SB Nation

Joon Lee | April 24, 2015

The rise of Mookie Betts

How one of baseball's biggest surprises is no surprise at all

Right behind the entrance door to the Red Sox clubhouse, Mookie Betts sat slumped in his chair last August during his second stint in the major leagues. Betts’ locker fell in the middle of a row usually reserved for minor leaguers, prospects, and journeymen who made an ephemeral stay at Fenway Park. At the time, Betts was just the latest prospect called up to the bigs, one who hoped to make an impression on the coaching staff amidst a lost season in Boston. Those occupying this district of the clubhouse generally kept to themselves. The area was usually devoid of media scrums, with players free to slip out after games without making a blip on the radar.

But there was something about Betts that indicated that he wasn’t long for the anonymous area of the clubhouse, an intangible quality that’s now made him into one of the most compelling young players in baseball. He’s listed at 5-foot-9, and it’s a liberal use of measurement, but Betts doesn’t need David Ortiz’s bulk or boom to capture attention.

Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

He sits in his chair checking his phone and social media, wearing a single gold chain around his neck — a gift from his dad when he signed with the Red Sox — in a clubhouse where bedazzled loafers and necklaces decorated with solid-gold, fist-sized busts of Jesus Christ are the norm. But when Betts pops up from his seat with a smile stretched across his face, the atmosphere in the room shifts in anticipation of what the rookie’s up to, same as it does when Betts strides to the plate at Fenway.

The focus is on Betts thanks to a rocket trip through the Red Sox farm system that made a legion of fans and vets wonder when "The Mookie Show" (as Hanley Ramirez dubbed it) was coming to the major leagues. But even in a pressure-packed sports town like Boston, Betts has gone about most days seemingly unaware that he’s become the reason why people still tuned in to watch a 71-win team in late-August and September. His performances post call-up, hitting .291/.368/.444 in 52 games to close out 2014 with the Red Sox, simply felt like fitting in, not standing out, to him.

That’s why Betts’ hot start isn’t the only thing that’s gotten him a close, hard look; It’s his quiet confidence while putting up those numbers that has spectators figuring that the outfielder’s stay is permanent. In that preternaturally graceful way of the Ones Who Belong, Betts doesn’t chase the spotlight, it finds him and somehow seems like his natural state. It’s been that way since high school: Betts is damn good at just about everything he does, but nobody, including himself, needs to outwardly acknowledge it in order for it to be recognized.

Chris Hight, one of Betts’ high school basketball coaches, discovered this immediately.

"You just look at him and you know," Hight said. "You know that he’s somebody."

"Mookie!" Diana C. Benedict shouted. "We need to get an out."

"OK, momma!" a five-year-old Betts hollered back while standing at shortstop. ‘Momma,’ after all, was his favorite word.

Benedict stood on the field at Coleman Park in Betts’ hometown Nashville, Tenn. watching her Little League team of five-year-olds get run over. It seemed as if every batter on the opposing team hit the ball to a part of the field where the defense struggled to make an out. Whenever Betts fielded a ball hit to him, he would make the play, but the first baseman would fail to handle the throw. The opposing team was running in an infinite loop around the bases.

At that age, every player got to bat, but with no outs in the inning, Benedict thought her team was going to be in the field all day. She just wanted her team to record an out.

"You can’t throw it, baby," Benedict told her son, "but you’re gonna have to get us some outs."

The next batter stepped up to the plate and, as many had done that inning, hit a grounder towards Betts. The young Betts, remembering the direction from his momma, fielded the ball and began running towards first base from deep in the hole and dived headfirst to beat the batter to the bag, recording the first out of the inning.

The other team was livid, telling Benedict that Betts cheated because he had not thrown the ball. They maintained that he was not learning to play the game the right way.

"I’m teaching him how to get an out," Benedict fired back.

"Momma, did I do it right?" Betts said as he walked back to the dugout after the inning.

"Boy, you did a good job," Benedict said. "You are so fast and momma is so proud of you. You did everything right."

When Mookie was three years old, he always had some sort of ball in his hand, whether it was a soccer, football or ping-pong. Both sides of Betts’ family craved competition. They held bowling tournaments, played basketball together in the driveway and raced one another in the front yard. Benedict allowed Mookie to compete with the rest of the adults and older kids, even when he had no chance to keep up physically.

"Once you get bigger, you’ll be able to beat people," Benedict told him, like it was the natural order of things. And for that family it was. His dad, Willie Betts, an Air Force vet who served his last tour in Vietnam and speaks with a baritone southern drawl, grew up with four brothers and two sisters who were raised to never hold back on the younger kids in their neighborhood. And so Willie never held back with Mookie.

"If you couldn’t win, they didn’t get the win. You didn’t get nothing," Willie said. "When Mookie first started playing ping pong, [my brothers] used to kill him."

