Mookie Betts Makes Baseball Fun Again

Nothing in baseball is a sure thing. Just ask the 2019 Los Angeles Dodgers, who won a hundred and six games but lost in the National League Division Series. Or ask the 2021 Dodgers, who won a hundred and six games but lost in the National League Championship Series. Or the 2022 Dodgers, who won a hundred and eleven games but lost in the National League Division Series. Or last year’s Dodgers, who won a hundred games but lost in the National League Division Series. Basically, just ask the Dodgers.

Still, there are things that make success more probable than possible, and, coming into the 2024 season, the Dodgers were the envy of the major leagues. During the off-season, they spent money without limit, committing $1.4 billion in salary while somehow leaving the impression of fiscal responsibility. They signed the best player in the world, Shohei Ohtani, who’s like Babe Ruth, only better. They constructed a lineup with a 1-2-3 of former M.V.P.s. They strengthened their pitching rotation, trading for an ace while also landing a Japanese sensation, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whom they signed to a record contract. On Thursday, the Athletic published a long account of the Dodgers’ off-season spending spree, a report that was mostly notable for the way opposing teams seemed to accept their inferiority. “Oh, to be the Los Angeles Dodgers!” the other general managers all seemed to say, through tears. Even the Yankees pitied their position. Sometimes it rains in New York.

In mid-March, the Dodgers left Los Angeles for a two-game series against the San Diego Padres, in Seoul, South Korea, to start the season as the league’s showcase team. But by the first day of spring the Dodgers were reeling. The problems had begun just before the trip, when it became apparent that Gavin Lux, who plays shortstop, traditionally the hardest and most important of the infield positions, had lost the ability to throw to first base. Then, hours after the first game in Seoul, a 5–2 win over the Padres, news broke that representatives of Shohei Ohtani, Babe Ruth but better, was accusing his interpreter and right-hand man and friend, Ippei Mizuhara, of a “massive theft,” reported to total at least four and a half million dollars. That news broke only hours after Mizuhara had told a reporter that Ohtani had willingly wired the money to cover Mizuhara’s gambling debts. (This week, Ohtani said that he has “never bet on baseball or any other sport” and never “asked anyone to do it” for him.)

The next morning, at 3 A.M. Pacific Time, Yoshinobu Yamamoto took the mound for his début and was chased out of the game, giving up five runs in a single inning. As a lifelong East Coaster with no particular stake in the Dodgers’ fortunes, I was ready to revel in the questioning and the speculation, and even felt more than a touch of Schadenfreude. Then Mookie Betts came to bat.

You could say that Betts was born to play baseball, given that his parents named him Markus Lynn Betts, as in M.L.B. His mother played softball and was a competitive bowler, and one of her cousins had a long career in the major leagues; his dad’s family was full of athletes. But Betts never looked like much of one. When his mother tried to sign him up for Little League, she was told that he was too little. She created a new team, featuring her son and other castoffs—sort of like “The Bad News Bears,” without the championship at the end. When Betts got to high school, he reached five feet nine, then stopped growing. He didn’t have raw power, or a gun of an arm, or startling footspeed. What he did have was a range of skills: he could play shortstop, center field, second base. There was an ease to his movements, a sense of control. And he could think. Even in high school, his coaches said, his mind processed the game in an astonishing way. He knew when to round first widely and when to keep running, when to stop short, when to steal. He knew when to swing and when to lay off. He knew what he could do to help his team.

What it seems he could do best was learn. The Boston Red Sox drafted him as a shortstop, but he was light-hitting, erratic, and about a hundred and fifty pounds. In low-level Class A ball, he was moved to second base, which seemed better suited to his arm strength. The hitting coach brought down Betts’s big leg kick. Within a year, he was in the majors.

He grew stronger, more patient. He kept learning. He gained twenty pounds and began to hit for power. He noticed that some players, following injuries, were using a bat with a handle that looked like it belonged on an axe. He didn’t wait to get injured—he tried the bat and found that it suited him. He acknowledged a glut of second basemen on the Red Sox and moved to the outfield, becoming the best defensive right fielder in the league, then one of the best right fielders in history. No one talked about a weak arm anymore.

