Markus Lynn Betts got his nickname because his parents were fans of former NBA guard Mookie Blaylock.
Betts starred in both baseball and basketball in high school. And he was a star in another activity, too. That was bowling, a sport for which he was named the best in Tennessee in 2010. "I guess since playing basketball, being aggressive all the time, and bowling, sitting down waiting, I guess it kind of mixes together in baseball and it comes natural,” Betts said with a nod to the “selective aggressive” hitting philosophy the Red Sox encourage.
In 2011, his senior year at Overton High School in Brentwood, Tennessee, Mookie was committed to the University of Tennessee.
June 2011: Instead of going to college, he signed with the Red Sox for a bonus of $750,000, via scout Danny Watkins, after they drafted him in the fifth round, out of Overton High School in Brentwood, Tennessee.
In 2013, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook had Betts as the 31st-best prospect in the Red Sox organization. They had him up at 7th-best in the winter before 2014 spring training.
Mookie's mother: One of the first times Red Sox scout Danny Watkins sat down to have a long conversation with Betts, it was at breakfast with him and his mother, Diana. He could tell right away how close they were.
“She’s a very strong-minded woman, and I could tell that Mookie was very, very respectful of her,” Watkins said.
Watkins also got a subtle clue about what path Diana wanted her son to take. “His mother told me that they had named him Markus Lynn Betts because she wanted his initials to be ‘MLB,’” Watkins said.
The night before Diana gave birth to her son, she was in a bowling alley. It was a league night. She practically grew up on the lanes.
“I bowled up until the time he was born,” Diana said. “He’s been in the bowling alley all his life.”
At age 3, when Mookie was able to push a bowling ball, Diana put the bumpers up and gave him his start. At 4, when he was able to put his fingers inside the ball and actually roll it, she took the bumpers down.
“We saw that he was actually aiming for a certain spot on the bumper and I’m like, ‘If you’re that smart, that you can aim for a certain spot and hit a certain target, you can roll a ball all the way down the lane,’ ” she said.
Competitiveness was hereditary in the family. Diana played softball in high school. She was a middle infielder and she raised her son to be one, too. When Mookie was young, she was his first Little League coach. She never showed favoritism, and she made sure he never looked down on any other player.
“I always try to tell him to ask questions, be patient with people, and do your best,” she said.
Mookie's uncle is Terry Shumpert, a former Major Leaguer whose 14-year career included years with the Rockies and Royals, and one season with the Red Sox (1995).
“Mookie was able to see a ton then,” Shumpert said. “He was in the locker room after batting practice, see how the guys act, see how the guys work. He was old enough to be able to pick it up and see how those guys and myself come to work every day and prepare.”
On his father’s side there’s George Wilson, a three-year starter at wide receiver for the University of Arkansas and a safety for 10 years in the NFL, primarily for the Buffalo Bills.
That, Betts says, is just the tip of the iceberg.
“My dad’s side is full of athletes,” said Betts, who can dunk a basketball and is also a fine bowler. “I don’t think any of them played professionally, but if you go out and shoot basketball with them, you’d wonder why they never made it. I come from a background full of athletes.”
The Red Sox were in desperate need of some energy, not to mention some offense. And that had something to do with adding their hottest prospect to the roster on June 28, 2014.
But manager John Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington both made it clear that Betts fully earned his first trip to the Major Leagues and he's here because he's ready, not just because the team was faltering.
"Really, it was mostly about Mookie," said Cherington. "When a guy is performing at the level and doing it the way he's doing it and controlling the strike zone and performing in all different areas of the game, that kind of guy deserves consideration. We happen to have a need for as many good players as we can get, particularly guys that can move around positions, cover different spots. We talked about it for probably two or three days and just decided it was the right time."
The place happened to be Yankee Stadium, where he made his first Major League start.
"Last night, I was in my hotel room," said Mookie. "Me and my fiancé had just ordered pizza, and were going to go into the hotel. Then [Triple-A Pawtucket manager Kevin Boles] called me and told me to come back to the field, told me he had something to tell me," Betts said. "He didn't want to do it over the phone. Once I got there, he let me know, and the rest is history." (Ian Browne MLB.com, 6/28/2014)
Mookie and his fiancée, Brianna, have been together since middle school. They were engaged in December 2013.
The first ball Mookie launched out of a big league stadium will eventually go to his mom, like the ball he grounded up the middle against the Yankees for his first career hit on May 29, 2014. But for now, Betts joked that he has a little while to stare at it until he turns it over to his family and never sees it again.
Luckily, he didn't have to do much work to retrieve the home run ball from the fan who caught it. "No, actually, I played against him in high school, the guy, I found out," Betts said at Fenway. "So he said as soon as he got it, he wanted to find a way to get it to me, and I really appreciated that."
Betts ripped a two-run shot into the Green Monster seats in the bottom of the fifth inning against Cubs righthander Carlos Villanueva for his first career dinger.
Chris Large, who caught Betts's homer, is from Cookeville, Tenn., just a few miles from where Betts grew up. Large pitched against Mookie in summer ball a few years ago. Betts gave him a pair of autographed baseballs and a took a picture with Large following the exchange.
Large said he and his sister, Lindsey, joked about Betts hitting a home run toward them, and added that she predicted it during the at-bat. When Betts took that swing, Large quickly reached for the glove he had under his seat. The ball sailed over his head, bounced off something (a person, a seat, Large didn't know) and landed right in his lap.
"We were kind of freaking out," said Large, who looked for stadium personnel to give the ball to. "We didn't really know how to react." (Petrella - mlb.com - 7/2/14)
July 2014: When Shane Victorino came off the D.L. for the Red Sox, Mookie was sent back to Triple-A to round out his development. As it was, it was a bit of a quick ascent to the Majors for Betts, who rocketed through the farm system after being drafted out of high school in 2014.
