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Column: Mookie Betts takes over from Clayton Kershaw as Dodgers’ spiritual leader

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts runs to first base.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts is quickly establishing himself as the next torch bearer of a team culture established by Clayton Kershaw, Dylan Hernández writes.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

The Dodgers did more than open their season Thursday night.

They entered a new era.

Starting in right field and batting second was Mookie Betts, who was a day removed from finalizing a $365-million contract extension.

The Dodgers should have Betts for a dozen more opening days, the length of their commitment either a luxury they could finally afford after creating financial flexibility over multiple seasons or an acknowledgment their aversion to risk was costing them championships — or perhaps a combination of the two.

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Whatever the case, they are now Betts’ team. The events of opening day symbolized this transition, as Betts played in his first official game for the Dodgers and previous franchise cornerstone Clayton Kershaw was placed on the injured list with a stiff back.

While the economics of Betts’ deal marks a significant departure from the status quo, the decision to make the former American League MVP their franchise player signaled a choice to double down on their existing culture.

Specifically, a culture that was shaped by Kershaw. Betts won’t replace Kershaw as much as he will carry on his legacy.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts took a knee during the national anthem before Thursday’s season opener against the San Francisco Giants.

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The new spiritual leader of the Dodgers is of the same mold as the last.

Like Kershaw, Betts isn’t the stereotypical Los Angeles superstar.

Betts doesn’t project Magic Johnson’s joy or Wayne Gretzky’s genius, Kobe Bryant’s ferocity or Fernando Valenzuela’s magic.

He isn’t Hollywood.

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“My actions speak more than words,” Betts said.

Which is how Kershaw was in his prime — and largely still is today.

Kershaw’s low-key demeanor contrasted with the Dodgers’ glamorous image. There were times when the organization auditioned more colorful characters to be the face of the franchise.

There was Manny Ramirez, who embarrassed the team and sport by flunking a drug test.

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There was Matt Kemp, who was never the same after destroying his shoulder in a collision with an outfield wall in Colorado.

And there was Yasiel Puig, who was, well, Yasiel Puig.

Oversized personalities electrify stadiums and sell tickets, especially in Los Angeles. But stability creates perennial contenders and Kershaw provided an abundance of that.

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In time, the personality of the Dodgers became a reflection of his. Their professionalism and consistency were qualities they inherited from him. The approach has produced seven consecutive division championships.

“For me, obviously, I came into a situation five years ago with a talented ballclub,” manager Dave Roberts said. “When you have Clayton at the center and you know [how he competes], his work ethic, it makes his teammates have to try to emulate and rise to that bar.”

Kershaw is now 32, his contract set to expire at the end of next season.

Betts is expected to lead similarly, more by example than with what he says. Hearing others talk about him is like listening to descriptions of Kershaw.

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“He always wants to play for something,” veteran third baseman Justin Turner said. “He’s not out there for fun. He plays to win.”

Sound familiar?

President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman recalled seeing Betts in recent weeks when looking down at the field from his fifth-floor office at Dodger Stadium.

“He was the first guy on the field, doing different drills,” Friedman said.

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Sound familiar?

“You take a guy of his caliber, his ability, his talent, his track record and it’s easy to be like, ‘Oh, he’s a great player,’” Turner said. “But then when you see him on a day-in and day-out basis and the work he puts in, whether it’s in the cage or out on the field, defense, early work, just the responsibility that he takes upon himself to make sure he’s doing the right things, that rubs off on other guys.”

Which is why when Betts speaks or takes a stand, his words and actions have added gravity.

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That was the case early in spring training when Betts challenged his new teammates to practice with urgency. And that was the case again Thursday when Betts kneeled as the national anthem played at Dodger Stadium.

But moments like that figure to be exceptions.

“I don’t want to be more than who I am,” Betts said. “I’m not really overly concerned having to step in and be a leader now.”

With Betts as their leader, don’t expect the Dodgers to dominate the news cycle like LeBron James and the Lakers or have the same edge as Patrick Beverley and the Clippers.

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“I’ve got to be Mookie Betts,” Betts said. “I can’t be LeBron.”

What he can be is a champion again, just as he was with the Boston Red Sox.

The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series with Kershaw but are nonetheless convinced they have developed the culture necessary to make that happen. Betts will ensure it remains in place.


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