Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What Was Old Is New Again

In the fall of 2009 Major League Baseball sold their last ticket.  The National Pastime that had endured more than a century, shaped the lives of millions, helped carry a country through the good and the bad times, had taken its final breath.  It would have been an almost poetic end to a long chapter of Americana – one of the game’s most iconic players, throwing the final pitch for the most storied franchise in the most historic of baseball cities – had it not really been the end.  It’s easy to embrace the closing chapter on the pages of some book, but when that story represents stitches in the fabric of real lives -- well, then it becomes a more harsh reality.  Under the crushing burden of a great financial calamity, the bad business dealings of cigar chomping business titans, and a game that had become ensconced in scandal, modern American baseball as we knew it collapsed under its own weight.

It would take years to fully understand the ramifications of this far-reaching cataclysm. It wasn’t merely a game that disappeared.  A country – perhaps the world - had lost a part of itself.  But like a phantom limb, a sensation still lingered; and it was that sensation that would sow the seeds of rebirth. It’s here where our story really begins . . .

Vineland, New Jersey, 2011 – A heavy axe falls through log after log, like the proverbial hot knife through butter.  It’s not the sharpness of the axe nor the brittleness of the wood – it’s the power behind it.  A 19 year-old stands tall, hands calloused from the work, breathing a heavy sigh as he stacks another cord of wood.  It’s gotten colder, earlier these last few years in Vineland. One would think it had something to do with a global phenomenon, but the young man standing beside a mountain of splintered oak thought otherwise.  You see there was supposed to be another future for this picture perfect juggernaut.  This 6’2”, 235 lb. wunderkind was to be the next coming.  He was supposed to take the now dormant world of professional baseball by storm.  Tabbed as the next Mantle, the next Mays -- this young man’s future was to be one for the ages.  But in the fall of 2009, only a few months after being drafted, it all came to an abrupt end. 

Michael Nelson Trout, the youngest son of Jeff and Debbie Trout, who at only 17 year’s old was proclaimed by scout Greg Morhardt as the “fastest and strongest 17-year-old I have ever seen on a baseball field,” would need to find a new path. The Trouts were a tight-knit family and baseball ran in their blood.  Mike’s dad Jeff was a former minor league player himself in the early 80’s whose own career was cut short due to injury.  But Mike never even got the chance to suit up. When the world lost professional baseball in 2009, the Trouts lost a little more.  It wasn’t as if the game just evaporated. No, it still carried on for kids in backlots and schoolyards, but the ties that bound it to American life were broken. 

When all the players were told to pack up their bags and head home, Mike simply left it all behind.  Mike retreated back to Vineland, back to something familiar, back to his family.  Countless players, having already made millions, escaped away to far off corners of the world never to be heard from again.  Others tried valiantly to reignite the flame.  There were no longer untold fortunes to be made, and the adulation of thousands of cheering fans fell silent. But a group of players looked to the past for inspiration, and inspiration they did deliver. 

With vacant minor and major league ballparks scattered throughout the country, an opportunity lay either waiting to decay or rise like a phoenix.  The country was in shambles and the national pastime but a husk, but by the early spring of 2012, something was stirring. 

They called it Barnstorming back in the day.  A time when segregation blighted the land and some of the greatest talent in the sport was excluded from competing on the grandest stage. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, the list goes on and on.  They showed America what kind of talent was hidden from the spotlight as they tore through the countryside.  But now, with the dissolution of professional baseball, all the talent would be hidden.  Sure you could catch a kid in the high school or college ranks, but where did they go from there?  Most resolved to pursue other sports entirely.  With no professional option in sight, baseball, in short order, would surely fade to the dustbin of history.  Enter Vernon Wells and Curtis Granderson: two well liked former big leaguers with a plan.  Empty ballparks dotted the land, and former big leaguers followed suit.  Taking inspiration from the great barnstorming teams of the past, Wells and Granderson would set out to put a team together.  A team of passionate former players.  All-Stars who refused to believe the dream was dead.  Knowing that all over the country former big leaguers resided, they would storm from town to town with their All-Stars to match up against other former players. They would put the excitement back in baseball, and, it was their hope, rejuvenate this once great game. 

With the professional league now dormant for nearly 3 years, getting things back up to speed would take some time, and the sport would need a new hero.  To many fans around the country the former big leaguers represented what had gone wrong with the game and why it collapsed. It was a tough sell at the beginning . . . but nothing easy is worth doing.  Led by Wells and Granderson the U.S. Ghosts -- a name that whimsically played off the fact that the sport had disappeared and was attempting to reappear (the players often calling themselves “us ghosts”) -- began a slow march around the country.  At first games were almost a secret endeavor. Like Van Halen holding a surprise concert, a game would just happen. This was old school barnstorming at its best. Combine that with this being the age of the internet and the birth of social media . . . well, word began to spread, and people once again began to pay attention.

