“FENWAY'S BEST PLAYERS”
At an annual high school baseball showcase at Middle Tennessee State University in June of 2010, hundreds of kids from across the state vied to impress one of the dozens of scouts on hand. The days were long in Murfreesboro, with workouts and batting practice in the morning followed by games that faded into the night. It was hot, humid and hard to stand out from the crowd. Halfway through the afternoon, a 17-year-old rising senior darted from shortstop across the infield for a ball up the middle. He slid behind the bag, stretched out, spun and made a perfect behind-the-back glove flip to second.
In that moment, Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins knew Mookie Betts was different. He wanted to dig a little deeper. He was trained to discover this type of player. Watkins found Betts later in the day, introduced himself and spoke with him for about 10 minutes. He'd see Betts a few more times throughout the summer at various tournaments. Betts' consistent play and demeanor further affirmed Watkins' instincts – this was a kid the Red Sox should target in the 2011 draft.
For those who know Betts best, his family and friends back in Tennessee, his ascent was no surprise. Red Sox veterans laud the exciting rookie for his maturity and understanding of the game, skills that make him a franchise-type player. They're not qualities he's just discovered, though; he was born this way.
When Mookie Betts was just a toddler, the athlete in him already itched to perform. Even the confines of his crib were too small. Betts lived in Murfreesboro until he was 10, when he moved with his mom to Brentwood, which borders Nashville. The brick house with white shutters where Betts grew up, sits on a residential street off a main road that runs through Brentwood.
Betts played on multiple teams throughout his youth, but began travel baseball in earnest when he moved to the Nashville area. His father, who lived nearby, drove Betts to tournaments two or three weekends a month. By the time he got to high school, Betts' reputation preceded him.
On the smooth dirt infield of William Tucker Jr. Field, which sits adjacent to Overton High, Betts blended into this team seamlessly, but stood out athletically.
Betts has always had an innate ability to observe something and then imitate it, sometimes better than he was shown. It might be the reason why Betts can solve a Rubik's Cube in about two minutes.
Betts' parents were always around and were as much a part of the Overton scene as Betts. His father manned the gate at games and his mother worked the concession stand. 'Papa Willie,' Betts' friends' nickname for the retired CSX railroad mechanical superintendent, blew a toy train whistle after big plays, which became a staple at games.
Betts soon landed on several college coaches' radar. Tennessee and Vanderbilt were the top two that targeted him. Betts felt like he couldn't be a starter right away at perennial powerhouse Vanderbilt and eventually committed to play at a rebuilding program at Tennessee. But the pro scouts weren't far behind as Betts batted .549 with six home runs, 37 RBIs and 24 stolen bases as a junior. He then hit .509 with 39 RBIs and 29 stolen bases as a senior.
Danny Watkins, a Red Sox area scout since 2004 covering Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and portions of the Florida panhandle, returned to the Nashville area in the fall of Betts' senior year. With the play from the previous summer still fresh in his mind, he called Betts and met the 18-year-old and his mom at a nearby Cracker Barrel to talk about going pro.
Draft day arrived and Watkins did everything he could to convince then-Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein, director of amateur scouting Amiel Sawdaye and their team of Betts' abilities. The Red Sox drafted Betts in the fifth round, 172nd overall.
The decision to sign came down to the wire for Betts, who was still contemplating whether he should go to Tennessee. But Watkins felt confident Betts would go pro. That summer, Boston's eighth-round pick Senquez Golson didn't sign, opening up more money for negotiations. Betts' parents wanted to ensure if things didn't work out, he would be comfortable financially. Just before midnight on deadline day, Betts signed a $750,000 bonus, about $600,000 above slot.
The transition to professional ball in Class A Short-Season Lowell the following season wasn't smooth. It was one of the few times in his athletic life that Betts struggled. He leaned heavily on his family and his three best friends. While his friends moved on to college, Betts prepped for his career. The qualities Watkins had trumpeted were being tested as Betts hit .267 with a .352 on-base and .302 slugging percentage in 71 games for the Spinners in 2012.
