If you watch Mookie Betts for any considerable stretch of time, you can’t help but notice his smile. Forget megawatts. This is a gigawatt smile. Whether he’s high-fiving with teammates in the dugout, dancing with his fellow outfielders after a victory or simply standing around the batting cages before the game, the grin on Mookie Betts’ face is wide.
“I kind of always want to be in a positive, good, confident mood. I think people around me see that, and it brings them up a bit,” says Betts, 24. “If you’re smiling, that means you’re having fun. We’re playing a game, too, so we gotta understand that.”
The 5-foot-9-inch Tennessee native has certainly given the Red Sox something to smile about, winning a Silver Slugger award and landing in the top five in nearly every offensive category in the American League last season. But what very few people realize is that Boston—and baseball—nearly missed out on Betts altogether.
Born with the initials MLB, Markus Lynn Betts has a name fit for a Major League Baseball player. He’s also got the pedigree as the nephew of 14-year baseball veteran Terry Shumpert. And Betts is a consummate all-around athlete, standing out in sports from bowling—he bowled his first perfect game as a teenager—to basketball. In fact, his basketball prowess led to a short-lived recruitment in high school that ended once scouts realized how good he was at baseball.
But his path to the big leagues got off to a rocky start. Less than two years after being drafted by the Red Sox out of high school, the then 20-year-old was mired in a slump. He was batting .150 for Greenville in the lower levels of the Sox minor-league system in May 2013.
“People don’t know, but at that point, I had talked to a couple of schools to play basketball because I thought my career was going to be over really, really soon. I had a couple of things in line for me to go play basketball in college, but I ended up not having to use it,” Betts recalls. “It was a couple of small schools around Nashville—I won’t mention any names. It was a couple schools I had talked to, because I was trying to look at the next chapter since I thought baseball wasn’t going to work out.”
Before he headed for the basketball court, however, Betts met with Greenville hitting instructor U.L. Washington, who encouraged him to make a change in his swing. “I had a big leg kick when I used to swing, and then I cut that out. … Once I did that, I was able to make more solid contact, and I added a little power actually. And I just kind of went from there. It literally took a day. I think the day I took it out, I had like three or four hits that day. So that’s kind of when things changed.”
Life has never been the same for Betts, who continued to pound the ball and was promoted four times during the next 14 months, making his major-league debut in Yankee Stadium in June 2014. Betts had only played in the outfield in 29 career games at that point, but he played right field that day, catching the only ball that was hit to him and going 1-for-3 at the plate. “I was obviously really, really nervous. I was more nervous on defense than hitting. If you don’t get a hit, that’s OK. But if they hit a pop-up out to you, you have to catch that. And you have to make the right throw, the right decision. That was the main thing I was worried about.”
By the end of the 2014 season, Betts was a full-time starter in the Sox outfield, and he finished his 2015 season ranking in the top 10 in the AL in stolen bases and extra-base hits. He was an established double threat—just as likely to crush a ball off the Green Monster as to swipe second base. But last season was truly a breakout year for Betts, who finished second in the MVP voting—behind Mike Trout, aka the Babe Ruth of the current generation. It was fine company for Betts, and the Red Sox, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis was a three-time All-Star as a player and played alongside great hitters like Derek Jeter, and he marvels at Betts’ consistent, purposeful approach to the 162-game season. He notes Betts’ quick hands and superior hand-eye coordination, but he believes his success is about a lot more than simply natural ability.
“[In batting practice,] he works very diligently to the opposite field, to the middle of the field and his pull swing. And then he finishes right back at the middle of the field. You wish every hitter would have that kind of discipline. Sometimes batting practice for some hitters becomes more of a show. For him, it’s a focus,” Davis says. “He’s somewhat of a perfectionist in the way he works. … And he carries that same focus to the plate. He’s very conscious in pregame that he’ll swing at strikes and not balls, so it creates a discipline factor during the game.”
That consistent approach was disrupted in October, when in the first playoff appearance of his career, Betts struggled. It took until his second game—and his seventh plate appearance of the series—to register a hit. The rest of the Sox didn’t do much without Betts powering the offense, and they were swept out of the postseason in three games. “I think when you hit the playoffs, you think it’s a new animal,” Betts says. “[I learned] that it’s the same game, and don’t try to add any pressure to yourself because when you do that, I think things get a lot worse.”
Betts enters the 2017 campaign with a desire to get back to the playoffs—and win the World Series—despite all that’s happened since last season ended. He’s recovered from his right knee surgery, the first major surgery of his career, which left him housebound for some of the offseason. And with David Ortiz now retired, Betts is not only the leading force in the Red Sox lineup, but one of the new faces of the franchise and the league.
Betts is comfortable with the increased attention, and he’s set a personal goal of equaling last season’s production. But he’s planning to have fun on the baseball field too. The Sox outfielders’ tradition of post-win dancing—with moves like the worm and the Carlton—drew viral attention last year, and Betts says fans can expect more: “We’ll have something, but it’ll be something a little different. It’s still in the works. We’ve had a couple meetings about it.” Betts says he’s also working on a take on the Salt Bae meme, which he debuted during spring training to the internet’s delight. Add in pingpong tournaments, golf and basketball outings and constant card games, and Betts is among the 25 Red Sox players hoping to keep it loose this season while piling up the wins.
“I like having fun. I think that’s the main part. I don’t want to necessarily be the face of anything. I just want to have fun,” Betts says. “When we’re playing the game, obviously it’s a very serious game, but I think things become better once you enjoy doing what you’re doing. And I think that’s what I’m trying to do.”