The U.S. Ghosts were making a name for themselves, and like the famed Harlem Globetrotters - with Wells taking the role of Meadowlark Lemon to Granderson’s Fred “Curly” Neal - the Ghosts were becoming something to behold.  Famed sports columnist Tom Verducci even saw fit to give the term barnstorming a modern refresh, coining the phrase “Ghostballing” for this traveling band of crackerjacks. But still, a sour taste rested in many a fan’s mouth.  It would take something more to truly put the sport back in the forefront of modern America.  

Around this time, late in the summer 2012, in his home in Mission Hills, Kansas, a 59 year-old gentleman, far past his prime, cracked open the Kansas City Star to read a story with wide-eyed amazement.  Sam Mellinger, the KC Star’s lead sports writer, had just penned what could only be described as a love letter to Ghostballing.  With the sentiment that only a true baseball fan could muster, Sam waxed poetic about this amazing attempt to put baseball back in the American consciousness.  As fate would have it, that very week Ghostballing would make its first appearance at a long shuttered Kauffman Stadium, home of the once regaled Kansas City Royals and a place this gentleman knew well.  

So the day approached and off to the game he went.  Kauffman Stadium had become rundown and the crowd was middling at best.  But what this man saw that day would change the course of his life and the sport.  Unmired by the weight of corporations and the stench of prima donnas, the game was fun again.  Men, playing a boys game with an exuberance not seen in decades.  A throwback perhaps to his time he felt, when contracts hadn’t yet skyrocketed and every stadium didn’t name itself to the highest bidder.  What he saw made him want to be a part again and what a part he would play.  

In the spring of 2013, George Howard Brett, baseball Hall of Famer, the man who charged the mound so many years before the last pitch was thrown in the sport’s cathedral, would agree to manage the U.S. Ghosts and help lead professional baseball back to the limelight.  

But to fully get over the hump, the game still needed a marquee star, and Brett new this.  Brett was no stranger to the days of “the straw that stirred the drink” and he was keenly aware that Ghostballing was in need of a second coming.  Brett remembered an old friend he had met in spring training back in the early 80’s, a player by the name of Jeff Trout.  Jeff was a good man, and a decent player, and George knew he now lived back east in New Jersey.  Oddly enough, word had been spreading about a young kid named Trout putting on a show in the backlots of the Tri-State Area.  Baseball had become a small world at this point, and for those in the know, news spread quickly.  

So, with the baseball gods smiling down, in the summer of 2013, the U.S. Ghosts made their way to Trenton, New Jersey, to a former minor league stadium known as Waterfront Park.  Brett had become an attraction with the Ghosts – a snarling, fire breathing, Pop Fisher type.  The fans beginning to come out were coming to see him as much as the game.  Prior to rolling through town, Brett had placed a call to Jeff Trout. He told him to make the 69 mile drive up to Trenton and see the game – and to bring his son.  


Mike Trout had spent the last few years getting back to what he knew: Playing ball because he loved it.  His talent was immeasurable, but he thrived for a challenge – competition to test his mettle.  When word began to spread that Ghostballing had emerged, Mike began to dream again.  Could this be the opportunity he had been waiting for? Was there really a chance?  


The drive was one of nervous energy.  Brett had asked Jeff to arrive early at the park. He wanted to speak with him, and most importantly, he wanted to meet Mike.  As father and son approached the park, they were met by an eager Brett.  They exchanged pleasantries but Brett was anxious, he wanted to see what this kid was all about.  Brett had heard enough hype in his storied career – the proof was always on the field.  So Brett simply said, “He kid, can you play?”  The rest some would say is history.  Mike Trout would put on a display not seen in ages.  A talent beyond all the rest.  The talent the world of baseball needed.  That night Trout played in his first game for the U.S. Ghosts and he hit for the cycle. Every night Trout stepped on the field his heroics grew, and every night so did the crowds.  Teamed with the no nonsense, old curmudgeon that George Brett had become, the combination of Trout and Brett, the new and old, the recaptured future and the blissful past, had begun to vault baseball back into the national discussion. 

#TroutBrett became a thing.  The new generation of fans, being turned on to what once seemed like a tired game, was euphoric.  And as Mike Trout and George Brett brought them in the park, the rekindled love of the game began to keep them.  The U.S. Ghosts were ghosts no more.  They were on their way to fully materializing back into an organized league.  Fans were coming out, stadiums were reopening, Ghostballing simply became baseballing (with a hashtag of course). By early 2015 professional baseball was about to re-enter the country’s lexicon. 

On a cold February morning in 2015, Mike Trout and George Brett boarded a Cessna TTx.  They were to make a quick flight from Mike’s home to Cooperstown, site of the old Baseball Hall of Fame, to be on hand as Major League Baseball reemerged from the darkness. The plane never made it.  Somewhere over Poughkeepsie, New York, the small jet ran into engine trouble and crashed into the Hudson River.  All aboard were killed.  Trout, the greatest athlete the game had seen in ages, would never play in an official regular season game. Brett – the man some consider responsible for bringing the game back to the spotlight – too would never see the new beginnings for the game he loved.  

In March of 2015, Spring Training would officially start again for the first time in six years.  Baseball would finally be whole once more. The moniker of Major League Baseball would officially be retired.  In honor of Mike Trout and George Brett the new league would be dubbed the Trout/Brett Baseball Association.  

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