Here's a baseball story: Two supremely talented young players enter the league at the same time, immediately establish themselves as stars and are forever linked thereafter.
It's a story that has been told before, and now it's being told again.
The most revered telling of the story starred New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle and New York/San Francisco Giants great Willie Mays, who arrived in 1951 and might as well have been joined at the hip as they proceeded to become the stars of their era.
The latest telling of the story stars Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. They're part of a narrative that is unfolding like a carbon copy of the tale of Mantle and Mays.
Not buying it? Then you better pull up a chair and get ready for a deeper dive.
The Build-Up: One of These Things is Not Like the Other...Or is It?
Remember what it was like when Mantle and Mays first broke into the league?
Lyle Spatz does. He's a writer and a historian, and he told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick what he recalled about the early days of Mantle and Mays from when he was in his teens. Spatz remembered that Mantle was the big hot-shot prospect, while Mays was more of an under-the-radar prospect.
"I remember in 1951, Mantle was expected to be great, and Mays, to me, was kind of hidden in [Triple-A] Minneapolis before he got to New York and Leo Durocher started telling everyone how great he was," said Spatz.
Saying Mantle was "expected to be great" is an understatement if there ever was one. Right off the bat, Mantle was expected to be an all-time great.
Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times wrote in 1951 that Mantle was "a legend before he came of age," and he captured the general perception of a 19-year-old Mantle at the time:
Mickey Charles Mantle, the new 19-year-old right fielder for the New York Yankees, is, in the opinion of most sports writers, the most promising young man to enter big-league baseball since the ascension of Joe DiMaggio, who thinks, without any editorial equivocation at all, that Mantle is the greatest rookie he has ever seen. ‘Greatest’ is a word used sparingly by DiMaggio and then only in its veritable, or non-show business sense.
There you have it. Mantle was not only anointed by the writers as the next big thing, but by Joe DiMaggio himself as well. No pressure, kid.
Things were different for Mays. When the Giants called him up in 1951, he didn't have to worry about being the next DiMaggio. There was no pressure on Mays to be the next guy.
There was, however, pressure on Mays to be the guy. He got the call to the big leagues in May of 1951 because the Giants sorely needed a center fielder. Millstein recalled the tale in 1954, noting that Giants president Horace C. Stoneham remarked that Mays' arrival satisfied the club's "most critical need."
But in addition to that, Stoneham also knew that the Giants were calling up a special player. Mays was batting .477 with eight home runs in only 35 games at the time of his call-up from the Minneapolis Millers, prompting Stoneham to say, "Merit must be recognized."
Now consider Trout and Harper.
The build-up towards Harper's major league career was Mantle-like. Whereas Mantle was billed as the most promising young player to enter the league since Joe D when he was a rookie, Harper was cast by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated as baseball's LeBron James while he was still a teenager.
“Just about everyone in the baseball industry has known about Harper for at least two years," wrote Verducci. "To a man they describe him as an impact player with the skills, body and attitude—he says he models his game after those of Mickey Mantle and Pete Rose—perfectly suited for the sport.”
Harper went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and by last spring experts like Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein (now the Pro Scouting Coordinator of the Houston Astros) were very much on board with Harper's vast potential. Goldstein called Harper "arguably the most hyped prospect in baseball history" and wrote that, somehow, he was "as good as advertised."
So when Harper got the call to the big leagues in late April last year, it was kind of a big deal. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote: "They’re going to make a movie about this someday."
The build-up to Trout's major league career was different. He did not appear on any Sports Illustrated covers as a teenager, nor was he even considered a top prospect ahead of the 2009 draft.
Baseball America ranked Trout as the No. 22 overall draft prospect in 2009 and compared him not as baseball's answer to LeBron James or the next coming of an all-time baseball great. No, the best comp BA could come up with was Aaron Rowand:
Trout's frame and skill set draws comparisons to Aaron Rowand, but he's a faster runner—he runs the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. He has good range and instincts in center field and plenty of arm for the position. Trout's bat is not a sure thing, but he has a chance to be a solid-average hitter with average or better power. Like Rowand, Trout is a grinder who always plays the game hard.
