Luke DeCock

DeCock: For ECU's Godwin, Trout's the one that got away

When Mike Trout of the Angels was a largely unheralded 16-year-old from Millville, N.J., East Carolina coach Billy Godwin saw talent.
When Mike Trout of the Angels was a largely unheralded 16-year-old from Millville, N.J., East Carolina coach Billy Godwin saw talent. Getty Images

Here’s a fish story about the one that got away, the biggest Trout there ever was.

East Carolina baseball coach Billy Godwin had this one on the line, did everything but reel it into the boat, close enough that he could see it right there in front of him.

Mike Trout, the greatest player in East Carolina history. Almost.

Long before Trout was a first-round draft pick of the Angels, long before he was a record-setting All-Star and MVP candidate, he was signed, sealed and delivered to play baseball at East Carolina.

“We usually throw out the folders after they sign (professionally),” Godwin said. “I kept his folder. One day, I’m still going to have his signature on a scholarship agreement.”

Godwin spotted him early as a largely unheralded 16-year-old from Millville, N.J., impressed by his speed and raw offensive tools. He went on East Carolina’s watch list. At the end of Trout’s junior year, Godwin was in New Jersey when a showcase event fizzled. He went and saw Trout play instead. He left smitten.

Trout committed to East Carolina in July, and in November 2008 was among 11 listed in the press release announcing the Pirates’ fall signees. In the release, Godwin had this to say about Trout: “Mike is one of the best athletes I have seen on the diamond and will go into his senior year as one of the top outfielders in the country. He has tremendous speed and power and will be a mainstay in the outfield and the top half of our lineup during his tenure as a Pirate.”

Those press-release quotes about recruits are often buffed to a fine shine, making even the most useless prospect sound like a potential all-conference player. If anything, Godwin was selling Trout short.

As so often happens to top college commitments, the more scouts saw of Trout, the higher he shot up the draft boards. He blossomed as a senior, the raw tools that impressed Godwin from the beginning becoming increasingly polished. So Godwin watched the best player he ever recruited go 25th overall in the 2009 draft, sign for a $1.2 million bonus and never look back.

“Going into the fall, I thought he was very, very talented, probably a third-to-seventh round pick, maybe,” Godwin said. “Then I saw him play in the spring. There was no shot.”

The Pirates were coming off what is still the best season of Godwin’s tenure: a regular-season Conference USA title, 46 wins and East Carolina’s only NCAA super regional appearance since 2004. If he stayed healthy, Trout would have had the opportunity to take the program to the next level.

“We had some good teams,” said John Wooten, a member of the same recruiting class who now plays for the Class A Beloit Snappers. “With a guy like that, in the big leagues at 19, 20 years old, you put a big-leaguer on any college team obviously that’s going to be a gigantic advantage.”

Wooten, who is from Goldsboro, didn’t know much about Trout when he committed. By the time Wooten started hearing about him, during Wooten’s senior year at Eastern Wayne High School, Trout’s stock had already started to skyrocket.

“I just heard he was going in the first round and he was never going to step on campus,” Wooten said.

Wooten had a fine career at East Carolina before he was drafted by the Oakland A’s, and Wooten’s teams enjoyed significant success. East Carolina narrowly missed the NCAA tournament in 2010, but made it the next two years, losing in the Charlottesville, Va., regional in 2011 and the Chapel Hill regional in 2012.

It wouldn’t have taken much to improve East Carolina’s postseason fortunes in those years. Extrapolating his minor-league stats, Trout would have broken nearly every record in the Pirates’ book.

“Oh my gosh, I do wonder,” Godwin said. “I joke sometimes, we had Trent Whitehead here at that time, who was a tremendous centerfielder in our program. We could have played two outfielders, with Whitehead and Trout, and five infielders. Trent was probably the best centerfielder I ever coached. You throw Mike in the mix, one of the best in the big leagues, it would have been special.”

Right about the time East Carolina was being eliminated in Chapel Hill in 2012 to end what would have been Trout’s third and presumably final year with the Pirates, he was two months into a season that would see him lose the American League MVP to Miguel Cabrera by the thinnest of margins and win the AL rookie of the year by a slightly wider margin: unanimously.

Godwin could only watch and wonder what might have been, had Mike Trout not wriggled off his hook.

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