LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts remains the one that got away. An athletic, dynamic, charismatic, five-tool hardball human highlight reel who dictated what you did with the TV remote or when you ventured to the concession stand. Rarely have the Red Sox been blessed by a player like Betts. It didn’t last long enough.
The erstwhile Face of Fenway is serving as the unofficial ambassador and leading man for the hometown Los Angeles Dodgers as picturesque Dodger Stadium hosts the Mid-Summer Classic for the first time since 1980. In his sixth All-Star Game, Betts headlines six Dodger All-Stars.
Betts is part of the Sox Sensation club with Fred Lynn and Nomar Garciaparra, all wildly popular and productive players who turned out to be supernovas streaking across the Boston baseball empyrean instead of franchise polestars.
After being dealt to the Dodgers in February of 2020, Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million extension. There’s an assumption he gave LA a pandemic discount, especially because $115 million of his Dodger green is deferred, set for delivery Bobby Bonilla-style between 2033 and 2044.
I asked Mookie if he would’ve taken that contract to stay with the Sox. Anger management class sign-ups might be about to skyrocket in Massachusetts.
“Absolutely, I just didn’t get it,” said Betts without hesitation. “That’s the argument. I didn’t get it, so that’s why I am where I am.”
Yikes. The Sox would probably beg to differ with that damning characterization. The crucible of baseball in Boston never seemed an ideal fit for Mookie’s Jayson Tatum-like mien. He’s savvy enough not to demean or offend the dart-throwing Sox fanbase by saying the environment wasn’t for him.
What’s not debatable is that the Dodger Blue version of Betts projects more comfortability and ease in his skin. He’s not as guarded or chary as he was immersed in the Boston Baseball Experience, where one wrong step or word can spark furor. No longer the reluctant front man, his personality, and his talent shine through equally.
“It just kind of happened over time. It didn’t just overnight happen,” said Betts. “I definitely understand why David [Ortiz] thought the way he did, talked the way he did. How he moved. I kind of understand it now.
“I’m not saying I’m to that level. I do understand why he related to showing up to be himself. Once you get to a point you just have to be yourself. It’s hard to fake it. Life changes, young kids, all of those type of things. Life changes. It’s just important to change with it.”
Betts, who won an MVP award, a batting title, and a World Series in 2018 with the Sox, clearly has evolved at age 29. His swagger and élan on the field were often replaced by reticence and demurral in media situations. No more.
That’s great news for MLB, as Betts, the National League’s leading vote-getter, is the epitome of cool in cleats; exactly what baseball should be marketing.
Could that metamorphosis into a more self-assured superstar have happened in the Fenway Fishbowl?
“It is [a fish bowl]. It’s a small city, all eyes are on you right there,” said Betts.
“But, no, I think I was just in a different place in life. I was just young and trying to find my way, trying to get to that point. But there is no fast track. You just have to go through all the experiences and those things.
“If I were still there and I’m at the point that I’m at now I probably would be more like David, more outspoken, more laughing, joking, and what not. …That’s just showing now.”
The cautionary tale of Betts is particularly relevant with the Sox facing some major decisions with two homegrown stars who were teammates of Betts’s.
The subtext of the Sox’ bipolar season is the looming decisions on All-Star infielders Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers.
When asked Monday if he had engaged in any recent contract discussions with the Sox, Bogaerts, who can opt out after this season, replied, “No, no.”
The 25-year-old Devers is eligible for free agency following the 2023 season. His price keeps going up, especially with Washington National phenom Juan Soto, born Oct. 25, 1998, to Devers birthdate of Oct. 24, 1996, turning down a $440 million contract offer.
Betts was in a similar situation following 2019, his final one with the Sox.
“You got to do what you want to do,” said Betts. “Don’t let anybody make you or force you to do anything that you don’t want to do. Do what you want to do. Do what’s best for your family. There is no right or wrong. It’s just the decision you make and then you live with that decision.”
Trading Betts is a decision the Sox and Chaim Bloom have to live with, and one they must consider as they debate the futures of Bogaerts, who feels like a dead shortstop walking in a Sox uniform, and Devers.
The setting for this All-Star Game provides a certain reflection about the direction of the Sox and the evanescence of success.
It was at this same pastel jewel of a ballpark on Oct. 28, 2018, the Sox celebrated a World Series championship with an enviable young core: Betts, Bogaerts, Devers, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi, here as the Kansas City Royals All-Star representative.
Betts homered off his LA teammate and All-Star Game starter Clayton Kershaw. It’s possible by this offseason that all of those players could be former Red Sox.
Hard to imagine.
“Yeah, but it was hard for me to imagine that I wasn’t a Red Sox either,” said Betts. “That’s part of I think we have to kind of get over the emotions of those type of things and start focusing – not focusing – but start thinking about the business side because that’s what the front offices do.”
Betts said the 2018 group still texts and FaceTime each other. He still corresponds with Sox manager Alex Cora. The bonds transcend uniforms. The memories and ties never leave.
But the players do.
Mookie is missed. We can only hope we won’t be saying the same thing during a future All-Star Game to Bogaerts and Devers.