Column: Dodgers fans, welcome to the Mookie Betts era
As a ceremonial first pitch, it was a 100-mph fastball.
As a swatch of decorative bunting, it was downright dazzling.
Hours before what will be an odd Opening Day in a pandemic-vacated Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers created their own pomp and circumstance by boldly putting a new spin on the opening introductions.
Batting first, Mookie Betts, forever.
Believe it. Celebrate it. Even if it’s only from the front of your living room TV, stand up and cheer it.
In giving their newly acquired former MVP a 12-year, $365 million contract extension — the largest in team history and second-largest in baseball history — the Dodgers hit the equivalent of an Opening-Day walk-off homer, one that could soar for generations.
Their best player is now their cornerstone player. Their leadoff hitter with the dagger stare is now the face of the franchise. Despite fears that a canceled season would mean the former American League MVP with the expiring contract might never take a swing in a Dodgers uniform, Betts is now a Dodger for life.
“It’s just amazing,” Betts said Wednesday after removing his Dodgers mask for a Zoom conference with reporters. “An amazing opportunity.”
Amazing is an understatement. Considering Dodgers ownership’s historical reluctance to take this kind of financial plunge, it’s shocking.
The new Dodgers owners said in 2012 they’d rebuild quickly, replenish the farm system, build a sustainable winner, and invest in the right player. They are 4 for 4.
Remember the concern that Guggenheim Baseball Management would never pay enough to keep baseball’s second-best player after trading for him last winter? Well, they not only kept him, they did so without ever seeing him play an official game for them, and for a contract that included a signing bonus of $65 million.
“Today is obviously a very exciting day for the Dodgers organization as well as all of our incredible fans,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, said.
The Dodgers made the move not only because they loved his versatile game — with the Boston Red Sox, he was MVP, a World Series champion, a four-time All Star and Gold Glove winner — but also because they valued his leadership and influence. They were enamored with things like his 5 a.m. spring training arrivals, an inspirational urgency speech he delivered to the club, and his recent mentoring of pitcher Ross Stripling to help him avoid tipping pitches.
But when asked about these things, and about the impact of a Black athlete being the face of a franchise once led by Jackie Robinson, the right fielder’s answers all came back to a basic recurring theme.
“I’m here to bring some rings back to L.A.,” he said.
That’s rings, plural. And why not? For a blindly loyal fan base desperate to end a 32-year championship drought, it was a day to dream big.
Betts bolsters a lineup that will surely intimidate. At 27, he stablilizes a young core featuring Cody Bellinger — the National League’s MVP last year — Corey Seager, Max Muncy, Will Smith, Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Brusdar Graterol and, eventually, Gavin Lux. That means the Dodgers could be real good for a real long time.
Heck, forget a long time, how about right now? Clayton Kershaw is still here. Justin Turner is still here. Joc Pederson is still here. Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernández are still here. By making this move shortly before the season’s first pitch, the Dodgers front office is bonding the socially distanced clubhouse with further belief that no cost will be spared in stepping up from those seven straight division titles to win the long-sought World Series championship.
Even before Wednesday’s news, most experts picked the Dodgers and New York Yankees as leading title contenders. But now, with Betts indelibly part of the team, able to fully exert both his athleticism and leadership without fear it will ring false or cost him money, the Dodgers have to be considered the favorites.
“Obviously, he’s an extraordinary talent; he can impact the game in every facet,” Friedman said of Betts. “But I think what’s really stood out to us in the couple months being around him is the work ethic, the burning desire to get better on a daily basis. I think it’s a tone he will set, that standard for our young players that are in our clubhouse now and also the ones that will come up in the future, [and] will leave an indelible mark on this organization.”
Of course, we’ve written about new saviors before. We’ve written about strong championship hopes before. Seven straight times, if memory serves. Upon hearing this latest news, Dodgers fans can be forgiven for smiling and shrugging and waiting for October.
But make no mistake. If the Dodgers falter again — surely there are no more new ways to blow it, are there? — it won’t be management’s fault.
From chairman Mark Walter to team president Stan Kasten to Friedman, the Dodgers front office has finally done what they’ve always said they would do. They have created a championship culture not only for a season, but for a generation.
For several years, this column has strongly criticized those Dodgers bosses for being apparently satisfied with winning divisions and selling tickets. This column ripped their apparent short-sightedness for failing to lock up the long-term future of the sort of franchise-stabilizing superstar that provides an edge in October.
They whiffed on Bryce Harper; I screamed. They blew it with Gerrit Cole; I cried. Why aren’t they spending some of that $8.35 billion in television money that led to the unconscionable blackout that lasted six years?
Expected to be the top free agent on the market in November, Mookie Betts instead accepts an offer that should keep him with the Dodgers the rest of his career.
Relax, they said. Let us build through the farm system first. Let us construct a consistent contender and create a winning culture first. Let us build not just a flashy team, but a long-term destination, a place others want to play. Then, after that, if we are convinced that a top free agent can be the final piece of the puzzle, we will outspend the world to get him.
In Betts, they found their player. In the Dodgers organization, Betts found his team.
”We’ve talked about this a lot, trying to create a destination spot, players who are here don’t want to leave, players on the outside are longing and looking in at our organization and wanting to play here,” Friedman said. “We were hopeful that [Betts] would get here and fall in love with it.”
It worked. That and $365 million.
“For me, when I got here, seeing all the talent that you just don’t see every day … they are obviously great players. … I l loved being here, I loved everything about here,” Betts said, adding, “I know that the Dodgers are going to be good for a long time.”
That “long time” begins Thursday night at Dodger Stadium against the San Francisco Giants.
The stands will be empty. The Dodgers will be loaded.
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