Betts survived his freshman year in the pros, and after advancing to Single-A Greenville to start the 2013 season, everything changed. Not only had he been playing in the Red Sox system for a year, but he was closer to home in Greenville, S.C. about a five and half hour drive from Nashville. His family and friends were regularly at his games. Betts' rapid ascension through Boston's farm system is well-documented, but began with that comfort and confidence bred in Greenville. Friends and family had to cancel more than one trip to visit him as he shot through the system because he wasn't staying at one level long enough.
He finished 2013 as the Red Sox minor league offensive player of the year and started 2014 in Double-A Portland. After 54 games, he moved to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he spent 23 games and began a move from second base to center field. Betts had two more stints that summer in Triple-A, but after a callup on August 18th, he returned to Boston. For good.
Betts is at the center of a core of young, homegrown talent of which the Red Sox are just beginning to reap the benefits. Betts' ability to adjust after one error impressed his manager and coaches. He was particularly hard on himself after a rookie mistake caught stealing third base with his team behind by one run in early July. Betts is learning how to find success in failure. The observations have become keener and the ability to implement what he sees has become more difficult.
When Betts crashed into the wall in center field at Fenway Park on June 12, 2015, he was hitting .237 with a .296 on-base, .381 slugging and .678 OPS. He tweaked his leg, sat out two games, but more than that, he used the time to analyze how and why he was struggling at the plate. He tapped Victorino, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz for advice. Then he observed and implemented.
Betts returned to the lineup June 15th. After that, he's raised his average to .277 BA. He was named the AL Player of the Week for the week ending on June 21, 2015. Within that week, Betts batted .581 (18 for 31) with two home runs, two triples, three doubles, seven RBI and eight runs. He led the AL in batting average, hits, on-base percentage (.594), total bases (31), and slugging percentage (1.000) that week. Betts ended the 2015 season with a .291 batting average, with 92 runs scored, 77 RBIs, 18 home runs, and 21 stolen bases.
In 2016, Mookie developed into an AL Most Valuable Player Award candidate in just his second full season. He became the seventh player in history to have 200 hits, 40 doubles, 30 homers and 20 steals and he eclipsed each benchmark with room to spare.
On May 21st, he launched a grand slam in the Sox’ 9-1 win. It was an exclamation point on a career day for him, as he went 3 for 5 with two homers with a career-high five RBIs. His first homer, a solo shot in the fourth inning, barely sneaked over the Monster, but still, it was the third multi-homer game of his career. A double in the third made him the third Sox player this season to pick up three extra-base hits in a single game.
On May 31st, he clubbed three homers at Camden Yards. The next night, he homered in his first two at-bats for the second straight night and now had five in the last two games, tying a major league record. He became the third Red Sox player who had ever hit five homers over a two-game stretch.
On July 1st, he went 3 for 4, giving him a major-league leading 34 multi-hit games this season. and named to the American League All Star team. He was named AL Player of the month for July.
It was Mookie who delivered on August 1st. His shot to left field, leading off the ninth inning, gave the Red Sox a 2-1 victory at Safeco Field. At Dodger Stadium, a few days later, he was 3 for 5 with a homer and two RBIs. The next week, he provided four hits, three homers, eight RBIs in a 16-2 win against the Diamondbacks. at Fenway Park.
Back at Camden Yards, he slugged two more home runs, the second to win the game for the Red Sox in the eighth inning. He drove in all five runs and had hit five home runs and 13 RBIs in the last three games.
But the 2016 Red Sox lost 5 of their last 6 games and were swept in the ALDS. Betts did struggle in this first playoff action, going 2 for 10 with a .633 OPS, but that should not diminish his truly extraordinary performance throughout the season, which was the polar opposite of frustrating.
He finished his season with a .318 BA, with 214 hits, 122 runs, 113 RBIs, 31 homers, 26 steals, 78 extra-base hits, and 359 total bases. No one expected October to end so soon for the Sox. It was a bad ending for a great year for Mookie Betts.