"I thought he managed his at-bats well," manager John Farrell said. "I thought he showed very good presence or at least composure for a guy who has flown through our system. He's a work in progress defensively, particularly in the outfield. And he'll continue to get exposure in center and in right field at Pawtucket while also playing some second base, so that's the plan going forward for him defensively."
The Red Sox are still keeping an open mind about where Betts will settle in defensively. He played exclusively in the outfield in his first stint in the Majors.
"I don't know that there's a clear-cut answer to that right now," Farrell said. "There's going to be a number of things that contribute to that final positioning: How the bat plays, how he further develops defensively, is he a guy that potentially moves around to a number of positions? I wouldn't rule that out. But to sit here today and say that Mookie is going to be at this position for the next 10 years, I don't have that answer in my crystal ball." (Ian Brown - MLB.com - 7/20/2014)
Betts simply couldn't help himself; he had to say something. When it came to manager John Farrell's apparel.
"Skip," he told Farrell, "you need to update, man."
So the sensational 2015 Spring Training output is only one element of Betts' spring story. Away from the field, he's paid particular attention to his boss's wardrobe. He's encouraged trips to a nearby outlet mall and all but written out a shopping list for his skipper.
And while Farrell has stopped short of purchasing the bold-colored jeans—namely, pink or white—that Betts is pushing, he did recently buy a pair that gravitated away from the traditional blue for a more modern shade.
"I told him he's the manager of the Boston Red Sox," Betts said with a smile, "so he should have the most swag out of everyone. He's got some jeans now that he's been wearing that look pretty good," Betts said of his skipper. "So I've just got to get him some shirts and some shoes. He looks out for me, so I've got to look out for him." The baseball world better look out for Mookie Betts. (Castrovince - mlb.com - 3/23/15)
May 8, 2015: Betts was probably 7 or 8 years old when he forced his first coach into retirement. As the young boy, he scalded a line drive up the middle in a coach-pitch game. Diana Benedict—Mookie's mother—ducked for cover.
"It was hard," said Benedict. "I said, 'Oh, my god. I need to get out of the way of this.' It was a rocket. I said, 'It's time for me to get out of here. My reflexes are not what they used to be.'"Perhaps the real issue was that Diana taught her son too well. She grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, and her grandfather built a baseball diamond at his farm.
"There wasn't much else to do," laughs Diana. "So we played baseball and softball all the time."
Not surprisingly, Diana would turn into a softball star and was also in the middle of a family of sports nuts.
"She was my first coach," said Betts. "She would go out and throw. Whatever sport it was, she would go out and play with me and I remember sometimes we used to race almost every day. She said I got to the point where I would start to beat her consistently, so she quit then. We were always doing something. I thank her for everything she's done." One thing Diana Benedict would never allow her son to do was quit.
"She didn't push me to do anything. The only thing she said was when I start something, finish it," Betts said. "One thing that stands out is when I was younger, I wanted to quit football and I talked to her and she didn't let me. I thank her for not letting me. It taught me a life lesson that once you start something, you've got to finish it. She's taught me a lot of life lessons outside of sports."
Mookie will call his parents like he does almost every day, and he'll probably find some time to reflect on the woman who has meant so much in his life.
"She's always been there for me through anything, I can think of many school projects I had to do and I would say, 'Mom, can you help me.' She would help me write a paper or make a poster. She's just been that kind of mom. No matter what, she makes sure I'm alright and I thank her for that." (I Browne - MLB.com - May 8, 2015)
Veteran Red Sox players rave about Betts’s professionalism and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Scouts love his fast hands and flair for busting it down the line on every ground ball. And he’s just a 5-foot-9, 180-pound bundle of athleticism, baseball savvy, and charisma.
Former Major Leaguer Terry Shumpert is the brother of Betts’s mother, Diana Collins, and Terry has been a profound influence in each step of his nephew’s journey. If the Boston fan base is afflicted with a case of Mookie-mania this season, Shumpert can proudly look back and say he was ahead of the curve.
In 2014, when the Red Sox summoned Betts from Triple-A Pawtucket in late June and inserted him in right field at Yankee Stadium, Shumpert received a call from a baseball writer looking for insights on his nephew’s potential. He did nothing to downplay expectations.
“I told the guy, ‘Mookie Betts is going to do what Yasiel Puig did for the Dodgers two years ago,’” Shumpert recalled. “You know how L.A. was on fire and everything was ‘Puig, Puig, Puig’? I told him, ‘Mookie could have the same kind of impact.’ ”
Shumpert’s comparison never saw the light of day, perhaps because it seemed so outlandish to the reporter. But the more the Red Sox and baseball personnel people assess the situation, the more convinced they are that Betts can meet or exceed the hype.
Mookie is a former Tennessee state high school bowling champion with two 300 games and an 800 series on his resume. He was a skilled point guard in high school and can execute a 360-degree dunk. And when the Red Sox stuck him in center field—a position he had never played until his arrival at Double-A Portland in 2014—he looked like he had been there his whole life.
White Sox pitcher John Danks received a glimpse of Betts’s big motor and all-around abilities when they worked out together five days a week in Nashville last offseason.
“We would do conditioning, weightlifting, everything,” Danks said in spring training. “I would be huffing and puffing and purging myself, and he just kept going. He’s got speed. He can jump. That sucker is an athlete. That’s the best way to describe him: He’s as good an all-around athlete as I’ve ever seen.”
Attitude? Boston’s veterans have embraced Betts as a young player worth nurturing because he strikes just the right balance between confidence and respectfulness. If they have a minor critique, it’s that he asks too many questions.
“That’s what makes the kid special—his willingness to try and be better every day,” outfielder Shane Victorino said. “I’ll tease him and say, ‘Mookie, shut up. You don’t need to ask that. Quit trying to be perfect.’ I tell him, ‘Let who you are shine.’"
