They were always in the back of Mike Trout’s mind.
His family. His young son Beckham. The fans, his teammates, the entire Angels organization. Trout wanted to be out on the field for each and every single one of them.
Trout’s calf injury, which has kept him out since May 17, has led to a season of sitting on the sidelines and emotional frustration. The three-time MVP said that August, when the Angels were still treading water at .500 and looking to make a playoff push, was the toughest month of his career. He told reporters then that he was “going crazy.”
Yet on Saturday, in finally confirming that he’d be shut down for the rest of the 2021 season, Trout seemed in better spirits. The mental pressure of trying to make a comeback was off.
“I think once I made that decision,” Trout said, “it kind of put my head where I needed to be. I’m in a good spot right now.”
His health was a constant topic for the last couple of months. Behind the scenes, Trout said, he and the training staff were “trying everything” to get back on the field, but his body simply wasn’t cooperating.
He progressed, slowly. But as the season carried into September, a recovery would still mean taking a week-plus-long rehab assignment. One day he’d feel strong and ready to hop on a plane; the next, he’d wake up and feel sore. It was an “emotional rollercoaster,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Angels, who had hovered around the fringes of the playoff race all season, were starting to slip as injuries finally caught up to them in late August. Trout finished the season with a .333 batting average and eight home runs in 117 at-bats.
“Seeing my teammates going out there working hard every day and not being able to contribute, it was probably one of the toughest moments of my career,” Trout said.
He didn’t pinpoint an exact date as to when he was ruled out for the season. But after conversations with the trainers and front-office personnel this month, the decision was made to shut him down. It was an emotional moment, Trout said.
“That’s the frustrating part,” he said. “I felt like I was so close.”
If the season were 200 games long, fans might certainly have seen him back on the field. Perhaps even 175. But eventually, he simply ran out of time, he said.
After the mental ordeal, Trout took a little time off. Since returning, he has resumed running and working out, beginning his offseason preparation. Now, he barely feels the injury, which scans have shown is completely healed outside of residual scar tissue, he said.
“I’m almost 100%, if not 100%,” he said.
This Mike Trout, a 30-year-old veteran who has now been through the gauntlet of a season-long injury, is different from the young phenom Angels fans once knew. Angels manager Joe Maddon sees the changes, despite having known Trout for only two seasons.
Everyone has to find their voice at some point in their lives, the manager said. In a season where Trout’s only contribution to his team has had to come in the form of nuggets of advice rather than towering home runs, Maddon gave high praise for the outfielder’s leadership.
“I think he definitely has become more comfortable in his own skin,” Maddon said Saturday. “He’s always been sure of himself, but now I think he’s more willing to verbalize exactly what he’s feeling.”
Trout has often served as a mentor for the Angels’ youth infusion this season. If his confidence in a full, healthy offseason and spring training ring true, he’ll have the chance to play alongside promising youngsters such as Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell next season.
In the meantime, after Maddon made waves recently by expressing the need to recruit more talent in the offseason following what probably will go down as the team’s sixth straight losing season, Trout gave his own call to arms.
“This offseason is going to be big,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of money to spend — hopefully go out there and get some good guys. I trust [general manager] Perry [Minasian], I trust the top guys in this organization.”
After a season of whispers about his health, of the pressure of rushing a potential return, Trout — sporting his trademark backward cap and even cracking a couple of jokes in the dugout Saturday — finally seems comfortable.
“I look back,” he said, “and I’m learning from everything.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.