Not since John Barbose coached the local high school football team to a state record-tying 31 straight wins from 1952 to '55 has an event so stoked the imagination, excitement and pride of this rural working-class town in South Jersey.
Some 6,000 to 7,000 residents of Millville (pop. 29,000) and greater Cumberland County are expected to wind north on Route 55, cross the Walt Whitman Bridge and roll into Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night to watch Angels center fielder Mike Trout play his first big-league game in Philadelphia.
For those who watched Trout, 22, rocket in four years from Millville High Thunderbolt to a player widely regarded as the best in baseball, the 45-mile trek is more than a road trip.
It's a pilgrimage.
FOR THE RECORD:
Mike Trout: A photo caption in the May 13 Sports section accompanying an article about Angels outfielder Mike Trout's hometown of Millville, N.J., misidentified Jim Quinn as the owner of Jim's Lunch restaurant. Quinn is a radio show host and the town's former mayor. —
"This has galvanized the town, brought it together for a common cause, given us something to look forward to," said Rob Shannon, a 69-year-old funeral director and lifetime resident who wore a Trout Angels T-shirt in town on Saturday.
"On and off the field, Mike Trout is a true gentleman, a down-to-earth, regular guy, and Millville has rallied around him. We knew he was going to be good, but to be this good this quick is phenomenal. He's a rock star."
So was Barbose and the players on that 1955 football team, as Dale Wettstein, Millville's town historian, recalled. Thousands packed the stadium for home games and caravaned to away games. After wins, the school band marched down High Street, with hundreds of kids in tow, for victory parades.
"The town followed that team like we follow the Angels now," Wettstein, 71, said. "People passed a bucket through the crowd, dropped in change, and they bought the coach a new Chrysler with that money."
There was one other perk awaiting the Thunderbolts had they not lost to rival Vineland High in 1955.
"If they won that last game," Shannon said, "the team was going to go on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' "
In the words of the iconic variety-show host, Millville Night in Philadelphia, where the Angels will play the Phillies, is going to be a really, really big shew.
There will be tailgate parties galore and a pregame party in a stadium sports bar for the Millville group, most of whom will sit in the upper deck behind home plate. Mayor Mike Santiago will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The Millville High band and chorus will perform the national anthem, and the dance team will appear with the Phillie Phanatic.
The star attraction, of course, will be Trout, Millville's favorite son, the square-jawed kid with the Mickey Mantle crew cut who "put Millville on the map," as any local will tell you.
Trout graced a Sports Illustrated cover last week for the third time in three years, and he signed a six-year, $144.5-million extension in March, but around these parts he's still known as Mikey or Trouty, the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing kid who lives in his parents' basement in the off-season.
"It's going to be absolutely crazy because Millville people, they're passionate," said Tim Shannon, 57, Rob's brother and a former Millville mayor. "The first time Mike comes to bat, I expect the roof to come off. It will rattle. And if he happens to take one deep … oh boy!"
Jim Quinn, a local radio-show host who organized the event, said Trout's homecoming will be "part of history," much like the melt-in-your mouth "hamburgs" — sort of a Philly cheese steak/burger hybrid with a zesty secret sauce — that Jim's Lunch, Trout's favorite downtown eatery, has been grilling since 1923.
"Thirty years from now, people will say, 'I was there the day Mike Trout, who is in the Hall of Fame, played his first game in Philadelphia,' " Quinn, 68, said. "I can't think of anything bigger than this."
Quinn, who served as mayor from 1997 to 2009, saw last fall that the Angels were coming to Philadelphia this season. He contacted the Phillies about reviving Millville Night, which had died out in the early 1980s.
The team told Quinn he'd have to sell 500 tickets. Quinn sold 1,000 in two weeks, 3,000 more by April, and he knows of several groups that have secured hundreds of tickets on their own.
John Sheppard, who owns the local busing company, will use almost all of his fleet — seven charters and eight school buses — to transport fans to the game.
"I had to reach out to other carriers to find more buses," he said. "We ran out of equipment."
The Millville High baseball team was originally scheduled to play on Tuesday, but when the Angels schedule came out last fall, "my athletic director moved the game," Coach Roy Hallenbeck said. The team is chartering a bus to Trout-fest.
Several downtown business will close early for owners and employees going to the game, and most youth-league games were rescheduled.
"They'll roll up the sidewalks, and there will be nobody here," Quinn said. "Everyone is going to Philadelphia."
That's the kind of effect Trout has on this town, which Quinn described as "Mayberry R.F.D. in the 1960s" but has endured tough times since the last of the glass, rubber and heavy machinery factories that fueled the economy for decades shut down in the early 1990s.
Cumberland County's 13% unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state. Fueled by drug and gang activity, Millville's rate for violent and property crimes is twice the national average.
"The biggest employer in the area," lifetime resident Mike Chiola, 72, said without a hint of irony, "is the federal and state prisons."
The humility, work ethic and grit Trout has displayed during his meteoric rise, and the joy with which he plays the game, is helping to change Millville's image.
"We've lost a lot of jobs, we've gotten ourselves on a lot of the wrong lists, but as Mike has progressed and people have watched his climb, it's given people a bounce in their step," Tim Shannon said. "There's such a pride that this kid is from our hometown.
"Mikey is a hero here because of the way he plays, because he's blue-collar. He's not a hot-dog. He's not flamboyant. He's not Yasiel Puig. People like to see a clean-cut kid with a smile on his face playing this game with love."
When he plays in New York, Baltimore and Washington, three to eight of Sheppard's charters are filled with fans attending games.
"If he was on the East Coast every few weeks," Sheppard said, "we'd probably buy a couple more buses."
Brian Hutchings, who owns the On Deck Baseball Cards shop in neighboring Vineland, was struggling to survive the recession when Trout won the 2012 American League rookie of the year award. "Things started getting really busy," Hutchings said.
About 50% of his sales now are Trout cards, T-shirts, jerseys, bobbleheads and photographs, which fill most of his shop while Phillies jerseys hang on a back wall.
"One of my customers calls this place the House of Trout," Hutchings said. "He's definitely stimulated our business."
Crowds at the Sideline Sports Bar usually pick up when the Angels are playing, and cable and satellite television providers are profiting.
"We got my 90-year-old mother the Direct TV MLB package," Tim Shannon said. "She naps in the afternoon so she can stay up late for the Angels' West Coast games."
Shannon, with permission from Trout's parents, Jeff and Debbie, started a side business selling Troutstanding-themed T-shirts and has "made enough to cover a few bar tabs," he joked.
Hallenbeck, the high school coach, has sold about 1,000 Throwback T-shirts, replicas of Trout's No. 1 Millville jersey, in two years, generating almost $20,000.
Trout also donated $20,000 to the program after winning rookie-of-the-year honors, funds that went toward a renovation of the Thunderbolts' field, which now bears Trout's name.
The Phillies are giving Quinn an $8 rebate on each ticket sold, generating $30,000 that will be used to secure a matching grant. The $60,000 will be donated to the Millville Development Corp., which promotes downtown businesses.
"You can't put a dollar value on the publicity he's generating for this town," Quinn said of Trout. "He's been the shot in the arm this town needed."
Trout, true to his blue-collar roots, won't get too wrapped up in Millville Night festivities. He will try to acknowledge as many people as he can, but he won't do anything that gets in the way of his preparation or pre-game routine.
"I'm not going to change what I do or do any extra stuff — I'm just going to play my game," Trout said. "But hopefully I'll see some faces I haven't seen in a while. It should be a fun night."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times