Betts' given name is Markus Lynn and he received his moniker when his mom took a shine to former Atlanta Hawks point guard Mookie Blaylock on TV. Betts has zero connection to former Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, the erstwhile Red Sox nemesis who hit that fateful grounder between Bill Buckner’s legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. “Nothing against Mookie Wilson, but I’m glad it’s the other one,” Betts said. “I dodged a bullet there.”
Betts brings two bowling balls with him on the road, but Shumpert has told him he might want to pick his spots so he can stay fresh for the sport that’s earning him his livelihood.
Early in 2015, teammate Shane Victorino received rave reviews from a Fenway Park parking attendant who goes by the name Paulie and squared off against Betts during spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
“Paulie is an avid bowler,” Victorino said. “And he told me, ‘Mookie is legit. He’s on a different level.’" (Jerry Crasnick - Baseball America - 5/08/15)
From the moment Betts was born—even before he was born—Diana Benedict knew her boy was special. On the night before his birth, Diana took part in one of her usual three-nights-per-week league bowling matches in Nashville. She rolled her last frame at 9:30 p.m. and went into labor at 11:00. She and Willie Mark Betts, Mookie's father, a railroad superintendant, named him Markus Lynn Betts, borrowing from Willie's middle name and her middle name but also well aware of what they hoped would be fortuitous initials: MLB.
Soon after the baby was born, Diana and her sister were watching an Atlanta Hawks game on television when the noticed an especially good performance by Mookie Blaylock. Diana's sister is named Cookie. The boy would be known as Mookie from that day on.
Diana, granddaughter of a sharecropper, grew up playing baseball and softball on a Paducah, KY., field built by her grandpa. "I didn't know anything about ribbons and lace," she said. Willie ran track and played basketball. Diana's brother, Terry Shumpert, played parts of 14 seasons in the big leagues. One of Mookie's cousins, George Wilson, played safety for nine seasons in the NFL. The boy would become a whiz at baseball, basketball, bowling and asking questions.
Diana and Willie separated when Mookie was eight years old, though Willie has maintained a constant and close influence in his son's life. "He was the whole family's child," says Shumpert, who talks or texts with Betts every day.
In 2004, Shumpert went to spring training with with Boston, but when he strained a hamstring and saw he wasn't going to make the team, he asked for his release. The Red Sox obliged. The Pirates offered Shumpert a roster spot with their Triple A team, the Nashville Sounds, and he jumped at the chance to live that summer with his sister in Music City. Most every day when Shumpert left for the ballpark at 2:00 p.m., he would bring with him 11-year-old Mookie and his own son, Nick, a potential first round pick in the 2015 draft. The boys shagged batting practice balls in the outfield asked question and watched how professional ballplayers worked.
'I knew one he came out he got addicted," Shumpert says, "He was watching and picking things up." (SI June 1, 2015")
For those who know Betts best—his family and friends back in Tennessee—his ascent was no surprise. Red Sox veterans laud the exciting rookie for his maturity and understanding of the game, skills that make him a franchise-type player. They're not qualities he's just discovered, though; he was born this way.
When Mookie was just a toddler, the athlete in him already itched to preform. Even the confines of his crib were too small.
"He'd always be saying, 'Ball? Ball? Ball?' that's what he always wanted to do," Diana Benedict, Betts' mother, said recently from Betts' modest townhouse on the outskirts of Nashville. "He would run everywhere. He never walked," said Mookie's father, Willie Betts. "He figured out, if you put him down, he'd start running. He would just run, run, run."
Betts lived in Murfreesboro until he was 10, when he moved with his mom to Brentwood, which borders Nashville. The brick house with white shutters where Betts grew up, sits on a residential street off a main road that runs through Brentwood.
Mookie played on multiple teams throughout his youth, but began travel baseball in earnest when he moved to the Nashville area. His father, who lived nearby, drove Betts to tournaments two or three weekends a month. On the smooth dirt infield of William Tucker Jr. Field, which sits adjacent to Overton High, Betts blended into this team seamlessly, but stood out athletically.
"You'd go play ping pong with him and he'd whip your tail in ping pong because his eye hand coordination was superior to most kids and any of us around here really," Morrison said.
At an annual high school baseball showcase at Middle Tennessee State University in June of 2010, hundreds of kids from across the state vied to impress one of the dozens of scouts on hand. The days were long in Murfreesboro, with workouts and batting practice in the morning followed by games that faded into the night. It was hot, humid and hard to stand out from the crowd.
Halfway through the afternoon, a 17-year-old rising senior darted from shortstop across the infield for a ball up the middle. He slid behind the bag, stretched out, spun and made a perfect behind-the-back glove flip to second.
In that moment, Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins knew Mookie Betts was different—he wanted to dig a little deeper. He was trained to discover this type of player.
Watkins found Betts later in the day, introduced himself and spoke with him for about 10 minutes. He'd see Betts a few more times throughout the summer at various tournaments. Betts' consistent play and demeanor further affirmed Watkins' instincts—this was a kid the Red Sox should target in the 2011 draft.
Betts has always had an innate ability to observe something and then imitate it, sometimes better than he was shown. "His dad is good at that," Mookie's mom said. "They both can pick up stuff. He can probably fix anything. They (can) just watch stuff and be able to fix a hole or repair something. It goes beyond sports."
It might be the reason why Betts can solve a Rubik's Cube in about two minutes.
Betts's parents were always around and were as much a part of the Overton scene as Betts. His father manned the gate at games and his mother worked the concession stand. 'Papa Willie,' Betts's friends' nickname for the retired CSX railroad mechanical superintendent, blew a toy train whistle after big plays, which became a staple at games.
