Times were, are and will continue to be difficult for the residents of Millville. But they've had a very welcomed distraction lately.
His name is Mike Trout -- though everyone around here seems to call him Mikey.
"Mikey's put bounce into people's steps again," Millville mayor Tim Shannon says from his office in City Hall, home to a Trout-signed jersey, numerous posters and even an autographed Little League home run ball.
"It's a sense of pride. This young man grew up, born and raised here in Millville, and made people proud to say, 'Hey, we're from Millville, Mike Trout's hometown. Mike Trout's from my hometown."
Trout's hometown is one of 28,000 people and very few secrets, where lives intertwine and the mayor doubles as a funeral director. Old Victorian houses are everywhere, a Motocross track is all the rage. Essentially, every aspect of the Angels' 21-year-old prodigy-turned-superstar can be found in one square mile.
Down East Main Street is Jim's Lunch, a 90-year-old diner where Trout usually puts down six mini-hamburgers in one sitting (don't worry, he's cut back lately). Across the street are the Babe Ruth League fields where his uniform always got dirty. And two blocks down is Cuts On High, the barbershop that has been doing his fades since eighth grade.
This past season, as Trout made Major League stadiums all over the country his own personal playgrounds, this city lived vicariously through him.
The local watering hole, Sideline Sports, bought the Extra Innings package so folks could watch all the Angels games. The city's only radio station, WSNJ, did a daily "Trout Report." And every time the Angels played in Baltimore or Boston or New York, hundreds of locals flocked to see him.
Middle-aged Millville men now sport Angels tattoos, women wear "Hooked on Trout" shirts, and just about every establishment in the city has one of those giveaway foam fish hats on display.
"For us to have this, it's huge. It's huge," Cuts On High owner Paula Heulings says. "Mikey is everybody in Millville's son."
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For the past five years, the Trouts have lived on the very outskirts of Millville, in a two-story house that sits on nearly four acres in Deerfield Township.
Upstairs is the bed Mike still sleeps in during the offseason -- next door to his brother, Tyler, who's in his final year at Rutgers Law School. Downstairs is the basement he turned into his own personal "man cave," complete with a wet bar, mini fridge, ping-pong table, PlayStation 3 and deer-hunting rifles.
His mother, Debbie, has taken on the role of Mike's business manager, per se, teaming with agent Craig Landis to schedule all of his photo shoots and appearances and interviews.
"Thank God I retired in June," says Debbie, whose husband, Jeff, is retiring after 25 years of teaching.
"This," Jeff adds, "is like running a corporation now."
On this day, Mike's black Mercedes CLS is parked outside, but his pickup truck isn't. The reigning American League Rookie of the Year Award winner is in Philadelphia, doing yet another photo shoot for the company that signed him to his first major endorsement deal, BODYARMOR SuperDrink.
This has become the way of life for baseball's most-talked-about player.
Two weeks ago, GQ Magazine did a photo shoot at the house for their April issue. Eastbay did the same for their catalog at a local gym. And in the spring, Mike will grace the covers of Men's Health and ESPN The Magazine -- this time alongside Triple Crown winner and AL MVP Award winner Miguel Cabrera.
Nike secured Mike to a four-year contract in December. J&J Snack Foods plans to put him on the back of their SuperPretzel box. And Subway will include him in a commercial that will air during Sunday's Super Bowl.
Over the past few months, Mike's parents have learned a lot of things on the fly.
They've learned that the memorabilia sent to the house doesn't get signed. Only what's sent directly to Angel Stadium.
They've learned not to get spooked when cars roll around their cul-de-sac with their cameras out -- which the neighbors have tried to minimize by saying the Trouts don't live there anymore.
They've learned to laugh it off when people call Mike's sister's house asking about her brother, or when four teenage girls roll up in a golf cart chanting his name.
Mostly, they've learned the art of saying no.
"It's funny, because I understand that they're fans, and that's great," Debbie says. "I love his fan base and everything like that. But there's only one of Mike, and there's all these people that just want one little piece of him."
