DOYLE: Harper, Trout and growing up

The bases were loaded with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and my team was down by three runs. I slowly dug my feet into the dirt of the batter’s box at home plate, just like all of the professional hitters had done on TV. The pitcher took a deep breath, wound up and zipped a ball in my direction. I unleashed a swing at it with all my might. And, as I rounded the bases, I gleefully watched the ball sail over the fence for a game-winning homerun.

Sounds too good — too cliché — to be true, right? Well, that’s because it was. But when I was eight years old, this picture-perfect scenario played itself out time and time again.

The pitcher was actually my childhood best friend, Stevie. The ball was not a baseball but a white, hollow wiffle ball, and my bat was its yellow, plastic counterpart. The fence was in a large hedge in my neighbor’s backyard and those runners on the loaded bases were imaginary.

In my eight-year-old mind, though, none of these caveats mattered. Despite how fanciful the situation, to me and Stevie it was as real as it could be. We dreamed about being the best professional baseball player duo the world had ever seen. We were young, ambitious and hopeful. We were going to be All-Stars. And to us, the dream was not ludicrous, but extremely plausible.

You see, the great thing about being young and idealistic is that, well, you‘re young. When you’re eight years old, most sports stars you watch and worship on TV are two decades older than you. Most athletes don’t even reach their peak physical potential until their mid-twenties. There’s no reason you can’t grow up to be just like them or, if you dare hope, even better than them.

But when 19-year-old Bryce Harper and 21-year-old Mike Trout won the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year awards on Tuesday, it struck me coldly: the dream Stevie and I held onto so dearly is utterly dead.

Harper and Trout — one year younger and older than me, respectively — aren’t just good. They’re unprecedented. Their cumulative age is the lowest of any pair to ever win the award in MLB history. Harper had the best season by a teenage position player of all time. Trout had an average of .326 and led the league in runs scored, stolen bases, and wins-above-replacement, leading the best rookie campaign in the MLB history. The pair is being compared to 1951 winners Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, and some speculate that Harper and Trout will become the best baseball duo ever.

Most of us who aspired to be professional athletes back in our idyllic childhood days start to gradually realize as we age that our goals are implausible. For me, it happened in middle school when I sadly succumbed to the fact that I was no longer the best player on my team — let alone in my league. It doesn’t take a 12-year-old genius to realize that being the starting center for the New York Knicks is, perhaps, out of reach.

But such an awareness doesn’t eliminate that wistful feeling you get when you realize that the athletes we root for, the ones we watch on national television and read about in the New York Times, are our own age. It doesn’t fully prepare us for the realization that the Harpers and Trouts of the world are not distant, elderly symbols of what we used to aspire to, but kids who were born in the early 90’s, celebrated the turn of the millennium as elementary-school students, and worried about who to bring to the senior prom three years ago. They were kids who were just like us.

And that’s why, when I saw Harper and Trout win one of baseball’s most coveted awards at the ripe ages of 19 and 21, I couldn’t help but think back to Stevie and my former self. We were supposed to be the ones winning awards and taking over the baseball world together. We were supposed to be the next big duo. We were the ones who self-assuredly prepared ourselves for our All-Star futures while playing wiffle ball in my neighbor’s backyard.

The bases were loaded with two outs in the ninth inning, and we were down by three. I was at the plate. Anything was possible.

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