Trout's potential greatness didn't go entirely unnoticed, however. Verducci wrote an article about Trout last year that referenced the original scouting report of Trout by the Angels' New Jersey area scout, Greg Morhardt. It read: "Best athlete. Best player in the world—period. Best player on the planet."
Heading into 2012, Harper was still widely viewed as the best prospect in the game. ESPN's Keith Law (Insider article) disagreed, ranking Trout No. 1 in his preseason prospect rankings and writing that he was "the perfect prospect."
Bobby Abreu's release in late April of 2012 was Trout's ticket to the big leagues. The Angels were filling a need, and the guy they had chosen to fill it had certainly earned it. Trout was hitting over .400 in Triple-A at the time the Angels called him up.
So as far as this comparison goes, Trout was to Mays as Harper was to Mantle. Like Mantle, Harper was heralded as the next great thing and was already a legend by the time he got to the big leagues. Like Mays, Trout was less of a legend by the time his big league career really got on track after a brief cameo in the majors in 2011, but there was a quiet consensus that he was headed for greatness.
As for how they actually performed upon arriving to the big leagues, the comparison holds true: Harper was Mantle, and Trout was Mays.
Achieving Star Status: Immediate Brilliance and the Tease of Brilliance
They both made their debuts in 1951, but Mantle had the inside track to greatness against Mays. Whereas Mays didn't get called up until late May, Mantle was in the Yankees' Opening Day lineup.
Mantle got off to a promising start, as he was hitting over .300 with an .838 OPS as late as May 22. But then he fell into a deep slump, hitting .215 with a .687 OPS over his next 38 games.
Mantle ended up getting hit with a demotion to the minor leagues in July. The story goes that he put in a phone call to his father at one point and said that he wanted to quit the game altogether.
Meanwhile, Mays was busy raking up in the big leagues. He got off to a slow start with only one hit in his first 26 at-bats, but then proceeded to hit .364 with a 1.088 OPS and six homers over his next 28 games. He ended up leading all rookies in home runs with 20, helping to lead the Giants to a 98-win season and a trip to the World Series.
By the time Mays was putting the finishing touches on his big rookie season, something was happening across town in The Bronx: Mantle was back in the big leagues and on fire.
The Yankees recalled Mantle in late August just in time for the stretch run, and he proceeded to hit .284 with an .865 OPS and six homers and 20 RBI in 27 games. Average production like that out over a full season, and you get 36 homers and 120 RBI.
The Yankees went 18-9 in the 27 games Mantle played in, and their hot finish allowed them to hold off the Cleveland Indians to capture the American League pennant. Mantle and the Yankees took on Mays and the Giants in the World Series, and ultimately won in six.
Harper and Trout, of course, made their 2012 debuts on the exact same day: April 28. Harper had the louder debut, going 1-for-3 with a double and an RBI while Trout went hitless in four at-bats.
After that, it was no contest.
By the All-Star break, Trout was hitting .341 with 12 homers and 26 stolen bases. By the end of July, he was hitting .353 with 18 homers and 31 stolen bases. The word "epic" didn't even come close.
He cooled off in the dog days, but Trout stayed warm enough through the end of the year to finish with a .326/.399/.564 batting line, 30 homers and 49 stolen bases. Those numbers, combined with his excellent defensive play in the outfield, gave Trout a 10.9 WAR by Baseball-Reference.com's calculation, the best ever for a rookie.
Harper's rookie season was not es explosive as Trout's, and you'll recall that things were downright bleak for a while there. Harper managed to make the National League All-Star team, but he couldn't buy a hit after the break. For a period of 27 games, he hit just .173 with a .532 OPS.
The Nationals didn't respond by demoting Harper down to the minor leagues as the Yankees had done with Mantle in 1951, but manager Davey Johnson did stash Harper on the bench on a couple occasions. The writing was on the wall that Harper was going to have to hit if he wanted to play.
That's about when he snapped out of his funk, doing so just in time for the home stretch. Harper hit .327 with a 1.045 OPS and 12 homers in Washington's final 44 games, helping the Nats secure the organization's first postseason berth since 1981.