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Mike quickly mastered Major League Baseball, but he's still learning the limelight. In that sense, he's the anti-Bryce Harper.
Harper is edgy and somewhat boisterous, a child prodigy who's not only used to stardom but embraces it. He intentionally smears his eye black, coins catch phrases, irritates opposing managers and can be quite endearing on camera.
Trout -- raised by a tight-knit family and a hard-nosed, baseball-playing father -- is clean cut and perceivably, well, vanilla. He's respectful yet distant; at ease in front of sold-out stadiums but jittery behind a microphone and devoid of introspection.
"The only thing those two have in common," Debbie says, "is that they both play baseball."
But Roy Hallenbeck, who replaced Jeff Trout as Millville High School's baseball coach 15 years ago, knows the real Mike Trout. He sees a hyperactive, fun-loving ultra-competitor who would cheat your mother in a game of Uno and won't let you walk away from a game of darts until he's won the last round.
"In a completely positive way, we joke with him about all this, 'Oh, you're so humble' stuff," Hallenbeck says. "We know better. The kid's a killer."
Mike made a mockery of his inferior Northeast competitors in high school. He struck out only 17 times in all four years, hit at least .530 in each of his last two seasons and finished with a state-record 18 homers in 26 games.
"And he just got so much better every year," says Ken Williams, Hallenbeck's longtime assistant and Jeff's lifelong friend. "That was the thing that kind of amazed me."
Just outside the school gym, a trophy case has been dedicated to Mike's jerseys, pictures and plaques. Mike didn't want his No. 1 retired, so the coaches award it to the team captain every year.
It's the highest honor a Thunderbolt can achieve.
"The one thing that I promised myself that I would do for our players is to always focus on this year's group and not throw Mike in their face," Hallenbeck says. "But the one example I do use is that Mike, besides everything else, was the hardest worker we ever had. And nobody had a better built-in excuse to slack off than Mike."
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On Feb. 14, when position players report for Spring Training in Tempe, Ariz., the work will begin again for Mike and the hopeful Angels, who remade their starting rotation, bolstered their bullpen and added Josh Hamilton to their lineup.
Millville is in relative uproar over the thought that Trout will probably play left field this season, giving way for Peter Bourjos to play center. Trout's mother, meanwhile, is concerned that his greatest mentor, Torii Hunter, won't be there now that he's signed with the Tigers.
And everybody's wondering how Trout can possibly follow up on a season in which he became the first player ever -- at any age -- to combine at least 45 steals with 125 runs and 30 homers, not to mention a .326 batting average.
In anticipation for that, Debbie put her foot down this New Year: No more soda for Mike. He used to drink about five a day. Now it's zero.
"I've never seen him this way," Jeff says. "He's eating better, salads and stuff. He's really trimmed down and he looks good. He's really focused. I think he's ready to go."
Asked if this is the last offseason Mikey spends at her house, Debbie giggles.
"I hope not," she says. "I know he has to grow up, but I hope not. I think he can stay home a couple years."
Debbie would prefer that things not change, but so much already has -- especially around these parts.
The last time Mike went to the movies, word spread, and by the time he stepped out, hundreds were waiting in the parking lot for an autograph. Same thing happened the last time he tried to play a round of golf with some friends and his high school sweetheart. Or the last time he walked into Cuts On High for a haircut. Or the last time he tried to eat his hamburgers at Jim's Lunch.
Simply put, Mike Trout can no longer be Mikey from Millville.
It's just not that simple anymore.
"I wish I could tell you that everything's the same, that he can go everywhere he wants to go, but it's not the case," says Shannon, who used to live next door to the Trouts and would dress up as Santa Claus for their three kids.
"Mikey Trout is a rock star. He has hit rock-star status here. To the close circle of friends, his friends, he's still Mikey Trout. But to a lot of folks, he's that Major League Baseball player, he's the Rookie of the Year. They're awestruck. They want to get close to Mikey. They want to be able to tell people, 'Not only is he from my hometown, I know Mikey and he knows me.' So, it's changed quite a bit."