in the seventh grade, he’d been hitting with them every morning before school. He’d seen those guys come through — along with Mike Cuddyer — so Justin had maturity most kids his age didn’t have. He wasn’t overwhelmed when he got to the Area Codes because he was already practicing at a high level.
He ended up playing with two teams. The Area Code team from Virginia hadn’t invited Justin to its tryout earlier because he was just 14. The Red Sox were running that team, and I guess the guy saw Justin and said he should be playing for them. To keep everyone happy, Justin played on both teams. He was playing two games a day. By the end of the week, he was worn out.
I never wanted to put pressure on either of my boys to play pro ball. I didn’t put my scouting hat on with them. I had my dad hat on. So when we were in California, I told Justin, “Just go out and play and have fun.”
I know quite a few guys who were either scouting directors or assistant directors. Duane Shaffer was the scouting director for the White Sox, and Danny Montgomery of the Colorado Rockies was also there. I knew both of them well, so I told them they needed to be honest with me: Did they see something with Justin? I’ll never forget their responses. They both said that Justin had a legitimate chance at making it. They said he was one of the best players there, and I was like, “OK. Here I am, and my scouting buddies are saying Justin could get drafted.”
I was just as excited with Justin as I was when I heard that about B.J. [who now goes by his given name, Melvin]. I can tell you, it doesn’t get old. Very few kids get drafted, and here I had the No. 2 pick in 2002 and then the No. 1 in 2005 [when Justin was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks]. That’s a blessing. How can you not get excited about that? — Sanchez