Betts soon landed on several college coaches' radar. Tennessee and Vanderbilt were the top two that targeted him. Betts felt like he couldn't be a starter right away at perennial powerhouse Vanderbilt and eventually committed to play at a rebuilding program at Tennessee.
But the pro scouts weren't far behind as Betts batted .549 with six home runs, 37 RBIs, and 24 stolen bases as a junior. He then hit .509 with 39 RBIs and 29 stolen bases as a senior.
Enter Danny Watkins. "Every time you'd turn around, Danny was there," Diana Morrison said.
Watkins, a Red Sox area scout since 2004 covering Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and portions of the Florida panhandle, returned to the Nashville area in the fall of Betts' senior year. With the play from the previous summer still fresh in his mind, he called Betts and met the 18-year-old and his mom at a nearby Cracker Barrel to talk about going pro.
"You're talking about potentially changing or altering this kid's direction in life," Watkins said. "Since the time he was young, the thinking is high school, college, then a profession. So you're talking about giving them the chance to alter that and so you really want to focus in more on their family life, their home life, how stable has it been, how mature is this guy going to be when he gets out on his own and all of the sudden he's responsible for cleaning his own clothes and responsible for finding his own meals."
Draft day arrived and Watkins did everything he could to convince then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, director of amateur scouting Amiel Sadawye and their team of Betts's abilities. The Red Sox drafted Betts in the fifth round, 172nd overall.
"When he signed it was almost like 18 years old overnight he had to grow up." - Diana Benedict, Betts's mother
Betts's parents wanted to ensure if things didn't work out, he would be comfortable financially. Just before midnight on deadline day, Betts signed a $750,000 bonus, about $600,000 above slot.
Playing for the Lowell Spinners (NYP) was one of the few times in his athletic life that Betts struggled. He leaned heavily on his family and his three best friends Andrew Montgomery, Cameron Lewis and Brandon McPhail.
"He would call us every day morning and night," Lewis said. "Like, 'I don't know if I can get used to this, I don't know if I can do this.' That's when he really needed us."
Betts survived his freshman year in the pros, and after advancing to Single-A Greenville to start the 2013 season, everything changed.
Not only had he been playing in the Red Sox system for a year, but he was closer to home in Greenville, S.C.—about a five and half hour drive from Nashville. His family and friends were regularly at his games.
One night in June 2014, after he'd gone 0-for-2 with two walks in a PawSox win, Betts got a call from PawSox manager Kevin Boles just as he was returning to his apartment with pizza alongside his now-fiancée Brianna Hammonds.
"Bolesy called me and was like, 'Come back to the field,'" Betts recalled. "I was like, 'Why? Why do I need to come back?' He said, 'Hurry up and come back. I was like alright let's see what's going on. I thought I got in trouble or something. I don't know what I did." Boles gave Betts the news of his promotion.
"I kinda just looked at him. I thought I was going to be a lot more excited than I was but I was like 'Alright,' and started packing my stuff," Betts said. "It seemed like everyone else was a lot more excited than I was. I don't know if it was because I was nervous or something. That night I didn't get a whole lot of sleep."
Betts didn't even have a fresh suit and had to go shopping in the morning before he left for New York. His parents and Brianna dropped everything and flew straight to New York the next morning.
Betts' parents and Hammonds spent five days with him. Betts made sure they saw his first hit (a single to center in the fourth inning of his first game) and homer (over the Green Monster at Fenway in his fourth game).
"I learned from my dad and my mom somebody should only have to tell you once," Betts said. "Whether it's me getting in trouble, they said I should only have to tell you once. I've kind of took that and made that for all aspects."
Betts' ability to adjust after one error impressed his manager and coaches. He was particularly hard on himself after a rookie mistake caught stealing third base with his team behind by one run in early July, 2014.
"I wouldn't say it's been easy," Shane Victorino, one of Betts's biggest mentors, said of the rookie's year. "Sometimes he overanalyzes and overthinks and is too hard on himself more than anything. Am I upset that (mistakes) happened because we have had a discussion? Yes," Victorino said. "But until you go out there and learn that process you won't know."
"You're going to mess up and you're going to mess up more than once and you're going to mess up a bunch of different ways," Betts said. "That's the frustrating part."
Betts is learning how to find success in failure. The observations have become keener and the ability to implement what he sees has become more difficult.
"I compared him to Cutch early in his career from what I remember watching Andrew McCutcheon," Victorino said of Betts. "And yeah, that is a big guy to put you up against, but I feel Mookie can become that guy, can become that catalyst, become a team leader, by being an electrifying player." (Jen McCaffrey - July, 2015)
December, 2015: Betts participated in the Professional Bowlers Association event. There hasn't been two-sport star in baseball since Drew Henson back in the early 2000s, so it's good to see Betts changing that.
- Comments from Betts's High School coaches: "He was the best player I ever coached," says James McKee, his basketball coach at Overton. "He was that rare kid at that age who had the intellect and the ability to play at a high level. He understood that for us to be our best, he had to facilitate for others."
His former coach says he and Betts sometimes golf together in the offseason. Wait, the guy can golf, too? "He won't have played in however long and he'll pick up a driver, hit it 280 and beat you," McKee laughs.
As good as Betts was at basketball, he was even better on the diamond. He batted .549 as a junior, and he followed that up by hitting .500 with 29 steals as a senior.
Mike Morrison is entering his 20th season as the Overton baseball coach. And yes, hands down, Betts is the best player he ever coached, too. And it wasn't just the skill. Sure, his bat speed would make Dale Jr. jealous and he could run like a gazelle. But the demeanor that accompanied the athleticism is what really set him apart.
"He had ice running through his veins," Morrison says. "Nothing rattled him. Ever."
That's the thing about Betts. He is as even-keeled as it gets. He's the bubble in a level. Remember how Morrison said nothing gets to Betts? The baseball coach also said he never saw anyone with more friends. According to Morrison, no matter where the Bobcats played, somebody always knew his star. And people who didn't wanted to.