To that end, Harper finished his rookie season much like Mantle finished his. He arrived amidst an immense amount of hype, went through some growing pains, but then responded to adversity with a promising finish.
Trout, meanwhile, took to the big leagues just like Mays did: Immediately. Mays was an instant success and an easy choice for the National League Rookie of the Year, and Trout was an instant success who was an easy choice for the American League Rookie of the Year.
Now the debate is underway, just as it was following the debuts of Mantle and Mays in 1951.
The Great Debate: This Guy! That Guy! Rabble! Rabble! Rabble!
Mantle or Mays?
Baseball fans can still argue over that question today, but our arguments are nothing like the ones that were had back in the day when Mantle and Mays were lighting up the sport at the same time.
Mays' career stalled in 1952 when he was drafted into the Army, so he and Mantle had to wait until 1954 before they could start firmly cementing themselves. Mays won the NL batting crown and MVP that year, while Mantle posted a .933 OPS and hit 27 homers. Both were named All-Stars.
Mantle and Mays were All-Stars again in 1955 and they ended up leading their respective leagues in homers. Mantle took up a semi-permanent residence in the top five of the American League MVP voting that year, and Mays did the same in the National League. Both also took up permanent residences at the All-Star Game.
All the while, there was the question: Mantle or Mays? And it was a doozy.
Wrote John Drebinger of The New York Times in 1957:
Here's one that can stir up a hornets' nest almost anytime two or more baseball addicts get together. Fans are funny at that. It never would do to say that the two greatest ballplayers of today happen to be the Yankees' Mickey Mantle and the Giants' Willie Mays. Your fan insists that there is room for only one name at the top. There can be no division of honors up there.
As for which way the populace was leaning at the time...Well, that's complicated.
Rob Neyer wrote about the Mantle/Mays debate for ESPN.com a few years back, noting that Bill James was of the mind that the MVP voting of the day revealed who was generally thought to be the better player at the time. That would have been Mantle, not Mays.
Famed sportswriter Red Smith wasn't so sure. In fact, he wasn't even so sure the debate was only around Mantle and Mays.
"(Duke) Snider, (Mickey) Mantle and (Willie) Mays. You could get a fat lip in any saloon by starting an argument as to which was best," wrote Smith once, via Baseball-Almanac.com. "One point was beyond argument, though. Willie was by all odds the most exciting."
Arnold Hano, another great baseball writer of the day, said something to this effect when Neyer asked him about the Mantle vs. Mays debate.
"Most people thought that Mays was the better...something or other," said Hano. "I don't know exactly what the numbers said, but there was something about Mays that always went beyond that. Even today, you don't hear about Mantle doing anything except hitting tape-measure home runs."
Any of this sound familiar?
It should. The Harper vs. Trout debate has the same sort of structure, with Harper playing the Mantle role and Trout playing the Mays role. Harper is the slugger, and Trout is the all-around talent with that certain some or other (more on that later).
"That question right there is the one every clubhouse argues," San Diego Padres closer Huston Street told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports at the All-Star Game. "You've got American League, National League. West Coast and East Coast. Speed and power."
In 2012, the debate was an easy one to answer. Trout's tremendous production overshadowed every collection of numbers produced by every player in baseball outside of eventual Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Harper was having a good season, but Trout was having a brilliant season.
"He's the best player in the game," Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane told Tom Verducci for an article he wrote about Trout in August . "He's the most exciting talent I've seen come into the game since A-Rod and Griffey Jr. There's a 0.1 percent chance of finding a player like this. It happens once every 15, 20 years—if that."
But that was then. This is now. And now is not so much about where Harper and Trout have been or what they're doing. It's about where they're going. Now the question is which of them is going to have a bigger 2013 season and a bigger career.
This is one of those fat-lip-in-any-saloon arguments that Red Smith was talking about, for now those who back Harper have just as many legs to stand on as those who back Trout. The argument is about potential, and there's no denying that Harper's reservoir of untapped potential is a lot bigger than Trout's.
For what it's worth, I'm a Harper-backer. I backed him in a debate with B/R's Gabe Zaldivar back in February, and I've also openly (some would say "annoyingly") bragged about my confidence in Harper's MVP chances this year.
