The idea hit Mike Trout on his way to Angel Stadium on Friday. Only two days had passed since the memorial service for Trout’s brother-in-law, Aaron Cox, and the Angels center fielder thought of a way he could honor the 24-year-old pitcher, who until recently was a prospect in the Angels’ farm system.
This was the start of “Players Weekend,” when major leaguers wear nicknames on their jerseys that reflect their personalities and passions. When Trout took the field against the Houston Astros for his first game since Aug. 1, the name, “A. COX,” in block letters, was written above Trout’s No. 27.
“It meant a lot,” Trout said after a 9-3 loss to the Astros. “I didn’t really tell anyone I was doing it. I came in and told Keith [Tarter, Angels equipment manager] before the game that it would be cool to honor him tonight. It’s special. He was a brother-in-law to me, but he was also one of my closest friends.”
Trout said he was “emotionally drained” and still reeling from Cox’s Aug. 15 death when he returned to Orange County from New Jersey on Thursday. Aaron Cox was the younger brother of Jessica Tara Cox, whom Trout married last December. The Trout and Cox families have known each other for more than a decade.
“When you lose a family member like that, as close as I was to him, it’s tough,” Trout said. “He was a great kid. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. When it happened, you tell yourself you want to wake up from a dream or a bad nightmare. We’ll get through it. He has a great family. It’s just been a tough couple of days.”
The difficult and lengthy grieving process has just begun for Trout, but a return to the rhythms of baseball — with its daily pregame routines and rituals, the focus and concentration required to grind through at-bats and play defense, the clubhouse banter, the hugs and high-fives with teammates and coaches he has spent the past seven months with — can only help.
“I think when people go through tragedies in life and they spend time grieving, connecting with teammates/friends/coaches can kind of help,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said before the game. “It can be therapeutic in that sense. That’s my hope for him at this time. He’s got a heavy heart.”
Eppler, team president John Carpino, farm director Mike LaCassa and a number of Angels minor leaguers attended Wednesday’s memorial service for Cox at the Chestnut Assembly of God in Vineland, N.J. Owner Arte Moreno and his wife, Carole, attended Tuesday’s viewing at Dorchester United Methodist.
As he watched Trout comfort family members and friends, especially his wife, Eppler gained even more appreciation for the two-time American League most valuable player.
“He’s such a remarkable person, son, brother, husband, brother-in-law, teammate … it carries responsibility, which he doesn’t shy away from,” Eppler said. “It just makes you kind of marvel even more at him. He and Aaron were very close. I could see the responsibility he was shouldering there.”
Trout, who hadn’t played since he jammed his right wrist sliding into third base at Tampa Bay on Aug. 1, was declared physically fit to return after taking a dozen at-bats in a simulated game Thursday. About 10 minutes before Friday night’s game, Trout stood along the left-field line, bowed his head and rocked from side to side as the Angels held a moment of silence for Cox and displayed Cox’s picture on the stadium video boards. The national anthem was sung. Then, it was time to get back to work.
Trout stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning to a rousing ovation. He drove the first major league pitch he had seen in 3½ weeks, a 90-mph fastball from Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel, off the left-field wall for a triple. Trout struck out, walked and singled in his next three plate appearances.
“It felt good to be back with the guys,” Trout said. “Every so often you think about [Aaron]. Coming to the field, you hear a song that you know he liked. But it’s good to get back on the field. It was tough. I was fighting emotions tonight. You can’t help but not think about him. We were really close.”
Manager Mike Scioscia said it was clear Trout was physically ready to play, but Trout will have other challenges.
“It will be an emotional burden that he and his family will carry forward,” Scioscia said before the game, “but he’s definitely ready to come out here and play baseball.”
Can baseball serve as sort of a refuge for Trout, who entered Friday night with a .309 average, an AL-best 1.083 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 30 homers, 60 RBIs and a league-high 99 walks?
“To a certain extent, but it’s not a sanctuary,” Scioscia said. “I think the routine helps you get through stuff, but there’s always that spot for any of us who have lost people. Any time you sit back and reflect — when you’re sitting in the dugout or out in the field—it’s always with you.”
Cox, like Trout, starred at Millville High School in New Jersey. A 19th-round pick of the Angels in 2015, Cox went 7-3 with a 3.64 ERA in 68 appearances over three seasons for rookie-league Orem and Class-A Burlington and Inland Empire.
He did not pitch in 2017 because of an injury and a 50-game suspension for a positive test for a banned stimulant. Cox returned this season and compiled a 4.11 ERA in 11 relief appearances at Inland Empire but did not pitch after May 29.
Cox was placed on the disabled list June 2. He spent a few weeks pitching at the team’s minor league complex in Arizona in July but retired Aug. 6.