"I'll never forget this. We were down in Gulf Shores, Alabama, during Mookie's junior year," Morrison says. "Hueytown, Alabama, was playing in the game behind us. I knew Hueytown had Jameis Winston. Jameis comes into our dugout and goes, 'I just want to meet this Markus Betts everybody is talking about.'
"Mookie got along with everybody," he continues. "He was never a showboat. Everybody liked him." (Rolling Stone - Jan. 2016)
January 2016: The dazzling athleticism of rising Red Sox star Mookie Betts landed the outfielder an impressive honor at the age of 23, getting to be the cover athlete for the legendary video game franchise R.B.I. Baseball 16.
February 4, 2016: Mookie is havin' himself one heckuva month. As if the rapid approach of Spring Training and the unveiling of his R.B.I. 16 cover weren't enough to have him whistling everywhere he walks, the 23-year-old Red Sox outfielder bowled his second perfect game of the last few weeks.
Betts is baseball's big two-sport superstar at the moment. He participated in the World Series of Bowling earlier this offseason and didn't disappoint, rolling an average of 196.3 in the nine games of his first qualifying round, while posting scores of 249 and 237.
Questions to Mookie from fans (2016 Spring Training): How old were you when you started bowling? How far did you compete as a kid?
"I think I started bowling when I was 3. I think I bowled my first tournament when I was about 7. I went all the way through high school and haven't stopped since," Betts said.
Are there any similarities between competitive bowling and baseball?
"Just mechanics-wise, you have to focus. Four or five seconds of focus is the main thing."
Who would win a one-on-one basketball game between you and Dustin Pedroia?
"I would beat Pedroia in basketball, yeah. He's not a basketball guy. I was all right. I started when I was 5 and played through high school. He'll definitely talk a good game, but he wouldn't be able to back it up.
Mookie, have you applied for reinstatement to get your golf-cart license back?
Mookie: "No, I just ride now. I don't think I'll be driving any more. I'll never live that down."
How difficult was it for you to switch to outfield? Would you go back to the infield if given a choice?
"I had played the outfield before. It wasn't completely foreign. But it was definitely tough. The Red Sox made as smooth an adjustment for me as it could be. If the team needed me to go back to the infield someday, I'd go back. I've been an infielder my whole life. It's hard to say whether I like the infield or the outfield better. I loved being in the infield, but the outfield is something I do every day now. I love both," Betts said.
What part of your game do you think needs the most improvement?
"I'd probably say hitting. I can still improve a whole lot more getting my hitting to be more consistent." (Browne - MLB.com - 3/23/16)
Mookie is good. Actually, he's really good. He's the next Ted, Yaz, Jim Rice and Big Papi in terms of making those around New England feel warm and fuzzy about the Red Sox for long stretches. Despite a slew of other possibilities, Betts made baseball his profession.
Betts got his first name from his parents watching and enjoying Mookie Blaylock, the former NBA star guard who spent much of his career with the Atlanta Hawks. Betts' middle name is purposely Lynn: you know … Mookie Lynn Betts. As in MLB. Major League Baseball.
Betts eased into a smile during our chat the other day at Turner Field in Atlanta, and he pointed to his cell phone nearby. "I talked to my mom earlier today, and it's funny how this all played out, because she said she was just being cute at first when she did [the initials], " Betts said, referring to Diana Benedict, who lives with his father, Willie Betts, in Nashville. "She's familiar with MLB, because she had a brother [Terry Shumpert] who played [14 years in the Major Leagues, including one season in 1995 with the Red Sox]. So she paid attention to all sports, and she always kept up with everything."
She still does, especially when it comes to one of the most dynamic young players in the Majors. After Betts hit 18 home runs and collected 77 RBIs last year, he is flashing signs of becoming a perennial All-Star, and this is only his second Major League season. He had a stretch in April 2016 in which he had eight hits in three games, including a double, two triples and two homers. During one of those games, Betts was a homer shy of the cycle. He's fast. He has amazing power at the plate for his build. He can hit for average. His arm is strong in right field. He can make the routine and the spectacular play with consistency. Betts also ranks as everybody's favorite teammate.
Betts chose baseball, and his parents didn't try to pull him away from his Green Monster destiny. "I mean, with my size, since I'm only 5-foot-9 [and 180 pounds], that's initially the thing that popped out and made me decide it was best to focus on baseball," said Betts, before giving the primary reason he signed with the Red Sox after they picked him in the fifth round of the 2011 Draft. "Initially I signed because I thought it would be the greatest opportunity I would have. But I just grew to love baseball even more, and it looks like I made the right choice."
About that choice: In 2010, the basketball coaches of the 15 major high schools in the Nashville area picked their player of the year. Given the ability of the starting point guard for John Overton to dominate in games at will with his scoring, passing and defense, the winner was obvious. Yes, Betts.
At the same time, he was flirting with joining Earl Anthony and the Webers (both Dick and Pete) someday as legendary figures in the Professional Bowlers Association. Betts finished his senior year in high school as the Tennessee Boy Bowler of the Year. Even now, whenever he rolls anything less than a 300 game, it's a disaster in his mind. (Moore - MLB.com - 4/29/16)
Betts didn't play prep football. Diana feared her son wouldn't rise from the ground after getting tackled. "I think I would have done all right, because I was a quarterback since I was 7," Betts said. "But my mom said, 'Stay out of football,' so I did. I just served as a water boy." No doubt, Betts was a splendid water boy.
Consider this story from Mike Morrison, Betts' high school baseball coach when the Overton superstar ended his junior and senior year hitting .549 and .509, respectively. Morrison also was an assistant football coach at the school when Betts was the water boy.