But go ahead. You can argue. I welcome it. I encourage it.
It's the reality that we can and are having this argument that matters. It's certainly not Mantle vs. Mays yet, but Harper vs. Trout is a darn good one. And naturally, there's room for only one at the top.
Know this, though: When you pick a side in the Harper vs. Trout debate, you might be unaware that it's not just the numbers that swayed your decision.
The Perception Game: Ballplayers on a Stage
When it came to Mantle and Mays, the appeal wasn't just about what was on the outside. What was under the hood counted for something as well. The two had different personalities, and those personalities impacted how their stories were chronicled.
Even today, Mays' reputation as one of the great happy-go-lucky players of all time is still holding strong. "The Say Hey Kid" was a guy who was always acutely aware of the fact that he was playing a kids' game for a living, and he loved every minute of it.
This is a legend that has deep roots. Millstein wrote this in his 1954 article:
Among the descriptions, none of them half-heated, that have been applied to Mays to explain his galvanizing effect on the Giants, aside from those applying to his proficiency at his trade, are ‘terrific morale guy, ‘ ‘lovable,’ ‘affable,’ ‘wonderful,’ a possessor of that ‘I-don’t-care-spirit,’ ‘happy-go-lucky,’ ‘effervescent,’ ‘very decent little boy,’ and a number of other towering bromides, all of which appear to be accurate.
It's a lot harder to apply these exact words to Mantle, but his own legend as a ballplayer does have a positive shine to it. We remember The Mick as an All-American guy who was a larger than life character on a larger than life team in a larger than life city.
The story goes, however, that he was not a happy man.
"Mantle played ball almost under a shroud of depression," Hano told Neyer, "because he always thought he was going to die an early death...Mantle acted like a man who was doomed."
Hano also recalled that the polar-opposite personalities of Mantle and Mays inspired those who wrote about them accordingly:
Mantle never had fun. Mays, on the other hand, seemed to be inoculated from all the pressure. He simply went beyond the usual frames of reference. If I were writing this, I'd say that he went beyond the usual frames of reverence.
That's the way we all felt, and I think it was true for not only the press, but also for managers and other players. And this bled into the other pages of the newspaper.
It wasn't just the pages of the newspaper. Neyer made this observation about the inspirational qualities of Mantle and Mays: "To this day, nobody's written a good book, let alone a great book, about Mickey Mantle. And why? Because Mantle simply did not inspire great writers. Mays did."
Harper and Trout inspire writers and, by extension, baseball fans differently as well. That much is clear just when looking at the two Tom Verducci articles referenced above.
When Verducci set out to write his article about Harper in 2009, he found an arrogant kid with a chip on his shoulder who truly wanted to live up to the hype. It's no surprise that Verducci's article had a "You better get to know this kid's name, because he's coming to kick your butt" sort of tone.
Given how much notoriety that article gained, it's equally unsurprising that so many fans and writers were quick to pile on Harper for being too cocky for his own good when he was doing things like blowing kisses at opposing pitchers in the minor leagues. Words get around, perceptions materialize and they then have a tendency to stick.
Now consider the long article Verducci produced on Trout. He discovered a quiet, humble All-American boy, and he produced a rather typical portrait of a quiet, humble All-American boy. The tone of the article was something along the lines of "He's just as perfect off the field as he is on it."
That's the book on Trout. Whereas Harper is the furious force of nature, Trout is the quiet natural. Jeff Passan nailed it when he wrote that Trout is appreciated for his "quiet brilliance," Harper for his "sheer force of persona." Trout's the hero, and Harper's the anti-hero.
There's plenty of time for the perceptions of these two to change. If all goes well, they're both going to be playing ball for a long time, and that means they're going to be granting many interviews and inspiring all sorts of different newspaper and magazine columns. It's just a matter of time before the first books are written.
Along the way, their legends will grow in tandem, just like Mantle and Mays. They were great ballplayers with unique back stories who dominated on the field and inspired one of the greatest debates not just in baseball history, but in sports history.
Now the board and all the pieces are set for Harper and Trout to do the same. They must play this game together, and it's their turn.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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