Hours after the Dodgers completed their first full-squad workout of the 2020 season, Mookie Betts, officially a Dodger all of eight days, reached out to his new manager with a request for the next morning.
“He asked me if he could have a few minutes with the guys,” Dave Roberts said. “I had no idea what he was going to say.”
That night, Betts spoke with David Price, the other player the Dodgers acquired from the Boston Red Sox in the dragged-out trade that kidnapped the final days of the offseason, about his plan. The 27-year-old right fielder was going to address the team.
Betts knew he had to choose — and deliver — his words wisely. He was the 2018 American League MVP, a four-time All-Star, and a World Series champion, credentials that rendered him beyond qualified for a leadership role. But he is also a new teammate one season from free agency on a team boasting established stars coming off a franchise-record 106 wins. There was a fine line to tiptoe. He was confident he wouldn’t trip.
“When you’re talking from the heart, people kind of get that sense and don’t take it [the wrong] way,” Betts said. “It’s nothing I don’t do or I wouldn’t do. I’m not going to tell anybody to do something I wouldn’t do. That’s always speaking from the heart and speaking from experience.”
Betts gave a five-minute speech that Wednesday morning after members of various parts of the organization were introduced to the players. He challenged his teammates — many of whom he helped topple in the 2018 World Series — to produce the urgency necessary to win a World Series from the beginning of spring. He emphasized that even drills on the back fields in February require sharp focus. He stressed urgency every day as they launched their championship pursuit. He preached accountability and energy.
“I had never seen him do something like that before,” said Price, Betts’ teammate in Boston the last four seasons. “That was something out of his comfort zone.”
Betts didn’t betray his usual tranquil demeanor. He was understated, but direct. He spoke with conviction. His audience, somewhat surprised a recent acquisition mustered the confidence to step forward, hung on his every word. Teammates from every corner — prospects, journeyman veterans, English- and Spanish-speaking — emerged dazzled by their new superstar colleague.
“It was special,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “And I think it’s already resonated with every guy in camp. You go on the back fields, you watch the drills we do, the crispness, the [lack of] mistakes. It’s been a really good camp so far and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
After nine years in the Red Sox organization, Betts reported to the Cactus League for the first time Feb. 13, the morning after he was introduced at a news conference at Dodger Stadium. His peers quickly realized his work ethic is uncommon.
Betts began his Dodgers career by arriving at Camelback Ranch at 5 a.m. every day. He quietly slips in and out of the clubhouse, intent on advancing to the next phase of his workday. Left-handed reliever Tyler Gilbert, his locker neighbor, has been left with prime real estate rarely afforded nonroster invitees.
Across the room, another left-hander was immediately struck by Betts’ silent doggedness.
“There’s a lot of superstars out there that are just really good baseball players, and I’ve played with a lot,” Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. “They’re really good and they’re not bad for the team. It’s just that they really just put up their numbers and hit home runs and move on with their day. Mookie’s not like that at all.
“He’s all about trying to get the team ready to go. He wants to win. Going to a new team, last year of a contract, that’s a lot to say about a guy.”
Last week, following Betts’ lead, the Dodgers created a system stressing accountability. A sheet of printer paper was taped along Betts’ locker with the name of every outfielder in camp on it. Turner’s locker a few feet away has paper with the infielders listed. Players are encouraged to self-report mistakes in workouts and games. The penalty for each hiccup is a fine. A few players had already volunteered themselves by the end of the first day.
“When one of your star players speaks out,” Roberts said, “it’s a lot easier for those guys to kind of follow along and have fun with it, but also understanding the message behind it.”
Dodgers first base coach George Lombard sensed Betts’ potential as a leader before ascending to stardom when he managed the only professional baseball game Betts played in 2011, months after the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round of a high school in Nashville.
Betts went two for four for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, but was charged with three errors at shortstop and summoned for a talk with organization officials after overtly expressing frustration with teammates on the field.
In 2014, Lombard oversaw Betts’ conversion from middle infielder to outfielder. The work was easy. Betts transitioned seamlessly, combining elite athleticism, discipline and accountability to carve a path to the majors with Dustin Pedroia entrenched at second base in Boston.
“He does everything the right way,” Lombard said. “It was cool to see. Like, ‘Damn, he’s grown up.’”
Six years later, Betts is experiencing a different kind of relocation. He’s the established superstar a championship-contending team added as the final ingredient for the championship chase. They envision his five tools shining atop the batting order and in right field at Dodger Stadium through October. But his impact has been felt long before playing in a game that matters, beginning with some words on a February morning.
“It definitely lifts you up, you know?” Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said. “We went like seven years in a row to the postseason. We’ve been fighting for so long to win a championship and to see him coming in and bring that different energy, that spirit, it’s great. It’s great to have a guy like that to lift you up.”