That went in all sports. Benedict nicknamed her son Markus (his initials are MLB) for former NBA guard Mookie Blalock, a sobriquet that’s stuck because Betts won’t let it go. "Don’t call me Markus, please," Betts once told his fiancée Brianna Hammonds in an Instagram video.

Despite his multi-sport upbringing, baseball stuck, too. Betts didn’t necessarily watch a ton of games on TV or collect cards, it’s what he was best at and there wasn’t much more to it. At age nine, Willie took him to baseball camp at the University of Tennessee, where Vols head coach Rod Delmonico was drawn in by the whole package that Betts presented: speed, athleticism, instinct and, of course, the Superman-esque bat speed.

"I’ll tell you what, as long as this kid is out here and wants to play baseball," Delmonico said, "you need to let him play."

Photo courtesy friends of the Shumpert family

Above: Betts bowling with Terry Shumpert's son, Nick

Growing up, Betts had been especially close to Benedict’s brother, Terry Shumpert, a 14-year major league veteran who used to let his nephew visit in summertime to get a taste of big league life. On one such call up, when Betts was 14 years old, he and Shumpert’s son Nick (now a top-10 high school prospect for the 2015 MLB Draft expected to go in the first three rounds), took in batting practice in the outfield of Coors Field. Later while slicing away at pitches in the batting cage, Betts’ unassuming gift stopped his big league uncle dead in his tracks.

"Mookie’s got it," Shumpert remembers thinking. "I went back home and told my wife, ‘He’s got that swing. He’s got that swing.’"

From there, Shumpert made a point of letting Nick and Mookie see that mindset was just as important as that swing to sticking as a pro. Shumpert began to show Mookie how to behave like a vet when, in 2004, he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate, the Nashville Sounds and lived with Betts’ family in their home. "We were looking around and seeing all of the major league guys and seeing how they acted on and off the field and just how they carried themselves," Nick said. "That’s how we thought it was normal to carry ourselves because that’s what we grew up watching and seeing."

"When Mookie came out, and I’m sure he was aware of it at the time, they saw the grind," Shumpert said. "One thing I said was that I always was aware and knew where and what I was. I was always the happiest guy around because I was playing the major leagues and this is always what I wanted to do as a kid. Even if I was there for parts of 14 seasons, it was always the greatest thing in the world. I think that Mookie couldn’t help but to see that.

"I wasn’t one of those kids raised around baseball and clubhouses," Shumpert said. "Those kids, the maturity, the calmness, the mindset that those kids show is a huge help for them. It’s a big benefit."

Photo courtesy friends of the Betts family

Above: Betts celebrates graduation with his parents

When his star turn came, Betts didn’t assume that it was showtime. The day of the 2011 MLB Draft, Betts sat in his mom’s basement with Quinn Anderson, his high school baseball teammate, playing video games, not really sure what to expect while Benedict was upstairs in the kitchen listening to draft rounds tick by on her computer. "We decided that if he wasn’t going in the top few rounds, he would go to college," Benedict said, since Betts had committed to Tennessee all those years after that first baseball camp.

Photo courtesy friends of the Betts family

Above: Betts playing baseball for the John Overton High School Bobcats

If MLB Network producers had planted cameras in Betts’ home, they would have been disappointed with Betts’ reaction. The Red Sox selected Betts in the fifth round with the 172nd overall pick, which Betts only learned after he paused the game to take a call from his agent.

"He was just nonchalant and then he said he was gonna go talk to his mom about it," Anderson said. "Then he just went upstairs."

Betts, who grew up proving his mettle against older kids, had never tested himself against even college comp. "[Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin] and I were talking about Mookie and he said Mookie told him that he wasn’t sure if he was good enough [to play in college] and it caught him off guard," said Robert Morrison, Betts’ coach at John Overton High School. "He was self-confident, but never over-confident."

And yet here Betts was, signed to a $750,000 contract and on a quick ascent to the majors. Betts played one game with the Gulf Coast Red Sox after signing and subsequently zipped through the farm system in less than three seasons’ time, hitting .315/.408/.470 in the minors.

But when Betts struggled out of the gate in 2013 with the Low-A Greenville Drive, carrying a .157 average heading into May, the unassuming air of certainty he’d always projected started crackling with doubts.

"Man, they’re going to send me down," Betts told Shumpert. "This is crazy. I can do this. Will you tell them I’m OK?"

Shumpert laughed. "Mookie, they don’t send guys down from Low-A," Shumpert said. "If you were hitting .140 in Boston, they may consider sending you down, but Mookie, I know you’re fine. You’re either gonna hit .200 this year or you’re gonna get it together. You’re not going anywhere."

It set a fire.

"I’m not gonna stay right here," Betts told his father.

