Column: Mookie Betts could be missing piece to puzzle to end Dodgers’ title drought
As Dodgers officials and players moved in a cluster from the dugout to the Dodger Stadium infield stage Wednesday afternoon, consecutive questions arose.
Where’s Mookie Betts?
That’s Mookie Betts?
Because he is 5 feet 9, and appears even smaller in person, Betts didn’t emerge until the group dispersed.
When he did finally appear, the Dodgers’ newest Superman looked no more intimidating then, well, a guy named Mookie.
He wore a black hoodie with “Dad” written across the front. He wore black sweat pants. He wore white sneakers that were loose and untied.
He smiled a lot. He nodded a lot. He was so perfectly pleasant, so appropriately charming, one prediction can be adamantly made.
Every night is going to look like Mookie Betts Bobble-Head Night.
“They’re gonna love him,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Man, they’re gonna love him.”
They truly will, these ring-starved Dodgers fans, and not just because Betts could represent the final cornerstone piece in the Dodgers’ consistently shattered championship puzzle.
As he showed in an official introduction Wednesday, he’s more than simply one of the top five players in baseball, more than the elite corner outfielder and leadoff hitter that the October-empty Dodgers have long craved.
He’s not only very good, but he’s also cuddly good.
Among a parade of big Dodgers acquisitions in the last dozen years, he’s not the menacing Manny Machado or towering Yu Darvish or foreboding Adrian Gonzalez or nutty Manny Ramirez.
He’s a Nashville kid unafraid to admit Hollywood might be a little out of his element.
“I didn’t necessarily imagine myself as a, what do you call it, a Cali guy?” he said. “But I’m here, and you’ve got to embrace it.”
He’s a regular sports fan who recently had his photo taken with LeBron James after a Lakers game in Memphis … Betts is the one wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a Mickey Mouse baseball cap.
“It’s pretty easy to get lost in it, I’m sure,” he said of the local star scene. “But we’re here to play baseball. We have to keep our minds there.”
He’s a baseball gym rat who remembers the exact moment this week when he learned he was officially traded to the Dodgers with Boston Red Sox teammate David Price.
Mookie Betts and David Price were introduced at Dodger Stadium, the culmination of a trade with the Boston Red Sox that overcame obstacles to come to fruition.
“I was hitting in the cages when I got the call,” he said. “I took a little break, put my phone to the side, and finished up, took care of business.”
He is the eternal underdog who will continue to wear number 50 because, when he began his Red Sox career, it was chosen when he didn’t have much choice.
“I keep number 50, because nobody wants it,” he said.
He’s a humble sort who will wear an uncool number, but won’t wear the coolest of baseball bling. His 2018 World Series ring wasn’t on his finger Wednesday, because it never is.
“I don’t wear it,” he said, shaking his head as if the question was crazy. “That stays home in the trophy case.”
He’s also a regular sort who is unafraid to talk about what might be his greatest sporting achievement, and it has nothing to do with baseball. He is a professional-level bowler who has three perfect games.
Of course Mookie Betts bowls. And of course he already has some local lanes lined up for practice.
“I know a few out here,” he said. “We’ll get some work in.”
How can you not love a guy who refers to bowling as “work?”
His first official hug was given Wednesday by Roberts, who draped his new Dodgers jersey around Betts’ shoulders and then loudly spoke for all of Dodger nation.
“Whoooweee!” said Roberts.
Betts truly does seem to be the perfect fit for this team, with his exciting play complementing his unassuming yet respectful personality.
First, there’s the baseball. Just listen to vice president Andrew Friedman.
“He embodies everything we really value about a position player,” Friedman said. “The impact he has on defense, the instincts on the bases … in the batters’ box, guys who are aggressive in the strike zone and passive out the strike zone, he embodies all of that.”
FOCO, the official manufacturer of MLB bobbleheads, has released a preview of the Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts bobblehead that is set to be released this spring.
Then there’s the clubhouse stuff.
“When I talked to him the other day, I told him that in all the digging that we do on players that we’re looking to acquire, all the feedback we got from teammates and clubhouse guys and different guys that he’s come across in his career … he’d blush if he heard all the nice things that were said about him,” Friedman said.
Put it all together and no wonder Roberts is howling.
“This guy runs 90 feet, plays defense, he’s smart , he doesn’t run from the media, he holds himself accountable,” said Roberts. “There’s nothing not to love.”
He might not be loved for long, as he is in the final year of a contract amid a $420-million extension demand that scared the Red Sox into dealing him. Betts didn’t want to discuss his contract Wednesday, and the Dodgers probably wouldn’t pay him that much, but that doesn’t mean they won’t spend this season recruiting him.
“We’re hoping he falls in love with the team, the city, the fans, and he wants to be here for a long time,” said Friedman.
Of course, there’s a lot that can happen between now and the end of October.
If Major League Baseball’s ongoing sign-stealing investigation into the Red Sox takes an unexpected turn — they have not been accused of stealing signs from the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series — then things could get awkward.
“I know me and my teammates, we worked our butts off to get to where we were, we deserved that,” said Betts of the championship.
Betts also will have to improve on his career postseason batting average of .227 and help give the Dodgers their first title in 32 years if he wants to be astronomically valued here.
“Great fans, lot of expectations, all eyes will be here, and you’ve got to embrace it,” he said.
Markus Lynn Betts smiled, clearly ready for what could be the summer-long hug of his life.
“Time to go to work,” he said, walking off into spring training, three decades of Dodgers hopes following closely behind.
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