In those heady days when Barry Bonds was hitting a home run just about every day, visitors would flock to the clubhouse of the San Francisco Giants.
You would turn to the right for Bonds, for his entourage, for his oversized lounge chair, and for the Giants employee nervously trying to block reporters and other outsiders from approaching the slugger. You would turn to the left for other players, and their standard-issue chairs, and their detached bemusement.
Mike Trout is baseball’s best player. Clayton Kershaw is baseball’s best pitcher. The local superstars each enter the clubhouse without a posse. They each maintain a locker in the middle of the room, surrounded by teammates.
“I’m superstitious,” Trout said. “I like to have the same locker and stuff, wherever they put me. I just want to fit in.”
Bonds delivered for the Giants, and the Giants won with him. But, from the perspective of the people who work with Trout and Kershaw every day, the Angels and Dodgers are blessed that their best players are low-maintenance ones.
“When your best player does everything right,” Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said, “it’s hard for anybody else not to follow.”
This is not a morality play. This is about workplace dynamics, about not having to roll eyes at or make excuses for the big man in the office. This is about creating a clubhouse environment most conducive to winning.
Baseball players are creatures of routine. Distractions are not welcome. Mattingly played 14 years in New York, where Darryl Strawberry was the most talented player in town and the most repetitive distraction.
“You had guys that were great players, like a Straw, who everybody loves, a lot of the fans love,” Mattingly said, “but there was always something going on with him.”
Peer pressure can work wonders. Managers can yell, coaches can cajole, but supervisors are better off pointing to one guy and saying, “Do what he does.” When that one guy is the most talented one, so much the better.
“It’s nice,” Mattingly said. “It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s nice if your franchise guy is that guy.”
Kershaw, 26, is the defending National League Cy Young award winner and owner of a seven-year, $215-million contract that makes him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. He already has won the Roberto Clemente Award, given to baseball’s foremost humanitarian each year, never before presented to a player so young.
No Kershaw story is complete without a reference to his work ethic. Rare is the day he is not the first player on the field for workouts.
Yet he insists he is not setting any kind of example for his teammates — not intentionally, at least — with his preparation.
“If I didn’t have to do anything and I could pitch well, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’s a matter of what I feel I need to do to prepare for a start.
“It’s personal preference. I don’t feel like work ethic necessarily reflects leadership.”
Leadership, he says, is about professionalism and accountability.
“It’s not something where you are being vocal,” he said. “It takes time. Over the course of a few years or a few months, people see how you go about your business.
“I think I owe that to all the guys in the clubhouse every single day. Hopefully, we have that mutual respect with all these guys in the clubhouse.”
The world sees all that in Trout. He is 22, a fresh-faced advertising darling. Repucom, a sports marketing research company that helps match athletes with corporations, recently ranked 66 major league players in various categories related to advertising potential. Trout ranked first as a trend-setter, second as a person who could influence fans, second as a person fans would aspire to be.
He has played two years in the majors, and already America wants to be like Mike.
“I don’t know what to say to that one,” Trout said.
Trout does not consider himself a leader, citing the presence in the Angels’ clubhouse of such veterans as Jered Weaver, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and David Freese.
Trout’s manager, Mike Scioscia, sees his star player as a leader in the Kershaw mold.
“Ballplayers come in a lot of different packages,” Scioscia said. “Some guys are mega-talented and maybe don’t have quite the confidence, so you have to pay attention to them. Some guys are extremely confident and probably become a little more ‘wind ‘em up and let ‘em play.’ Mike is a player that trusts his talent. He works hard at it. He doesn’t take anything for granted. That’s part of his makeup.
“It puts him in a real leadership role, because of the example he sets every day.”
Jerry Dipoto, the Angels’ general manager, said of Trout: “He’s as humble as any guy down there, without losing any of his confidence, almost in a cocky way — he knows he’s good. Not one of the other 24 players would ever identify that he’s the best player in the room because of the way he carries himself. He carries himself just like one of the guys.”
From a distance, the Dodgers rave about Trout.
“I really respect the way he plays the game,” Kershaw said. “I’d say he’s the best player in the game right now. It’s pretty easy to argue that.”
Said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis: “From afar, I’m just amazed at the professionalism and understanding of the game he has at such a young age.
“He never gives an at-bat away. He’s always aggressive on the bases. He’s always mentally into the game. Clayton does it for nine innings, but Trout does it every single day, 160 times a year.”
On Thursday, before the opening game of the Freeway Series, ESPN reporter Beto Duran tweeted how Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe had posed for a picture with Trout, then jokingly said they would trade Yasiel Puig to get him — within earshot of Puig, who also posed for a photo with Trout and his Dodgers teammates.
Mattingly and Ellis each dropped the Derek Jeter comparison on Trout, and neither was the first to do so. The iconic Yankees shortstop is retiring after this season, and baseball will need a new face.
In Kershaw and Trout, we’ve got two.