By LANDON HALL / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
CARLSBAD — During the summer of 1975, Fred Lynn didn’t think much about winning the American League’s rookie of the year award. He gave even less consideration to who would be the AL’s most valuable player.
The 23-year-old Red Sox center fielder was too consumed with trying to help his team get past the New york Yankees and Baltimore Orioles to win the AL East.
Fred Lynn at his home in Carlsbad. Lynn retired from the major leagues in 1990 with 306 career home runs and a .283 lifetime batting average.
“Not only was there no time, but no one cared,” Lynn said.
The only real chance to watch baseball on TV came on NBC’s Game of the Week. Statistics weren’t parsed over and collated. The newspapers printed them in the Sunday edition, but even players didn’t really know what their batting average was on a day-to-day basis. The era of big-scoreboard statistics at the ballpark, instantly updated, didn’t really begin until the late 1970s.
Lynn did win both RoY and MVP in ’75, at the time an unprecedented achievement. But he didn’t celebrate. The Sox had lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, following the delirious drama of winning Game 6.
There was no hullaballoo for awards, no news conference. Lynn, who made about $20,000 in salary that rookie year, plus a $9,000 bonus for being on the World Series losing team, got into his new Buick Regal (a Red Sox team award) and drove cross-country back to his offseason home in Alhambra.
The Red Sox tried to find him to tell him about the MVP award, but he didn’t learn of it until he saw a headline in a newspaper during a stop in Arizona. “It wasn’t an earth-shattering thing,” he said.
Angels center fielder Mike Trout, 21, has a chance to duplicate Lynn’s feat and become the third player to win his league’s top rookie and MVP (Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki did it in 2001, just shy of his 28th birthday). If it happens for Trout, you can guarantee a level of media attention that would be orders of magnitude higher than in the ’70s.
This is one reason Lynn, 60, has such regard for Trout: his consistency in the face of both scrutiny and pressure, from having to perform (as Lynn himself did) at such a young age while fighting for a pennant.
“It can be a little overwhelming for a rookie, because everything’s new,” Lynn said. “You go 3 for 4, go to a new park, here’s another Hall of Famer you’re facing. You’ve got to do it all over again. So there’s no time to think about what you’re doing. At least for me, it was all about what we were doing as a group.”
Playing between Red Sox left fielder Jim Rice and right fielder Dwight Evans, Lynn played some of the best center field of his era. After his superlative debut season (when he hit .331/.401/.566 with 21 home runs and 105 RBIs), the former USC star topped himself in 1979, when he hit .333/.423/.637 with 39 homers and 122 RBIs, finishing fourth in the AL MVP race behind the Angels’ Don Baylor, Ken Singleton and George Brett.
Lynn was traded to the Angels after the 1980 season and played four seasons before moving on to Baltimore and Detroit, then winding up his career with the San Diego Padres in 1990.
He lives in Carlsbad with his wife Natalie, and he doesn’t get the Angels on TV (it’s Padres country).
The first time he saw Trout play at all this season came during the Angels’ series in Boston last month. Lynn threw out the first pitch (with ex-outfield mates Rice and Evans) before one of the three games, and spent the series entertaining Red Sox clients in a team skybox.
“I told everybody, ‘Listen, when this Trout kid comes up, I want to see him.’ I wanted to see what he was made of.
“First thing I saw, he’s a big kid. He’s powerful, looks like a fullback. And the ball jumps off his bat. I can imagine if I weighed 220 pounds (instead of 170), what it would do if I hit the ball. He’s got big hands, looks like he’s an anvil salesman.”
Another observation: Sooner or later the Angels have to move Trout down in the order to No. 3 or 4.
“Leadoff guys don’t hit 25 homers. That’s what (Barry) Bonds did, then they moved him down. And he’s way bigger than Bonds was when he was a leadoff guy, stealing bases. So I think his evolution has got to go down. I can’t see him being a leadoff guy. He’s just too big and strong to be in that position.”
Lynn says he identified more as a player with the generation that came before him than the one that followed him: Players who were defenders first, and hitters second. He grew up idolizing versatile players like Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente.
“They were flashy and flamboyant, and man, they could do anything they wanted to do. As a kid that’s very appealing.
“Even as an older guy, I still like guys who can do everything and make it look like it’s pretty easy. That’s a special talent to make it look effortless.”
Trout’s electrifying speed and leaping ability in the outfield is one of the reasons he’s a lock to win rookie of the year. But his MVP credentials are slipping. He’s hitting a merely-good .284 in August after hitting .392 in July and .372 in June. Meantime, Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera is coming on strong, overtaking Trout in the batting race, .33015 to .32976 entering Friday’s series opener between the Angels and Tigers in Anaheim.
Lynn wore down during the second half of 1975: After hitting 16 homers and 71 RBIs before the All-Star break, he had 5 and 34 after. He thinks Trout will bounce back, though.
“He’s a big strong kid, so he ain’t gonna wear out like I did, but this is the time. Fortunately, the team’s in the hunt, which will keep him going, keep him mentally stimulated, because if you get mentally tired along with physically tired, that’s a bad thing. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen to this kid.”
A series of injuries probably kept Lynn from getting into the Hall of Fame, as Rice was in 2009. A nine-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Lynn became known for diving onto the grass (or turf, in the old multi-use stadiums) and into walls made of concrete, with only the thinnest veneer of padding.
In 1982, with the Angels, he leaped to grab a ball at Tiger Stadium and slammed into the metal railing atop the fence.
“I started to walk to my position, I couldn’t even yell to Reggie. … And they cut my uniform off; I couldn’t lift my arm. I had broken three ribs. And that put me out for a bit, but we were in a pennant race, so I tried to get back in ASAP.”
Lynn told manager Gene Mauch he could hit. “I said, ‘I just can’t miss. It hurt too much to swing and not connect. “So my concentration level went way up. Like three straight games I got winning hits.”
After the 1975 near-miss, Lynn had assumed he and the rest of the Red Sox’s young nucleus would appear in the World Series year after year, but it never happened. By 1982 Lynn was 30, a veteran on a veteran team. And that made it hurt so much worse when the Angels went all the way to the ALCS, won the first two games against Milwaukee, then lost the next three.
The feeling was worse than in ’75, “because the older you get, you know these opportunities aren’t gonna be around. When you’re a kid you think they’re gonna happen all the time.”
His advice to Trout? Don’t take anything for granted.
“And just have fun with it. Don’t let all this talk about MVP and rookie of the year get to you. That’s for other people to decide. You don’t have any control over that kind of stuff. Your main concern as a leadoff man is to get on base and score runs, play a good center field, help your team win. That’s it.”