Young stars herald dawn of baseball's new golden age
Trout, Harper, Puig among those who bring to mind superstars of yesteryear
Supermen were in awe-inspiring flight across the baseball landscape. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the game soared as never before. Fully integrated in the afterglow of the pioneering work of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, it was truly the National Pastime -- and passion.
Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider were lighting up the New York skyline. Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella were handling and manhandling pitching staffs. Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline and Ernie Banks were launching legendary careers. Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal and Bob Gibson were dominant on the mound with style and guile.
Those of a certain age will argue that the game never has been so good. Now, a half-century later, a powerful wave has arrived from shore to shore -- a collection of youthful athletes determined to carve out a new golden era.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence or what," Mike Trout, the Angels' ascendant star, said, "but a lot of really talented young guys are coming into the game playing hard, aggressive baseball, with no fear. It's exciting to be part of it."
The legend of Willie, Mickey and the Duke, inspiring Terry Cashman's popular song "Talking Baseball," could be unfolding all over again -- embodied by Yasiel Puig, Trout and Bryce Harper. Yes, it's merely the first paragraph in Puig's career, but that perfect no-bounce throw from the warning track, his 420-foot opposite-field blast and blazing first-to-home speed are pure poetry.
Mike, Bryce and Yasiel -- verse, anyone? -- are dazzling us with their nightly theatrics, as they embark on careers they hope will be as rich and eventful as those forged by the trio of Hall of Famers who gave so much to the Giants, Yankees and Dodgers.
Trout, Harper and Puig headline, along with Manny Machado, a collection of potential superstars in the field and on the mound, who stand poised to launch another epoch in the game's history.
On the heels of a generation of superstars led by Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Roy Halladay and Miguel Cabrera and mid-20s stars such as Buster Posey, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen and Felix Hernandez, comes a movement gathering serious momentum with the new crop of phenoms.
Rookies of the Year Trout and Harper headed a 2012 freshman class that took its place with the best ever. It included Machado, Jean Segura, Yoenis Cespedes, Matt Harvey, Patrick Corbin, Yu Darvish, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, Wade Miley, Todd Frazier, Norichika Aoki, Matt Carpenter, Wei-Yin Chen and Yonder Alonso.
They provided a tough act to follow for Puig, Jose Fernandez, Gerrit Cole, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Evan Gattis, Wil Myers, Jedd Gyorko, Didi Gregorius, Jurickson Profar, Anthony Rendon, Zack Wheeler, Trevor Rosenthal and Tyler Skaggs in another deep, heavily armed rookie class.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia was discussing this remarkable infusion of talent with his coaches on a recent flight.
"We were talking about that time when [Robin] Yount, [Paul] Molitor, Ozzie [Smith] and [Tony] Gwynn were coming into the game," Scioscia said, "and then we realized that what we're seeing now is more like Mays, Mantle and Snider in that late '50s era when Frank Robinson and Clemente and those other stars came along. I don't think you've ever had an era like that.
"You look at Trout, you look at Harper, you look at Puig and Machado ... these are five-tool guys with unbelievable talent. They're all just getting started and have the ability to do great things for a long time -- and we haven't even mentioned all the power arms flowing into the game now."
Harvey, Fernandez, Corbin, Ryu, Cole, Miller and Teheran are following in the footsteps of another young ace of a recent vintage, Stephen Strasburg, and stand at the forefront of a group of young pitchers equipped with all the right stuff. They'll have their hands full for years to come containing all these gifted young hitters.
Trout, second to Cabrera in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting in 2012 with a season for the ages, is laughing off the sophomore jinx with another brilliant campaign. The Millville, N.J., comet is so much like Mantle, it's almost eerie -- from his running-back body to his stunning blend of speed and power to his outgoing, supremely confident nature.
Puig, with tools and charisma calling to mind Mays and Clemente in their youth, is inspiring the same brand of awe created by Trout and Harper last summer.
"Obviously, Yasiel is a guy who can do so many things," said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, a superstar player in his time. "He's an exciting player: speed, power, plays with an energy -- a guy who's a tremendous athlete."
It remains to be seen if the Cuban defector can sustain his astonishing level of play -- and stay in one piece -- while careening into walls and bases with reckless abandon.
Harper, another Type-A personality, had his sophomore year rudely interrupted by a head-first meeting with a Dodger Stadium wall and is busy making up for lost time.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who played alongside Brooks Robinson in one of the greatest infields in history, has raved about Harper's makeup from the day he arrived. Old timers see in Harper a lot of Snider, the "Duke of Flatbush," with his power stroke, speed and powerful arm.
"Bryce is so driven," Johnson said, "a lot of times he tries to do too much. He's much more driven than anyone I've seen. He just a gifted athlete. I like everything about the way he plays the game. He plays hard. Old school."
Trout, who turned 21 last August, knows exactly what Puig, at 22, is going through: that rush of adrenaline running through his body.
"You just want to ride it out," Trout said. "He's having so much fun, like I did last year. I've seen a few of his games on TV. He's playing free and attacking the game. That's how baseball should be played."
Machado, a natural shortstop breaking in at third base in deference to Gold Glover J.J. Hardy, is on course to continue the tradition of superstars on the left side of the Baltimore infield. The question is whether you want the next Brooks Robinson or the heir to Cal Ripken Jr.
Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley favorably compared Machado, who turned 21 on Saturday, to a young Ken Griffey Jr., Presley's former teammate in Seattle.
"Griffey was a little bit more athletic," Presley told the Baltimore Sun. "But this kid here, with what he's done offensively and playing third base like he does, that's the only other guy I've seen at a young age do what he does -- besides Trout."
If you were to ask four MLB general managers their first choice to start a franchise -- Trout, Harper, Puig or Machado -- you might get four different answers. One thing is certain: 26 managers envy Scioscia, Johnson, Mattingly and Buck Showalter.
If it feels like the dawn of a new golden era, that must be what it is.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.