"I'll never forget that when Mookie was a freshman, we were playing our first football game, and I was talking before the game to a referee, who was a good friend of mine," Morrison said. "The referee asked me about our team, and I told him we were pretty good, but quarterback was our issue. The referee seemed surprised, and then he said, 'Your best quarterback is already in your building. There he is over there.' He pointed to Mookie, who was throwing the football in the distance. Because his parents didn't want him to play, he didn't complain one second. Instead, he served the best that he could as water boy, and he cheered on everybody else."
Through it all, Betts departed high school with a 3.5 grade-point average while taking honors and advanced placement courses. In sum, when it comes to the essence of Betts, Red Sox pitcher Joe Kelly told the Boston Herald during Spring Training: "He's pretty good at everything. Ping pong, he's good at. He's probably good at darts. He's the best at baseball. (Moore - MLB.com - 4/29/16)
Sept 3, 2016: Betts joined exceptional company in the Red Sox's 11-2 win over the A's when he smacked a first-inning, two-run double to the left-field wall, giving him 100 RBIs.
Betts joins Ted Williams (1939 and 1941) as the only Red Sox players in team history to hit 30 or more homers and drive in 100 or more runs before turning 24 years old. Betts also joined teammate David Ortiz, as the second set of Red Sox teammates to hit 30 homers, 40 doubles and drive in 100 runs in a single season, following Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in 2004.
Betts said he was aware of the milestones, and was asked if they were meaningful to him. "No, I mean it's pretty cool, but I'd rather win a World Series," Betts said. (M Ciarelli - MLB.com - Sept 4, 2016)
2016-17 offseason: Betts appeared in the World Series of Bowling and tossed a perfect game.
2017 Q&A: MLB.com: What kind of things do you do off the field to decompress from baseball?
Betts: I generally have some family with me. But if I'm by myself, I'll watch a movie or sometimes I'll cook. I just try to occupy my mind in some way to get away from baseball just because I'm here for so long at the park and you don't want to stress yourself out. If you don't play well that day, you don't want to think about it the whole day.
MLB.com: What kind of movies do you like?
Betts: I've always watched comedies. I've just started to watch a few of the scary exorcism movies. They are really weird. They used to scare me, but now it's so off the wall. I'm sure it's real, but since it doesn't hit home for me, I can watch it and it doesn't' really faze me at all. It's just weird to see these things are real life.
MLB.com: Do you binge watch any shows?
Betts: I've watched "Black-ish," "The Black List," "Prison Break." I want to start watching "Game of Thrones," but I've never watched one episode. I heard it's been great and I have to start watching it at some point. I just don't know when.
MLB.com: Are you a music guy?
Betts: I always listen to music. I listen to R&B and Hip Hop. I'm not a big country guy even though I'm from Nashville. I like some songs, but I wouldn't turn on a country radio station or anything.
MLB.com: We all know about your love for bowling and how good you are at it. How much do you bowl in the offseason?
Betts: I bowl Sunday, Monday, I sub on Tuesday whenever my brother doesn't want to bowl. I take Wednesdays off. I sub for my mom if she doesn't want to bowl on Thursdays. Friday, there's a league I bowl on. Just about every day besides Wednesday and Saturday.
MLB.com: Do you think you will go pro when you are done with baseball?
Betts: I don't know. It's a lot. It's just a lot of traveling. I'm not sure. I just want to get to the point where I'm like my dad and I'm not obligated to do anything.
MLB.com: If you had to pick one similarity between bowling and baseball that helps you excel at both, what would it be?
Betts: Repeating the same mechanics. I guess bowling is pretty mechanical. It's kind of a natural motion, but you have to stick within those mechanics. Baseball is way more natural than mechanical. Also, just the little spurts of focus. In baseball, you focus for that pitch and then you reset. In bowling, you focus for that ball and then you reset and kind of step back, breathe, reset. (Ian Browne- MLB.com -Sept. 2017)
September 12, 2017: Mookie Betts hits 20th homer of the season, becoming the first player in Boston Red Sox history with consecutive 20-homer, 20-steal seasons.
November 2017: It’s probably not the World Series the Red Sox outfielder would have preferred, but Betts will look to roll some strikes when he returns to the PBA World Series of Bowling in Reno. He proved his mettle by throwing a 300 game on November 12th in the qualifying round.
Betts is not included nearly often enough in the conversation about the best young players in the deepest and best crop of young players in all of baseball history. But now we're talking. Because when you add it all up with Betts, when you look at his offense and at his defense, you need to ask yourself a question: How many two-way players are better than the leadoff man for the Red Sox who, oh by the way, has been the best player in baseball in April 2018?
Here is what Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has seen plenty of Betts in the AL East, says about him: "I've told anyone who will listen. He's the best right fielder I've ever seen in person. The dynamic he creates for them defensively in right field at Fenway is a big advantage for Boston. Special player. Game changer. The term five-tool player is used loosely. But it aptly describes him. One of my most favorite players in our game."
Here is what AJ Hinch, whose Astros beat Betts' Red Sox in the AL Division Series in 2017, says about Betts: "He is an incredible talent. I love his energy, and impact. Offensively, he is never off the fastball, and can time up any velocity. A dangerous hitter because of how he barrels up pitches. Defensively, he has every skill you look for. He's a premier player in this league. He can do it all on any given day."
Betts has now hit three homers in a game three times already in his five-year career. It happens to be something that Willie Mays also did three times, and Joe DiMaggio did three times. Babe Ruth did it twice. So did Ken Griffey Jr.
Since the start of 2015, Betts has a WAR of 23.4 (per Baseball Reference), behind only Trout at 28.1. He is a force of baseball nature. Betts has come into 2018 swinging, being more aggressive than ever at the urging of new Red Sox manager Alex Cora. He is, in Hinch's words, "barreling up" on just about everything he sees, as the Red Sox have barreled to the top of the standings for all of baseball so far. Betts does not hit home runs the way Harper does, or Judge does. But among the sport's biggest stars in the outfield, only Trout is in the same conversation with him.
