Mookie Betts is surrounded by positive affirmation.
Since his breakout MVP runner-up season in 2016 at age 23, Betts has been listed among baseball’s elite, often in the discussion as one of the best players in baseball when analysts or his peers debate the topic.
But he has to be reminded of that.
“I don’t think he understands how good he is,” says Dodgers designated hitter J.D. Martinez, Betts’ close friend since their shared days in Boston. “I think he believes it. But sometimes he doesn’t really express it.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword for him because I think that’s what makes him great too. I think every great player has a little insecurity. They’re always going out there trying to prove something – there’s a chip on their shoulder or they’re thinking it’s going to go away. That’s kind of what keeps him working hard.”
Freddie Freeman has seen the same dynamic at work since joining the Dodgers last season, particularly in the batting cage.
“I don’t know what’s going through his head,” Freeman says. “Last year, it was during his May when he was on fire. We were in the cage and he was, ‘Oh, I’ve lost it.’ I was, ‘Wait a second, you hit a home run, like, five straight games.’ I don’t know why but sometimes you have to remind him that he’s Mookie Betts, an MVP and one of the best players in this game.”
Betts says “I’d be lying” if he said he always believes them. He looks at his numbers with the Dodgers and doesn’t see the consistency required to be listed among the game’s elite.
A transformative force in 2020 when the Dodgers won the World Series, Betts was hampered by injuries in 2021. His 2022 season featured two outstanding months – May and August – separated by long stretches of far lower production.
This year, he has 11 home runs, 30 RBIs and 37 runs scored – excellent numbers from a leadoff hitter. But his .255 batting average at this point would be a career-low. His on-base percentage and OPS are also below his career averages.
“I feel like I’ve been so up and down, man,” he says. “The downs are the times that I really remember. But also, I don’t really think about things in those terms. I think about what I need to do to get back to helping the team win.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that I’m down on myself like a pity party. It’s more that I get frustrated because I’m not helping us. I feel like I take pride in the weight that I have to carry. Freddie has weight. We all do. I take pride in that.
“It’s really about the guys who can be the most consistent. Those are the ones that quote-unquote are the best in the game.”
But Betts says his priorities have changed. If he was playing to make his mark as an individual early in his career, now “It doesn’t matter if I’m the best,” he says.
“I’ve kind of done a lot of things I set out to do – which is win MVP, win the World Series, win some awards and whatnot,” he says. “So now you play the game to win.”
But Betts acknowledges there are also other priorities now. At 30 years old, he is married. His second child (and first son) was born last month. And his wife, Brianna, opened his eyes in other ways.
“My wife told me like two years ago, ‘You’re going to hit a mid-life crisis and you’re not going to know what to do,’” Betts says. “Ever since she said that – obviously the dad and the husband, those hats stay on. The baseball hat stays on. I’m not going to let anything get in the way of baseball because this is how I have all the opportunities that I’ve got.”
But he wears other hats now.
He started a YouTube channel last year. Among other business endeavors, he is a partner in One Media/Marketing Group, which produced a Jackie Robinson documentary last year and is developing other projects including a scripted series and game shows. Earlier this month, he started hosting a podcast – ‘On Base with Mookie Betts.’ Two other former league MVPs, Christian Yelich and teammate Clayton Kershaw, were among his first guests.
“I’ve got – what? – nine more years, 10 more years of this and when that time comes I’m not going to be lost,” he says.
“You don’t play this game your whole life. So it’d be crazy for me not to think about what’s going on. It’d be a mistake. Yeah, doing a podcast, being a dad, being a husband – yeah, that’s going to take some time away. If I want to do what I say, which is be around, become a billionaire one day, be in business – I’ve got to do those things. And all the people that are doing those things are my age.
“Yeah, I have to split some time between going to do a podcast or going to a business meeting or going to do this – then when I get to the field I’m all baseball. This is what comes with it. The argument is what if that takes away from baseball? Okay, well if you want to be lost when your career is done – you know what I’m saying?”
Such long-range thinking comes with a danger. It could take the edge off the drive that makes a player “the best in the game.”
“It depends on who you are,” Betts says to that. “It could. It really depends on who you are. For me, I don’t think it takes the edge off.
“I want to win and I know I’m a big part of the team if we’re going to win. I take pride in that. I don’t run from it. I know if I had a bad game there’s probably something I could have done to help us.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has said things this season that could be interpreted as an acknowledgment that Betts’ motor doesn’t always run at that elite gear.
Playing Betts on the infield “keeps his interest a little bit more,” Roberts said. While acknowledging that “it’s hard when you play every single day and I understand that,” the manager has also offered that “there’s an extra level of focus” some players can summon but Betts “doesn’t always have that.”
When Roberts’ comments are read to him, Betts accepts the criticism – unintended or otherwise.
“If that’s how he feels, cool,” Betts says. “I know for me personally I don’t feel that way. But maybe he’s saying something that he sees. I don’t know. I’m not saying he’s wrong. Maybe he sees something.”
But expecting Betts to be, say, the player he was during the 2020 playoff run or last May every day over the course of a long season is “rough … that’s a lot.” Betts says. But that “doesn’t mean you don’t try.”
“You ask for the stars and you land on the clouds,” he says. “I want to be that guy 100 percent of the time. Now you see where the frustration comes from. It’s not because I’m sad that I’m not playing well. No, it’s not that. It’s not about me at this point. My legacy, everything is going to be about my team. That’s all I care about. I want to be here for my team and if he says maybe I need to have that focus all the time then maybe I just need to focus up all the time.”
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