Shohei Ohtani traveled more than 5,000 miles from his home in Japan in his quest to make history as a two-way player in the major leagues, so it was only natural for him to feel a knot in his stomach and the burden of expectations several hours before his pitching debut with the Los Angeles Angels.
The tension lingered until Ohtani boarded the bus from the team hotel for the drive to Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on April 1. As he reached the final step, a voice from the back pierced the silence with a Michael Buffer-like "It's Sho-Time!" Ohtani burst into a smile, and the entire bus erupted in laughter.
To no one's surprise, the voice from the cheap seats belonged to Mike Trout, future Hall of Famer and the Angels' resident social director.
Since Trout's first full season in the majors in 2012, he has built an airtight case for the designation of Major League Baseball's best player. He has made six straight All-Star Games and finished first or second in Most Valuable Player balloting five times, and he's laying the foundation for a third MVP award even as Mookie Betts and others provide some spirited competition.
Trout's teammates, while appreciative of his greatness, are less than awed by his presence because he's so approachable and gosh-darned authentic. Back home in Millville, New Jersey, the folks at Jim's Lunch, the Razor's Edge barber shop and the Elks Lodge still regard the game's best player as "Mikey." In Anaheim, Trout has the same galvanizing effect on the clubhouse, with his diva-free approach to baseball and life.
"I didn't see Mike play in Little League, but everybody says he's the same guy," said Craig Landis, Trout's agent. "When he was 10 years old, he was the best player, and all he wanted was to win the game and then go get pizza and ice cream with his buddies. That was the perfect day in Mike Trout's life. Fast-forward through all the levels to the major leagues, and though the stakes are much higher, he still acts much the same way. Mike's perfect day is still to win the game and enjoy it with his buddies."
This year, Trout was challenged to take another step in his progression as a leader when general manager Billy Eppler surrounded him with enough talent for the Angels to make a push for their first postseason berth since 2014. While Angels fans have reason to feel let down by the team's 33-28 record, no one would dare lay it on the performance of the two most prominent players.
Trout leads the majors with a 5.3 WAR and 19 homers and ranks among the MLB leaders in runs, stolen bases and numerous other categories. Ohtani is 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA and 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings as a pitcher, and he has a .907 OPS as a hitter. In a season noteworthy for teammate Albert Pujols' 3,000th career hit and the upcoming Hall of Fame induction of former Angel Vladimir Guerrero, Trout and Ohtani are the two most compelling reasons to watch the Angels.
While Ohtani continues to wow Trout with his versatility, Trout has helped create a more welcoming, congenial environment to hasten Ohtani's transition. It's the least he can do, given Ohtani's commitment to improve.
"We see him when he comes in, and he wants to work," Trout said. "He wants to get better at pitching and hitting. As a team, we're a big family here, so we want to make him feel comfortable."
The roots for baseball's best buddy movie began to take hold in December, when the Angels enlisted Trout in their effort to beat six other finalists for Ohtani. Trout connected with Ohtani via FaceTime and gave his recruiting pitch, and he was at his wedding rehearsal dinner when he learned that Ohtani had signed with the team.
"He basically explained to me how great the Angels were," Ohtani said at his introductory news conference in Anaheim. "He said we have a great clubhouse and how much he would enjoy having me here. I took those words to heart, and I'm here."
Ohtani elicited some laughs during the news conference, when he joked that he was hoping to wear Trout's No. 27 jersey. In spring training, Trout commandeered a golf cart and buzzed around the grounds at Tempe Diablo Stadium with Ohtani riding shotgun and teammates Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun in the back. Trout added a comedic flourish when he turned the steering wheel and threatened to take out a group of photographers who were following Ohtani around camp.
"I think that kind of symbolizes the type of friendship they have," said Grace McNamee, the Angels' Japanese media liaison. "Mike has done a really great job breaking the ice for Shohei, and he's such a great role model. Here's somebody who's such a great player and super successful in the major leagues, and he's so humble and kind and fun. You can see a connection between the two."
Trout referred to his new teammate as "Shohei" before shortening it to "Showy." When Ohtani decided to ditch his pronounced leg kick at the plate, hitting coaches Eric Hinske and Paul Sorrento worked with him to find a quicker trigger mechanism, and Trout offered some suggestions. People around the team have also noted that Ohtani -- conscious of Trout's flair for fan outreach and accessibility -- has been quicker to mingle with fans and sign autographs in recent weeks.
The synergy between the two stars is largely unspoken. Trout and the other Angels have tried to mix some Japanese phrases into the conversation, with minimal success.
"Everything I say, he just laughs," Trout said. "I don't know if he even knows what I'm saying. But he's a good dude."
McNamee, when pressed on Ohtani's grasp of English, can think of only one phrase that's printable.
"I think he knows how to say 'weak sauce,'" she said with a laugh. "I don't know if Mike is the one who taught him."
When the Angels signed Ohtani, it was intriguing to contemplate how the two elite talents would play off each other. One school of thought: Ohtani might ease the burden on Trout because he would siphon some of the attention that typically falls on Trout as the Angels' franchise face.
That has been true, to a point. But Trout still doesn't receive as much national acclaim as his talent and achievements warrant. He plays on the West Coast, for the second-most popular team in the Los Angeles market, for an organization that has played a total of three postseason games during his tenure. When MLB released its list of best-selling jerseys in October, Trout ranked eighth. According to the latest sales figures from MLBShop.com, Ohtani ranks eighth in jersey sales this season, and Trout is 11th.
Trout's milquetoast publicimage helps feed the narrative that he's bland. Fans know that Trout is unfailingly pleasant, signs autographs with the best of them, dabbles in meteorology and roots for Philadelphia sports teams. But Trout generally speaks in clichés in his media interviews, and he plays baseball with old-school sensibilities and an aversion to showmanship.
"That's why he doesn't get attention," Angels second baseman Ian Kinslersaid. "He's not flipping his hair. He's not flinging bats everywhere or smacking his hands and throwing dirt and pounding his chest. He's just playing baseball, man. He comes to win the game, to be the best he can be, and that's it."
When onlookers shower Trout with compliments, he'll shuffle his feet and change the subject. Self-aggrandizement is not high on his list of priorities. One recent winter, Trout was scheduled to appear on the MLB Network as a finalist for the AL MVP Award. As the TV cameras set up in his house, Trout texted home with assurances that he would return in plenty of time from his hunting trip. He arrived in time for the broadcast but not before making the studio hosts and technicians squirm a little bit.
"Every time you put a stat out there, he's either compared to Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, or he's beyond them," said Mark Gubicza, the Angels' TV color man. "You almost laugh because it's not even a human being when you see what he's doing. But you can't even say those type things to him because it won't get a whole lot out of him. He'll just change the subject and say, 'Hey, man, the Eagles made a pretty good pickup.' Or 'Trust the process.' It's pretty funny."
Trout's public persona is a world removed from his demeanor in the clubhouse. Angels teammates and club employees describe him as a prankster and incessant trash-talker. He's the driving force behind NCAA March Madness pools and fantasy football drafts, and he's quick to corral everyone from teammates to coaches to the media relations staff to play H-O-R-S-E on the portable hoop in the clubhouse. When the Angels have spring training golf outings or postgame barbecues, he's invariably part of the dynamic.
Everything in Trout's world turns into a competition. Reliever Blake Parker said the Angels were taking the bus to Yankee Stadium during a recent series in New York when Trout began playing around with some city signs and a game of "competitive naming" broke out. Two years ago, Gubicza was dragging his luggage into Angel Stadium before a road trip when he felt a commotion and a noise behind him. He turned to see Trout and pitcher Garrett Richards whipping along on electric scooters and laughing as they nearly steamrollered him.
"They're major leaguers, and they're racing to see who would get to the locker room first," Gubicza said. "I felt like I was watching my son."
Trout's inclusive approach transcends racial and ethnic barriers. The Angels' 25-man roster includes players from the U.S., Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Curacao and now Japan, and everyone is part of Trout's orbit. Teammates don't have to understand all the dialogue to be amused by his running banter with Richards, his former minor league roommate and good buddy.
"He's not safe in here because he's Mike Trout," Upton said. "Everybody is on the same even playing field in here. He gives it, and he takes it, too. Whatever the topic is, he'll go at somebody, and they're going right back at him.
"When your best player brings energy, it helps the entire clubhouse. You can be the greatest player in the world and not talk to anybody or just come here and play the game and go home, but that doesn't help anybody else get better. The way he approaches it -- and the energy he brings to the clubhouse -- that definitely helps."
Gubicza, who was a longtime Kansas City Royalspitcher, has bonded with Trout over their mutual affinity for Philadelphia sports. Gubicza is a product of Penn Charter, the same high school that produced Matt Ryan and Ruben Amaro Jr., among others, and he shares the same passion and fatalism as Trout, whose boyhood home in Millville is less than an hour from Philly.
They've cultivated certain rituals through the years. During football season, Gubicza will monitor the Eagles' score and pass along updates to Trout in the dugout or on-deck circle with a thumbs-up or by flapping his wings. Trout responds with a fist pump or reciprocal wing flap.
During an off-day last August, Trout took Gubicza to an Eagles preseason game as a birthday gift, and they stood on the sideline at Lincoln Financial Field when the Eagles ran out to play Buffalo.
"I'll never forget this," Gubicza said. "Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz are walking up and giving him hugs, and Malcolm Jenkins comes over and gives him a fist bump. I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' Even though it's a preseason game, they're going into battle, and you never know how they're going to react. And they're running out of the tunnel and giving him hugs."
Before the Eagles played New England in the Super Bowl, Trout was on the flight to Minnesota with his father, brother and friends when the plane broke into an impromptu rendition of "Fly Eagles Fly." He sang along with the crowd and recorded the moment and texted it to Gubicza.
That lack of pretense is manifested in countless daily interactions at the ballpark. Angels officials tell stories of fans who flag down Trout for photos at spring training, fumble with their phones in his presence and gratefully allow him to take the phone and shoot the selfie. YouTube is filled with clips of young fans tearing up with joy after individual encounters with Trout.
"Other than Cal Ripken, I've never seen anybody that good at understanding how much you can make someone's day or life if you just take a moment to go over and say hi," Gubicza said. "It's not like he just signs for the kid, the dad, the mom or daughter and doesn't even look at them. He makes eye contact and makes people feel as if they're friends.
"People say, 'Well, he doesn't have much personality,' and I say, 'You just don't know him.' He's still a kid, and he acts like a kid, and that's what makes him so much fun to be around."
In this pivotal season for the Angels, Trout and Ohtani are linked by their transcendent skills and ambitious agendas. While one player probes the limits of a novel international experiment, the other is consumed with putting the finishing touches on perfection.
Each year, Trout identifies a personal shortcoming or two and vows to get better. One of his goals this year was to play better defense. Two months into the season, he's tied for fourth among MLB center fielders with plus-7 defensive runs saved. He also wanted to be more disciplined at laying off high fastballs this season. He has done that well enough to amass more walks (51) than strikeouts (48) through his first 60 games.
"We all work hard," Kinsler said. "We all prepare. If there's one thing different about Mike, it's his mental sharpness. He always seems ready. He always seems on top of it. He always seems to be in his own zone. In sports, they say, 'The guy is in a zone.' Or in basketball it's, 'This guy is unconscious shooting.' Mike stays in that frame of mind, always. That's probably the one thing that sets him apart."
Trout has found a kindred spirit in Ohtani, whose work ethic and single-mindedness have given him some extra latitude in the clubhouse. When manager Mike Scioscia gives Ohtani a day off or delays one of his starts because of "workload management," the other Angels refrain from grousing or rolling their eyes because they understand the physical, mental and emotional demands of his two-pronged assault on baseball tradition.
"You just forget that he's a pitcher when he's hitting, and when he's pitching, you forget that he's a hitter," Kinsler said. "When you take a step back and look at the situation, you realize he's doing something super special."
Kinsler is quick to correct the public perception that Ohtani is trying to do something unprecedented.
"He's not trying," Kinsler said. "He's really good at it. There are a lot of major league baseball players that could try to do that, and none of them are doing it."
It can only help Ohtani's self-esteem, credibility and comfort level to know that the team's best player is so supportive of his mission. Since that Easter Sunday in Oakland, Trout has maintained his ritual of yelling "Sho-Time!" each time the Angels' new international sensation boards the bus.
As long as Ohtani continues to show up and work hard, he'll be a popular figure in the Angels clubhouse. Only one offense is egregious enough to put him on the outs with Trout.
"In spring training, we were joking about some of the things Shohei liked to do in Japan, and he said he plays fantasy football," Gubicza said. "I told him, 'You better pick a bunch of Eagles, or Trout is never going to talk to you again.'"