"There's a different approach [this season]," Cora said of Betts. "I think [Betts] set the tempo on the first-pitch fastball of the season when he almost took it out of the ballpark in Tampa against [Chris] Archer. Instead of just working the count, taking pitches right down the middle and falling behind, he's ready to attack from the get-go. You can see now pitchers, they know what's going on so they have to grind from the first pitch with every at-bat. I don't think it's a hot stretch. I think this is the guy. Obviously his OPS is not going to be 1.400. He'll be over .900, and that's a good leadoff hitter. I mean, that's elite. That's what we wanted from the get-go, and he's done an outstanding job."
Yeah. Betts has done that, before the age of 26. He is that good, well on his way to being one of the great players of his time. That's what it is like to talk about what Betts is. Right there in front of everybody's eyes. (Lupica - mlb.com - 4/20/18)
- February 1, 2018: Mookie won his arbitration case for $10.5 million. The Red Sox offered $7.5 million.
|DOB:||10/7/1992||Agent:||The Legacy Agency|
|Birth City:||Brentwood, TN|
|Draft:||Red Sox #5 - 2011 - Out of high school (TN)|
Betts has a short, quick righthanded stroke and hits the ball from gap to gap, to all fields. He has an inside-out swing that gets him lots of base hits. And he is surprisingly strong and hits lots of hard line drives. And in 2013, he learned to pull the ball with more authority with his whippy bat.
His very strong hands and quick wrists enable him to hit 20 homers a year. Looking at him, and his small frame, you wonder how he does it. But it is a combination of getting good pitches and a compact swing through the zone with some good bat speed for lots of extra-base hits. (Spring, 2014)
Mookie sees the ball very early out of the pitcher's hand. And he stays inside the ball real well. He has incredible pitch recognition. He barrels the ball and is able to use the entire field.
You can't get him to chase a breaking ball. He has an excellent batting eye and will take a walk. His pitch selection is impressive. And once he is on first base, it's just a matter of time before he takes off. (2015)
A patient hitter, Betts manages the strike zone well and virtually always refuses to chase breaking balls off the plate. When he gets a pitch to hit, he uses a whip-like swing to drive balls to the gaps. Wiry strong, he has plenty of pop for a player his size and could add more, as he sometimes sacrifices extension in his swing to stay inside the ball.
Long term, Mookie projects as a top-of-the-order hitter, thanks to his on-base skills. Unlike many top-of-the-order speedsters, he has enough power to force pitchers to treat him gingerly if they fall behind in the count.
Mookie almost always takes the first pitch, about 85 percent of the time. The only time he swings at a first pitch is if it is right down the middle. Making contact is easy for Betts. (2014)
In 2013, low Class A Greenville hitting coach U.L. Washington helped him tweak his hitting mechanics at the plate, allowing him to become an on-base machine with surprising power.
- Mookie eliminated an exaggerated windup during his load, which he blamed, in part, for throwing him off during the early stages of his career.
“I had a big leg kick. That was it, just a big leg kick that threw off the timing,” Betts said. “It was just like a pitcher’s leg kick, like when they wind up and get ready to throw a pitch. It was about the same thing. It was throwing off my timing."
Betts has immensely talented hands. They allow him to be incredibly quick to the ball, thus keeping his contact rates high, and limiting his strikeouts. (Spring, 2014)
2014 season: Mookie, having eliminated his pitcher-like leg kick and opting instead for a more orthodox stride, as well as the addition of about 15 pounds of muscle thanks to improved strength training. The result was more sock behind the ball, more line drives sprayed to all sectors of the diamond, and a 36-game on-base streak that lasted most of his time with the Portland Sea Dogs.
What does he view as his strengths offensively? "I think just being able to put the ball in play," Betts said. "Make contact. Trying to keep my strikeout rate low and my walk rate high. Trying to get on base."
"I thought he controlled his at-bats very well," said Farrell. "Particularly the one at-bat where he walked, I thought he battled inside the at-bat, took a couple of close pitches, but I thought emotionally he was well under control, good bat speed. It's one game. He looked OK." (Browne & Petrella - mlb.com - 6/30/14)
Listed at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, Betts is considered more of a contact hitter with plate discipline, keen on splitting the gaps and getting on base any way he can.
And Mookie has all the ingredients to be a hitting star—barrel control, true plate discipline, speed, and solid power.
May 5, 2015: Betts, at the age of 22 years and 210 days, became the youngest player to belt two homers for Boston since Hall of Famer Jim Rice, who did it at the age of 22 in 1975.
Rare is the superior athlete who enters pro ball with athleticism and advanced baseball skills. Betts is one of them. "The Andrew McCutchen comp is the best comp," says Cubs president Theo Epstein, who drafted Betts is 2011, his last year as Boston's General Manager. "It's the combination of a short swing, bat speed, superior hand-eye coordination, and athleticism."
You only understand how such big expectations became possible after his front foot and hands have completed their busy work with the flash of his bat. It was Shumpert, after Betts was drafted, who suggested he develop that odd rhythm with his hands before swinging. It was a way to generate more power out of that little body.
Watching Betts is like watching the engine of a sports car run: it is a symphony of fast moving parts. There is a moment as the pitcher brings the ball behind him, when contact seems impossible. The constant waggle of Betts's bat has left the barrel low, and behind him. The front foot is only beginning to kick upward. But then the gearbox gets busy. Foot, hips, shoulders and hands fire in rapid succession. And a baseball in flight for just .40 seconds is met by the swift swipe of his bat. It is a wonder to behold: how someone this unique, this small and this young can be right on time. (SI - June 1, 2015)
In 2015, Betts's 68 extra-base hits stood out for Boston fans. The only players in team history to record more in a season before they turned 23 are Ted Williams (80) and Bobby Doerr (69). They both did it in 1940, and they both now reside in Cooperstown.