"He’s got that drive to say that it’s on you to do it and I think that was one of the driving forces," Willie said. "He learned early on that it was on you. It’s on you to make it."

Betts got it together. From May on, Betts hit .296/.418/.477 at Greenville, earning a South Atlantic League All-Star bid and hasn’t slumped since. Not that you’d know it from talking to him.

Andrew Montgomery, Betts’ best friend from high school, texted Betts after a spring training game against the Braves in which the 22-year-old went 2-for-3 with a two-run home run and a highlight reel-worthy diving catch. "Mook said he had a bad game because he had a bad read on the diving catch and his last at-bat sucked," Montgomery said.

"He’s got that drive to say that it’s on you to do it and I think that was one of the driving forces"—Willie Betts

It was Montgomery whom Betts confided in as he rocketed through the Red Sox farm system but secretly worried that he’d never make the bigs because Dustin Pedroia blocked him at second base, his natural position. To Betts, Pedroia was a proven vet and he was just an up-and-comer, an OK player and the budding barber who all his teammates went to for haircuts. Nevermind that in 2014, Betts hit .346/.431/.529 with 11 home runs, 65 RBIs, 30 doubles and 35 stolen bases in 99 games between Triple-A Pawtucket and Double-A Portland. Or that he had tied the minor-league record by making it on base at least once in 71 consecutive games, including the playoffs. Betts was calling Montgomery to brainstorm backup plans about going to college and maybe using his eligibility to get a basketball scholarship. On the baseball field, Betts was simply doing what he was supposed to, nothing earth-shattering.

"It’s nothing to brag about. If you can’t do it right, you can lose the talent as quick as you get it," Willie said. "It’s not something that’s guaranteed to you. Let what you do speak for you." What Betts has done so far, is displace Rusney Castillo—the Sox’s $72 million free agent—in center and entrench himself as the team’s lead-off hitter. In his short tenure, Betts has already established himself as a favorite of the Fenway Faithful by robbing Bryce Harper of a home run (fielding a position he’s played for less than a year) and stolen two bases on one pitch (becoming only the 11th player since 1915 to do so). In his performances at this level Betts hasn’t just gotten by, he’s been memorable.

And now, everyone’s getting used to watching Betts and expecting to see something happen. When Montgomery got a bite to eat with Betts and Hammonds after a game during Betts’ second stint in the majors, they walked into a restaurant down the street from Fenway Park. There, Montgomery noticed that a customer walking out of the eatery "looked like he just saw a ghost" when he recognized Betts walking in. The fan was too scared to speak up, so Betts didn’t notice being noticed. When Montgomery, amused, pointed the silent fan out, Betts didn’t believe him.

"Mook, you’re so blind," Montgomery asserted. "This is reality and you ain’t seeing it."

Not yet, anyway. Betts still insulates himself with a close circle four friends from high school whom he frequently touches base with to ask about college life, a different bubble where he thinks he still belongs. He talks to his family frequently, calling or texting both of his parents and Shumpert on a daily basis.

"Mookie’s trying to make the big league team, but what he’s thinking about is that he hopes the Boston Red Sox take Nick [in the MLB draft]," Shumpert said. "He tells me, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to set this thing on fire in three years [with Nick on the Red Sox]?’"

For now, Betts still chooses a night watching Netflix over going out and he admits not quite knowing the point of Twitter or how to take advantage of the platform. While some players use their walk-up song to brand themselves, Betts walks up to the plate at Fenway Park to the song "Focused" by his friend Rozelle Wilson (who Betts said is akin to a little brother to him); Betts hopes the exposure for Wilson’s music will lead to a record label signing his childhood friend.

Betts is yet another high-profile Red Sox prospect with large expectations heading into the beginning of the season. Both Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts underwhelmed critics and fans during their rookie campaigns. Betts seems poised to break the cycle of first-year mediocrity. Being extraordinary, after all, has been the norm his entire life.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

But when Betts steps up to the plate at Fenway Park this year to the reverberating chants of "MOOOKIEEE," eyes from all over the baseball world, let alone Red Sox Nation, will be on him. Betts, however, will be in a different state of mind. He’ll be at the plate, waving his bat back and forth like clock’s pendulum while sporting a lip curl reminiscent of Popeye, trying to anticipate what’s coming next.

"He doesn’t want that stardom thing," Montgomery said. "He doesn’t want people to hoop and holler. He just wants to be a regular kid." Seeing him play, everyone else knows he’s anything but.

About the Author

Joon Lee is a writer in Boston. He writes about baseball for SB Nation. He's been published at The Classical, The Hardball Times, Gammons Daily, the Boston Herald and He attends Cornell University and will intern for the sports section of The Washington Post in the summer of 2016. You can follow his musings on nonsense at @iamjoonlee.