This week, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels won the Baseball Writers Association of America Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award, receiving all 28 of the possible 28 first place votes. Trout is also the first player in Major League Baseball history to hit 30 homers, steal 45 bases, and score 125 runs in a single season.
Mike Trout is barely 21 years old.
Trout is an outlier of a baseball player. He can literally do everything on the field—and do it exceptionally well. For example, as a lead-off hitter his on-base percentage was .399 this year. That’s a significant number because he also has the ability to steal bases with the alarming success rate of 49 of 54—one of the highest ratios ever. That means that not only is he on base a lot, but he’s also a distraction to the pitcher because of his threat to steal. With such prowess on the base paths, he is also likely to score from second on a ball hit to the outfield. According to Nate Silver, the statical guru who seems to analyze almost everything with stunning accuracy, Mike Trout contributed about 12 additional runs to the Angels when compared to the average runner.
When Trout takes the field holding a glove instead of a bat, he is also likely to contribute significantly to his team. According to Silver—who also believed that statistically, the American League Rookie of the Year also deserved to be the American League MVP—Trout saved his team about 11 runs with his defense this season. Overall, Nate Silver’s statistics suggest that Trout contributed approximately 35 more runs to his team than did fan-favorite Miguel Cabrera.
I photographed the in-demand Trout in the dugout of Angel Stadium for Major League Baseball while the Angels were playing their final games of the season and vying for a playoff berth in the AL West. We prepped for three hours ahead of his arrival, checked the lights and exposure again and again, and then spent less than two minutes actually shooting the portraits. That’s how it usually needs to be when you’re shooting a player like Mike Trout.
“The peacock feathers that moments earlier were concealed beneath their uniform can suddenly be displayed in a fashion worthy of Animal Planet”
Photographing a player before a game at a Major League ballpark can sometimes be a real struggle. It isn’t difficult because of time constraints, or because they wear a hat that might shade their face, or because their chewing tobacco-infused saliva might leave a gummy residue all over well cared-for lighting equipment. It’s because baseball players can be relentlessly competetive with each other. When you get the opportunity to photograph them alone, they’re generally wonderful subjects. But, if there is another player nearby, the mood can suddenly shift, the allotted time with them can quickly evaporate, and the peacock feathers that moments earlier were concealed beneath their uniform can suddenly be displayed in a fashion worthy of Animal Planet. Fortunately, the brilliant Mike Trout doesn’t need feathers.
Years ago, I worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers. I traveled with the team, photographed the games, made portraits of the players for the organization, and learned a great deal from Tommy Lasorda about the nuanced ways of the english language. I also learned to be invisible and unobtrusive. Apparently, I was so adept at flying under the radar that after I’d been traveling with the team for nearly two weeks, Lasorda turned to the Dodger PR Director, my boss, and inquired who the guy was in seat 22B. That guy was me.
I learned a lot from Tommy Lasorda and that experience. More than anything, I learned that I was able to go two weeks before anyone even noticed me—and by extension, before anyone wondered why I was taking pictures. That was a good thing, in my estimation.
Why? Because I’m not the important one. The subject is.
There are many photographers who can enliven a court or a field when they arrive. They’re generally gregarious and they seem to know everyone—players and photographers alike. I’m not that guy. I don’t want to be that guy. And I don’t believe I can make the pictures I want if I’m that guy.
Making a portrait is about trust. When the subject first arrives, I generally have just a few initial seconds to convince them that I won’t make them look bad and that I won’t show them up. They must believe in me or that fear and distrust will show in every frame. If they don’t feel completely safe in front of my lens, I’ll never get the images I’m after.
Some time ago, I photographed Cy Young award-winning pitcher Barry Zito for a Sports Illustrated feature on the fathers of athletes. Zito, like Mike Trout, is not only a probable hall of famer, but a kind man and a great subject. The day I photographed him, he was in the dugout immediately after he’d pitched a complete game in Oakland. I chose to make the portrait of Zito with his dad using a Fuji GX 680III camera because using a tripod-mounted bellows camera forces you to contemplate what you’re doing in a way that a hand-held camera generally can’t. The tripod also allows you to remove your eye and watch the moments unfold without peering through a viewfinder. After the shoot, I had the Tri-X film specially processed as a positive to attain a warm tone to the black and white film and SI ran the picture of Zito and his father sharing an intimate moment about the joys of baseball.
When Sports Illustrated for Kids later ran a feature asking a handful of players to name their favorite pictures of themselves, Zito chose the image I’d made of he and his dad in the dugout and SI for Kids ran it across two pages.
That’s the kind of validation I shoot for in every portrait. When both editor and subject like an image, it tells me that the trust I built during the shoot yielded a photograph that the editor wanted to use prominently—as well as a feeling of authenticity from the subject of that photograph.
I doubt whether Mike Trout, Barry Zito, or Tommy Lasorda might remember me. It’s not important if they remember me. My hope is simply that they remember the pictures.