Mookie Betts never wanted to live in Los Angeles.
He did not enjoy his short trips here as a visiting player. Bad traffic. Sparkling. It was quite a shock for someone who had spent most of his life in Nashville and Boston, smaller cities that are easier to navigate. He didn’t see himself here.
But he had no choice in February 2020, after the Boston Red Sox traded their franchise cornerstone to the Dodgers. He was introduced at an on-field news conference at Dodger Stadium. He was in Arizona for spring training the next day.
“Coming out here,” Betts said last week, “I was already kind of skeptical.”
A month later, Major League Baseball suspended operations and the world stopped. Suddenly, there was a chance that Betts, a free agent heading into the offseason, would never play a game in a Dodgers uniform. In retrospect, the break may have cemented Betts’ future in Southern California.
The pandemic allowed Betts to drive around LA without the highways being closed, slowly getting to know the city. By the time the 60-game season began in late July, with a three-week training camp at home, life-saving, Betts was more comfortable with his surroundings. He imagined the opportunities. He saw a future here.
That vision, along with $365 million, prompted Betts to sign a 12-year contract extension the day before his first game as a Dodger. It is the second largest contract in MLB history.
“My point to him was, ‘We’re partners,'” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “‘You don’t have to worry about anything contractually and it’s all about helping the Dodgers win.'”
Two years later, Betts, 29, will start the first All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium since 1980 as one of the faces of the franchise. He has overcome, by his standards, a disappointing season to push the Dodgers to the best record in the National League while garnering the respect of his peers.
“I think everybody knows Mookie as a superstar, but he’s so nice, he’s so kind, so polite to so many people,” said Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, who will start in Sunday’s All-Star Game Tuesday too. “I have a lot of respect for him off the field, even more than on the field.”
It will be Betts’ sixth career All-Star Game appearance and fourth as a starter. The outfielder has won a World Series with two of MLB’s flagship franchises. He was named the American League’s most valuable player and runner-up for the National League MVP. He is a five-time Gold Glove winner, four-time Silver Slugger winner and batting champion.
Everyone agrees that he is one of the best players in the world. Everyone except Betts.
“He doesn’t think he’s very good yet,” said Dodgers pitcher David Price. “I had to tell him every day how good he is, but that’s just the type of player, the type of person that Mookie is.”
No one in the Dodgers clubhouse knows Betts better than Price. They were teammates for four seasons in Boston, winning a World Series against the Dodgers in 2018, before being shipped to L.A. In those six years, Price said, Betts’ lack of confidence has surfaced periodically — a rarity in among the elite athletes who have their self-confidence. egos often do not allow for vulnerability.
One Price rerun story: In 2016, Price’s first season with the Red Sox, he walked into the New York clubhouse at 12:30 pm for the series opener against the Yankees. It was early, early enough to believe that their teammates were not yet in the batting cage. So when he and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia heard the crowd coming from down the hall, they assumed it was a coach’s kid. Was not.
“Mookie’s in there hitting, and after every swing, going, ‘Man, I pull. What’s going on?’” Price said.
“He still doesn’t think he’s very good. I had to tell him every day how good he is, but that’s just the type of player, the type of person that Mookie is.”
— Dodgers pitcher David Price
Another story: Price opted out of the 2020 season, citing COVID-19 concerns, but remained in constant contact with players, coaches and members of the front office. When Betts’ Dodgers career began slowly in front of a cardboard cutout, Price talked to Friedman.
“’Go up to him and tell him how good of a player he is, how good you’re watching him play,’” Price said. “The real Mookie Betts showed up after the first couple of weeks and that was really fun.”
The Dodgers posted the best record in the majors that summer and won their first World Series in 32 years. Betts was in the thick of things, dazzling in the batter’s box, on the bases and in right field.
“I think that’s Mookie’s fuel,” Friedman said. “I think he goes through a lot of periods where he doesn’t feel like he’s one of the best players in the world and that probably adds some to his work ethic. But it’s surprising that he’s as talented as he is and the times he’ll question that.”
Then it happened last year. Betts was good but his production went down in 2020. Injuries, particularly a hip problem, limited him to 122 games, but he said that wasn’t the reason he didn’t live up to his expectations at the plate. “I was just being myself,” Betts said. “People get injured all the time and get through it all the time. But that injury, although it hurt, it only hurt to run. It didn’t hurt to hit. I’d rather hit myself.”
His .264 average and .854 on-base-plus-slugging percentage were his worst since 2017. The start of this season has been worse. He went eight for 45 with two extra-base hits in his first 11 games. Then, on April 22, he hit his first two home runs against the San Diego Padres. After the game, he said he had to “take ownership for sucking.”
“Once I was able to look in the mirror and own it, I was able to take steps to help myself,” said Betts, who has been playing with a cracked rib for several weeks. “I wasn’t blaming other people. I was definitely blaming myself, but I was just blaming him, ‘Oh, I didn’t have a good swing’ or ‘I got a called strike so I didn’t get the t -bat I should get. .’ Things like that. Those are all excuses. Everyone gets screwed sometimes. It’s not about that. It’s about how you handle what’s coming.”
Betts listened to mental health audiobooks to help overcome mental obstacles. In early May, in the middle of a stretch, he said he listened to “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, a marathon runner and former Navy SEAL.
He recently finished listening to “Will,” a memoir by actor Will Smith. “It definitely changed my outlook on life in general,” Betts said. “He is the one who helped me to be [focused on] where my feet are and not to worry about fear, not to be afraid of things – especially when it hasn’t happened.”
Ron Roenicke, a special assistant in the Dodgers’ front office, was Betts’ bench coach in Boston in 2018 and 2019. Without hesitation, he labeled Betts as a perfectionist in everything he does, whether it’s baseball or off-field pursuits. It is picked up. “It’s not okay to be one of the guys,” Roenicke said. “He’s incredibly talented, but you look at his frame [5 feet 9] and whatever he is, 170 pounds, he gets everything he has. If he was just super confident, cocky, he probably would have a different personality. He wouldn’t go after it like he does.”
And he probably wouldn’t be a perennial All-Star with generational wealth. He certainly wouldn’t live in Los Angeles. But this is at home now.
He got married here during the winter. He spends his free time during the season bowling at a few alleys and has jammed for friends in leagues. He picked up DJing during the pandemic and has set up a turntable in the Dodgers clubhouse. He has a special handshake with everyone around, down to the team’s sideline reporter and public relations officer.
It is comfortable. Sometimes he is even confident.