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Self-described country kid Mookie Betts relishes chance to ‘bring a ring’ to L.A.

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts.
Dodgers superstar outfielder Mookie Betts grew up and still lives in Tennessee, yet his immediate goal is to win a World Series for his new big-city team.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Mookie Betts’ first national television appearance this year came on a Sunday in May. He should have been two months into his first season with the Dodgers, batting leadoff and playing right field in his final audition before striking gold in free agency. A Sunday in May should’ve been another ballgame in the sun.

But Betts wasn’t on a baseball field. From his home in Tennessee, he was talking about “Space Jam,” a movie released when he was 4 years old, during a 15-second clip of Episode 8 of “The Last Dance,” the hyped series on Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

At that point, there was a chance Betts would never play a meaningful game for the Dodgers.

The novel coronavirus outbreak had forced Major League Baseball to suspend operations March 12, a month to the day after Betts was introduced at Dodger Stadium. Talks between the league and the players’ union to hold a shortened 2020 season weren’t progressing two months later.

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A canceled season would not have prevented the 27-year-old Betts from become the top free agent on the market this winter. His Dodgers career could have been limited to a few spring training games preparing for a hugely anticipated season that never happened.

The legitimacy of the MLB season will depend on players staying on the field. If they do, the World Series champion will have overcome unique obstacles.

“There were numerous times over the last few months I wondered if we would ever see this happen,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

It’s scheduled to happen after the league and union agreed to disagree on a 60-game season last month. Betts acknowledged he still isn’t sure MLB protocols are enough to complete the season during the pandemic — “It’s tough to be confident in something that hasn’t proved to be foolproof” — but he will start in right field at Dodger Stadium on Thursday against the San Francisco Giants.

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“It’s going to be an amazing thing to put on a Dodger uniform,” Betts said. “Really, to put on a uniform in general, I’m happy. This is basically a new home for me. I’m super excited. Got 60 games to get in the playoffs. Then got to bring home a ring.”

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Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts.
Mookie Betts wasted little time establishing himself as a leader in the Dodgers’ clubhouse.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Markus Lynn Betts grew up in Nashville, Tennessee’s capital and most populous city, but he considers himself a country kid.

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“I guess because my family’s so country,” Betts said. “We are so, so country. That’s where we’re all from, obviously, and we just kind of moved to the city because of work. It’s a different way of life, but, at heart, we’re definitely country folks.”

His father, Willie, served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War before a career as a railroad mechanical superintendent. His mother, Diana, worked for the Tennessee Dept. of Transportation. Both are retired.

They raised a son good at everything. Betts can spend all day fishing. He’s an avid bowler with more than 10 perfect games on his résumé. He dropped his golf handicap from 12 to eight during the shutdown. And he might be the best baseball player in the world not named Mike Trout.

The Boston Red Sox drafted Betts in 2011 as a middle infielder out of high school in the fifth round. With Dustin Pedroia embedded at second base, the organization moved Betts to the outfield in 2014. Dodgers first base coach George Lombard, then with the Red Sox, oversaw the transition.

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“Super smooth,” Lombard said. “A lot of guys could see it happening. Like ‘this guy is going to play in the big leagues’ when he was in double A.”

Gavin Lux isn’t saying why he reported late to training camp, but the Dodgers second baseman figures to get plenty of work over the 60-game season.

A 21-year-old Betts made his major league debut in right field at Yankee Stadium that summer. He cemented himself as a star over the next five years, making four All-Star teams, winning 2018 American League MVP and leading the Red Sox to a World Series title over the Dodgers in 2018.

The success generated questions about his future as he neared free agency. The Red Sox reportedly offered him a $300-million extension. He declined and speculation circulated about the Red Sox doing the unimaginable: a big-market club swimming in revenue trading a superstar in his prime.

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The Red Sox went through with it in February — not before a strange week-long ordeal nearly sabotaged the trade — and Betts was sent to Los Angeles with starting pitcher David Price for outfielder Alex Verdugo and two highly regarded prospects.

Betts’ first impression with the new organization resonated. He reported to Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., at 5 a.m. Within days, he addressed the team with a five-minute speech. He challenged his new teammates and emphasized urgency.

“It was something he felt that strongly about and he wanted to address it,” Price said during spring training. “He did it and he did it the right way.”

A month later, Betts was back home in Tennessee.

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Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts wants to see more Black police officers work in Black communities.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Betts spent some of his unexpected time at home contributing to his community. In May, he bought groceries for shoppers and pizza for employees at a supermarket in Nashville. In June, he partnered with a nonprofit organization to provide people with reusable masks, hand sanitizer and other products.

Behind the scenes, as social unrest permeated the country following George Floyd’s death, Betts, one of MLB’s few African American stars, was involved with The Players Alliance. The organization, made up of current and former Black major league and minor league players, was established last month. It strives to produce an inclusive culture, promote racial equality, and open more opportunities for Black people in baseball.

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Last week, Betts joined other members of the group in publicly criticizing MLB for its delayed response to Floyd’s death and alignment with the fight for equality.

Betts wants to make baseball cool for young Black people so more play the sport. He thinks MLB needs to do a better job of promoting its stars in the mainstream, outside of its ecosystem. He admits players can do a better job boosting the sport’s signal in communities.

He is also tackling racial injustice beyond baseball on his own. One goal is to have more Black police officers work in Black communities.

“I know there are situations going on in the world that we can’t do a whole lot about,” Betts said, “but we’re definitely trying to help where we can.”

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The activism within baseball arose more than two years after Bruce Maxwell, a former Oakland Athletics catcher, kneeled during the national anthem in September 2017 to protest police brutality. Betts said he regrets not supporting Maxwell at the time.

“We should’ve talked to him and figured out where he was and then joined him, really,” Betts said. “So, we definitely dropped the ball on that. He did an amazing job with what he had going on, but now we’re trying to get our voices heard.”

For now, his focus has shifted to baseball.

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Betts returned to Los Angeles on June 30 with his partner, Brianna, and their 1-year-old daughter, Kynlee. Los Angeles is still strange to him. When he’s not at the ballpark, he plays it safe from the virus and stays home. He hasn’t bowled since arriving but said he isn’t worried about his game falling off.

“It’ll take me a week to get back in order,” he said.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts, left, and third baseman Justin Turner, right, on the field.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts, left, and third baseman Justin Turner, right, have developed a close bond.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

He uses Waze every time he drives to Dodger Stadium and back to his place. Where’s that? He’s not exactly sure.

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“I’m close to J.T. [Justin Turner],” Betts said. “I think I’m actually close to a few of the guys. I think Kersh [Clayton Kershaw] is over there. I don’t know. Studio City area, Hollywood. I don’t know. Somewhere over there.”

He acknowledges the trade shocked him, but the thought of a new chapter across the country with a World Series contender was thrilling. He’s at the apex of his career with goals left unchecked.

First up: 60 games with the Dodgers, more if they reach the postseason.

“I wake up every morning and I tell myself, ‘You got to be great,’” Betts said. “At some point I want to be a Hall of Famer. You can’t play to a contract and then shut it down. You have to keep playing no matter what. You got to keep the pedal down and be great every day.”

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