In a sport craving superstars, few carry the cachet of Mookie Betts. Increasingly, the Red Sox right fielder recognizes his place in the game, plus the responsibilities — and opportunities — that come with it.
In 2016, Betts arrived. In a year when he finished second to Mike Trout in American League MVP voting, he demonstrated a skill set possessed by few. In that, there is now a sense of comfort and self-possession. Betts is no longer striving to become something he hasn’t been as much as he is driven by the pursuit of maintaining what he’s already done.
“It’s different for me this year just knowing in the back of my mind that I can do it, and don’t need to force it,” said Betts. “When you try to force things and do too much, bad things happen.
“I tell myself that I can do it. I can play at the level. It wasn’t me going out and trying to do anything out of the ordinary. It just came from me just being Mookie.”
The notion of “being Mookie” at this stage is a fascinating one on multiple levels.
Start with this: At 24, Betts is emerging as the most prominent player on one of the most prominent teams in baseball. The combination of ability and visibility has already opened numerous doors for a player entering just his third full season. Betts’s list of endorsements includes Nike’s Jordan Brand, Axe Bats, VitaCoco, and more.
“It’s pretty cool to have those opportunities, but that’s not the reason why we play,” said Betts. “Those things come as a product of me taking care of my business on the field. That’s obviously my main focus.”
Nonetheless, one major league general manager recently noted that the incentive for young stars such as Betts and Kris Bryant to sign long-term deals before reaching free agency is diminished by virtue of their considerable off-field earnings. While Betts demonstrates an understanding that his earnings potential on and off the field is a product of his performance, he also acknowledged that advertising opportunities have permitted him to think about long-term financial security in a way that is not dependent solely on his salary from the Red Sox.
“[Getting endorsements] kind of eliminates things I’ve wondered as far as contracts go and the business part of the game,” said Betts. “[But] everything I can ever desire is going to start from me taking care of business on the field.”
While Betts recognizes the importance of handling his “business on the field,” he likewise remains intent on mixing business with pleasure. Part of the reason he is emerging as one of the most marketable players in the game is an on-field charisma that rebuts the notion that baseball is joyless or hostile to self-expression.
Betts celebrates the idea that he is part of a wildly talented generation of baseball players that has the opportunity to transform the image of the game. In 2016, Bryce Harper (born nine days after Betts in 1992) made headlines with his determination to “make baseball fun again.” It is a commitment that Betts shares.
“At this point in life, I know where I am,” said Betts. “I have learned to accept that I’m a role model for some people. I embrace it. I try to be the best I can be, smile, have fun playing the game, and make little aspects of the game enjoyable. That way, younger kids can go out, love playing the game, do things to have fun.
“When I was younger in the big leagues, it was fun, but there were some aspects of the game, I told myself, ‘When I’m old enough, or when my name is big enough, I want to change that aspect.’ ”
Asked to elaborate on what he wanted to change, Betts didn’t hesitate.
“Smiling, laughing, joking during the game,” said Betts. “No shade at anybody from coming up, but myself, I like having fun. Even if it’s a 2-2 game in the ninth inning, I want to have the same smile on my face that I had in the first inning.
“You don’t want to get tight. You want to have fun and enjoy it. I think that’s what’s going to help me be the best I can be, help my guys be the best they can be, and young kids can see that, how to use that, too.”
That commitment helps explain the Sox’ “win, dance, repeat” victory celebrations, or the pass patterns run by Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. last summer after innings that concluded with Bradley catching a ball for the final out.
“Those are just little parts of the game that people don’t know about that you can make fun,” said Betts. “It’s as simple as running on and off the field.”
In a way, it seems appropriate that one of Betts’s on-field signatures is his willingness to run at a time when most walk or jog. In a way, such things serve as a metaphor for all that he’s done in the game.
In each of the last four years, Betts has seen his profile transform with startling rapidity, emerging from obscurity to prospect status in 2013, from prospect to big leaguer in 2014, from newcomer to potential cornerstone in 2015, and then achieving stardom last year.
Rather than being jarred by the speed of his ascent, he has found comfort in his place — on and off the field, a position that he intends to enjoy.
“I think the challenge this year and going forward,” said Betts, “is going to be to continue being Mookie and not trying to be someone else.”
By Alex Speier