2015: At 22, Betts became the youngest Red Sox to homer on Opening Day since 20-year-old Tony Conigliaro in 1965. Since 2012, the only Major Leaguers to hit an Opening Day homer before turning 23 are Betts, Mike Trout (2014) and Bryce Harper (2013, 2015).
May 1, 2016: Betts made some history with two more homers in a 13-9 loss to the Orioles, the Red Sox outfielder became the first player in Major League history to hit a homer in each of the first two innings in consecutive games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
August 14, 2014: Betts can now share a sentence with Ted Williams after his latest launch party that included three homers and eight RBIs. In the rich history of the Red Sox, Betts and Williams are the only players to have two three-homer games in the same season.
August 29, 2016: Mookie's emerging power allowed the recently installed cleanup man to reach a special place in Red Sox history. When Betts clubbed his 30th home run, a towering shot off a sign behind the Monster Seats in the Red Sox's 9-4 win vs. the Rays, he became just the third Boston player to reach that number in a season before turning 24 years old.
The others? Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who did it in 1939 and 1941, and Tony Conigliaro, who achieved the feat in 1965.
"You know, conversations are starting to happen where you look at David [Ortiz], the neighborhood that he's keeping now and now Mookie at his age for what he's producing is not only strong but it's very rare," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "What he's doing in the second half now is well above I think maybe what we expected coming into the second half of this season. There's no sign of any fading in Mookie." (Browne - MLB.com)
September 19, 2016: Betts is tied for the all-time record for most visiting homers at an existing venue (Camden Yards); equaling Sammy Sosa (Minute Maid Park, 2001), Mike Schmidt (Wrigley Field, 1980) and Babe Ruth (Fenway Park, 1927).
September 20, 2016: Betts collected three singles to eclipse 200 knocks for the year. He is the ninth player in history to be in an age-23 season or younger and compile at least 200 hits and 30 homers. Hal Trosky did this in 1934 and 1936, and Joe DiMaggio followed in 1937. It didn't occur again until 1996, when Alex Rodriguez joined the club. After that, Nomar Garciaparra accomplished the feat in 1997, Vladimir Guerrero and Rodriguez both did it in 1998, and Albert Pujols in 2003.
April 19, 2017: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the longest streak in the Expansion Era (since 1961) for plate appearances without a strikeout is 223, by Philadelphia's Dave Cash in 1976.
It was simply striking how long Betts went between strikeouts. In the top of the fourth inning of a 3-0 loss to the Blue Jays, Francisco Liriano got Betts to whiff at a 2-2 slider that was on the outside black of the strike zone, about knee-high.
That ended a span of 129 regular-season plate appearances by Betts -- the longest streak by a Boston hitter since Denny Doyle in 1975 (159 plate appearances). It was also the longest such streak by any Major League hitter since Juan Pierre of the Marlins went 147 plate appearances without a strikeout in 2004.
Betts downplayed his streak after it ended.
"It's irrelevant. Just an out," said Betts. "It is what it is." (Browne - mlb.com)
July 9, 2017: Betts has the most leadoff home runs in Red Sox history.
May 2, 2018: Mookie used his return to the lineup after a brief absence as a day to make history on multiple fronts. It was also a reminder that Betts is back at the top of his game -- and maybe better than ever -- after a slight downturn in 2017.
Betts mashed three home runs, and his team needed all of them in a 5-4 victory over the Royals in a matinee rubber game at Fenway Park. By turning in the fourth three-homer performance of his career, all off Royals starter Danny Duffy, Betts passed the legendary Ted Williams for the most in team history.
"It's pretty cool," Betts said. "He [Williams] hit .400 one year. He did a whole bunch of other things I haven't done. Just to know my name is amongst his is pretty cool."
The only two players in history to have multiple three-homer games in the same season more than once in a career? Betts and Johnny Mize, who did it in 1938 and '40. Betts and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols are the only active players with four three-homer games.
Perhaps most impressive is that Betts is the first player in Major League history to produce four three-homer games before his 26th birthday. Ralph Kiner and Boog Powell had done it three times before turning 26. (Browne - mlb.com - 5/2/18)
- As of the start of the 2018 season, Mookie had a career batting average of .292 with 78 home runs and 310 RBI in 2,086 at-bats.
- Mookie is a very good second baseman, sure-handed and confident. He has those soft hands, plenty of range, and the ability to turn the double play.
Betts had a penchant for highlight-reel defensive plays at second base, and he has the athleticism and range for the Red Sox to consider shortstop and center field as possibilities.
Mookie has become one of the better defensive second baseman around. But, with Dustin Pedroia locked in at second, the Red Sox moved Betts to center field in 2014. And he adjusted quickly.
Mookie fits well in center field, where he is at least an average defender, and improving. One concern is his infielder's arm. (Spring 2015)
- In 2016, Red Sox right fielder Betts won his first Gold Glove award.
And he was again the AL right field Rawlings Gold Glove award for 2017.
Mookie has a quick first step and rapid acceleration that provides above-average speed for stealing bases.
Betts is an above-average runner, but he’s an even better basestealer because he knows how to pick his spots and get good jumps. He has fine instincts. He always has an impressive success rate of stealing bases.
In 2013, he stole 38 bases in 42 attempts.
- Mookie has elite on-base skills—enough for his 60 speed to play up—almost a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
July 29-Aug. 11, 2015: Betts was on the 7-day concussion D.L.
- November 10, 2016: Betts underwent a successful right knee arthroscopy, chondroplasty and loose body removal . He was expected to be fully recovered by Spring Training.