But that wasn’t enough, and this tells you most of what you need to know. By 2018, he was a two-time All-Star, among the best hitters in the league. Then he heard about a private hitting coach named Doug Latta, who had some unusual theories about swinging a bat, theories that were well outside the mainstream. Most athletes don’t mess with success, particularly not on an off day in the middle of the season. But Betts had an open mind. As Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik tell the story in their book “The MVP Machine,” Latta spent a day in the batting cage with Betts, retooling his swing. The conventional wisdom was to swing straight through the zone, to maximize contact. But pitches follow a downward trajectory, and so swinging upward can keep the bat along the ball’s path for longer. The next day, Betts faced Ohtani, who was pitching for the Angels, and did what Latta instructed, dropping his hands and keeping them low, driving his feet into the ground for power, and meeting the ball with a great uppercut swing. The ball sailed more than four hundred feet: the first of three home runs he’d hit that day. At the end of that season, the Red Sox won the World Series, and Betts won the M.V.P. award.

He was a local hero, or a folk hero, maybe. He could steal bases, hit for power, draw walks, dig a double out of the corner, and, in one fluid motion, fling a long throw to third to catch the lead runner. He could also dunk and bowl and golf and d.j., delight children and charm their parents. “Are we supposed to hate Mookie Betts as Yankees fans for his time on the Sox?” a New York fan on a subreddit devoted to the Yankees asked. “Guy seems like a dream teammate on top of being a superstar talent.” More than a hundred responses said no, Betts is distinctly unhateable.

Then, inexplicably, a year after the World Series win, the Red Sox traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were unwilling to pay him what he wanted and, really, what he deserved. The team’s general manager at the time later said, “We just weren’t equipped at that point to build and win around him.” But it wasn’t the first time that Boston, one of the richest teams in the league, had tried to lowball Betts: earlier in his career, Boston had offered him a salary of seven and a half million dollars, and Betts had taken the matter to an arbitrator, and was awarded ten and a half instead. The Dodgers gave him what he was due.

In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Betts won another World Series, this time with Los Angeles. In 2022, he won his sixth Gold Glove in seven seasons, had thirty-five home runs as a lead-off hitter (to go with forty doubles), and finished second in the National League in slugging percentage. In 2023, the Dodgers moved him to second base: they had a hole there, and so they turned to the guy who could do everything. He finished second in the National League’s M.V.P balloting, and had the majors’ second-highest wins above replacement, a measure of how much more valuable someone is to his team than the average player would be. (The highest figure in that category belonged to Ohtani.) This season, the Dodgers announced that Lux would be moving to second, where his wild throws might matter a little less, and that Betts would be playing shortstop. The move was “permanent, for now,” the team’s manager, Dave Roberts, said. So there Betts was at the stadium, on an off day, taking grounders.

It sounds improbable, maybe even insulting, to treat one of your best players, one of the best players ever, like a utility man. Betts is thirty-one years old, and the move was more or less unprecedented: no player of his calibre had ever moved to shortstop from another position at this point in his career. But Betts has been clear that he wants this, that he asked for the challenge. He is not only willing to mess with success but to risk looking silly. And, at times, in spring training, he did—appearing uncertain, committing errors. According to the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Betts, before leaving for Seoul, told a group of minor-leaguers that he knew that the shortstop experiment could go badly for him, and that that was O.K. It was even the point. “There is a lot of doubt out there, which is cool,” he told reporters. “That’s what makes it fun. Somebody’s going to be right. We’ll find out.”

No one would say that Betts is underappreciated, exactly. But, batting next to a guy like Ohtani, he can be easy to overlook. In Seoul, he went 6 for 9 at the plate. In the second game, which the Dodgers lost, 15–11, he had six runs batted in. There was one moment, in the fifth inning, when I held my breath: he booted a sharply hit grounder off the heel of his glove, then picked the ball up with his bare hand and threw the runner out. Shortly afterward, he turned a double play. In the bottom of the inning, he hit the season’s first home run.

He hit his second a week later, on Thursday, in the Dodgers’ home opener. This one came with sudden ferocity: it was the first pitch of the bottom of the third, a ninety-two-mile-an-hour sinker that didn’t much sink. Betts, with his quick hands, was waiting. There are times, as in Seoul, when his home-run swing is a stroke of velvet, a miracle of sweet hands and timing. This one was a violent uppercut, a bludgeon. The ball shot over the left-field wall. The crowd roared as he circled the bases, and he raised an arm and an index finger. I watched him celebrate with his teammates in the dugout, and the whole place seemed powered by his giant smile. He hit his third home run leading off the game the next night as well. Betts said the other day that playing shortstop makes him feel like a kid again. Me, too. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *