Mike Trout celebrates with teammate Will Biggs after scoring against during… (Michael Ein / The Press of…)
MILLVILLE, N.J. — Norman Rockwell never visited this small south New Jersey town, but he rendered its likeness in hundreds of paintings, from the low-slung brick storefronts along Main Street to the snow-covered banks of the Maurice River.
He painted the people, too, all square jaws and determination. Hard working. Humble.
"Salt of the earth," Mayor Tim Shannon says.
Shannon should know. In addition to being mayor he's fifth-generation Millvillian, part of a family that first settled here just after the Civil War.
"There is a core of Millville people that have been here for generations," he says. "As a newbie coming in, you're just not readily accepted. You've got to pay some dues."
Jeff Trout, Shannon's former neighbor, is another longtime resident. He followed his father and grandfather into the now-shuttered glass, rubber and heavy machinery factories that once powered Millville, a throwback town that imbues its native sons and daughters with throwback values.
"It's not a town where you're going to find a lot of doctors and lawyers," Trout says. "It's blue collar to the core."
The Trouts did find time to play baseball, though. Among the few summers Jeff spent away from Millville were four he spent hitting .303 as a minor leaguer in the Minnesota Twins' system. Jeff's father had been a star at the local high school, and his grandfather was such a good hitter his nickname was "Bats."
Then there's Jeff's youngest, the one whom everyone here calls Mikey. As a child, he lined rocks, whiffle balls and anything else he could swing at off the vinyl siding of Shannon's house.
Last year, Mike Trout was the American League rookie of the year, batting .326 with 30 home runs for the Angels, and leading the league with 49 stolen bases and 129 runs.
The big leagues had rarely seen a freshman season anywhere as productive as Trout's. And Millville — quiet, modest Millville — had never experienced anything like it.
Mike Trout is everywhere but nowhere in Millville, a town of 28,000 about 45 miles — and five decades — from Philadelphia.
"It's got a little 1950s in it and it's got a little 2013 in it," says sportswriter Michael McGarry of the Press of Atlantic City. "And they love high school sports."
The Thunderbolts of Millville High — the only high school in town — sell season tickets to their football games. And at the Sidelines Sports Bar across town, owner Ted Lambert has framed the jerseys of the 10 most recent Millville players to make at least second-team all-state — including the No. 54 jersey he wore in 1989.
On many nights, hobbled men with graying hair gather at the bar to recount their glory days, telling stories of long-ago games most everyone else has forgotten.
But young Mike Trout, still only 21, is the most famous player to wear a Thunderbolts uniform. He played just one season of high school football even though the coaching staff promised to rewrite its offensive playbook if he returned at quarterback as a sophomore.
In basketball, Trout was a 6-foot-1 all-league forward who averaged 14.7 points and 11 rebounds per game and could dunk from a standing start in street clothes. In baseball, he batted .531 in 26 games as a senior, homering a state-record 18 times — one more than the number of strikeouts he had in four seasons.
So while Millville is home to a former Miss New Jersey, it's Trout's photo that hangs on a back wall at Jim's Lunch, a popular downtown diner, and it's Trout who is on the poster taped inside the front window of the S&J Pizzeria a couple of blocks away. It's Trout's smiling face that crowds a banner in the lobby of city hall, dwarfing the framed portraits of the five city commissioners, and it's his name that could soon be affixed to the Millville High baseball field.
But the real Trout has been about as visible as a vapor trail around town this winter. His black Mercedes CSL is frequently parked in front his parents' two-story house on what used to be a quiet cul-du-sac just outside town, but visitors are most often told he isn't home.
To avoid crowds, he trains with weights after 10 p.m., when the door to the Center for Health and Fitness has been locked and everyone else has been sent home. When a gaggle of curious school kids approach him at the Cumberland Mall, they're intercepted by Nicole Maul, a family friend who has known Mike since his mother first wheeled him into Jim's Lunch in a baby stroller.
"That's not Mike, it's his brother," says Maul, whose fib assures Trout a few more precious minutes of peace in a winter so hectic his parents changed their cellphone numbers after being interrupted 27 times during a 45-minute dinner.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Trout. A sponsor is demanding a photo shoot like the one GQ magazine got. ESPN wants to send a film crew to watch Trout work out. And friends and neighbors continue to request a photo, autograph or a few minutes of time.