CLEVELAND — It has been nearly four years since Mookie Betts last played a game at Fenway Park. Maybe you remember it.
Or is it that you can’t forget that day?
It was the final game of the 2019 season and the Red Sox and Orioles were tied going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Betts drew a leadoff walk before Rafael Devers bounced a single into right field.
Betts took off for third base. When right fielder Stevie Wilkerson jogged a few steps before lobbing the ball back in, he kept going.
Betts slid across the plate to win the game, hopped to his feet, and let out a yell as he was mobbed by joyous teammates. The crowd roared in appreciation.
Imagine trading that player? Yet the Red Sox did only a few months later, sending Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Now he returns to Fenway Park on Friday, not having been in Boston since the day after that memorable slide.
“I just want it to be about baseball,” Betts told the Globe when the Dodgers played the Guardians earlier this week. “I know it’s going to be cool, but I don’t want it to be about me. But it is what it is and I’ll be grateful for whatever happens.”
The Red Sox are the only team Betts has yet to play against during a career that has him on a path to the Hall of Fame.
They will face a player at the peak of his many powers. Betts is among the MLB leaders in OPS, runs scored, and extra-base hits while playing right field, second base, and shortstop on a regular basis for a powerhouse team.
“He’s the same Mookie. Ridiculously good at baseball and a great dude, a great teammate,” said Ryan Brasier, who played with Betts in Boston and now again in Los Angeles. “To see him play second base like he’s been doing it all his career is amazing to me. He just stepped up and started making plays.
“He could probably be the catcher and figure it out. I’m serious, he’s that good.”
Same player, different place
While he’s the same player, Betts is a different person. He turns 31 in October and is now married and a father of two.
Betts said a “big crew” of friends and family will be at the series this weekend. Among them will be his wife, Brianna, daughter Kynlee and son Kaj, who was born in April.
“We all love Boston, man,” Betts said. “That’s where we all grew up. Great memories. It’s a whole new team there now, a whole new everything, really. Maybe some people will have different emotions, but I think it will be cool.”
Betts still watches every Red Sox game he can and talks to manager Alex Cora once a week.
“AC was a big part of my life and still is,” Betts said. “It’s not always baseball when we talk, it’s about life and our families. He’s always going to be a friend.”
Cora was not working for the Sox at the time of the trade, having been suspended by Major League Baseball.
“We text and we talk. But it won’t be weird to see him in another uniform,” Cora said. “I’m over that.”
Betts is, too, having already played more postseason games for the Dodgers (34) than he did for the Red Sox (21). But there is still a part of him that wonders how it ever came to that.
A Red Sox for life?
Until the day he was traded, Betts expected he would play his entire career with the Sox. As he approached free agency in 2020, his intent was to make a deal to stay in Boston.
“Most people don’t believe it. But why would I lie about that? I did,” he said. “That was my team. Just because I didn’t take an offer didn’t mean I didn’t want to be there. There’s a business component to the game.
“We were looking for houses in Boston. We thought it was going to work out. I thought both sides were playing the slow game and it would eventually work out. We were negotiating, that’s what I thought.”
Betts said he never gave the Sox any ultimatum or a figure they had to meet.
“Normal negotiations, going back and forth,” he said. “Of course I’m going to stand my ground just like you should stand your ground. But I thought we’d keep talking.”
Betts was adamant that the Red Sox never offered him a deal worth $300 million over 10 years.
“That never happened,” he said. “I know that’s out there and people say what they’ve got to say. But no, they didn’t do that. They didn’t.”
Betts was traded as spring training started in 2020 and that July agreed to a 12-year, $365 million contract with the Dodgers.
A World Series championship followed in October and Betts has become an icon in Los Angeles, representing his team and sport across the media spectrum.
“I don’t view myself like that,” Betts said. “I’m just a kid who wants to come out and play baseball. But the Dodgers have forced my hand on certain things and I’m glad about it. I’ve embraced those things.
“You have to be able to play well first, that’s the hard part. Nobody is going to listen to someone who doesn’t. I take care of my job on the field. If opportunities come up off the field, I handle those. But nothing ever gets in the way of my day job.”
Trappings of Tinseltown
Betts was cautious with fame in Boston, careful not to draw attention to himself beyond how he performed on the field. Now he has founded a marketing company, started a podcast, and produced a documentary on Jackie Robinson.
“I’m just in a different place than Boston,” Betts said. “Maybe I could have done the same things in Boston that I have done the last few years. But I wasn’t at that same place in life that I am now.
“There are more opportunities in LA than Boston. Nobody can argue that; it’s a fact. But it’s a combination of more opportunities and growing up a little bit.”
With LeBron James watching from a suite at Dodger Stadium last weekend, Betts hit two home runs in a game against the Marlins.
He saluted James as he crossed the plate after his first homer. James then dramatically tipped his cap to Betts after the second homer as the crowd cheered.
Betts said later it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. But it spoke to his growing comfort with celebrity.
“Mookie is a superstar who doesn’t realize he’s a superstar,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “He has a lot of humility but he’s come to terms with Los Angeles and who he is.
“Everyone who puts on a baseball uniform should have the opportunity to play in a city like Boston. It raises the level of expectation.
“But with that, it’s hard to just be a baseball player there because there’s more to it. I think he appreciates the fact that he has more privacy in Los Angeles. It’s not as intense because there are so many famous people. It’s different.”
All for the best
Betts paused when asked if, in retrospect, the trade was the best thing for him.
“Looking back at it, probably. But I don’t know what life would have looked like had I stayed there,” he said. “But the things I have been able to do in LA have been very much a blessing to myself, my kids, and my family.
“I can’t say anything negative about it except the taxes.”
Betts is a full-time California resident who makes trips home to Tennessee in the offseason. Kynlee will start school in LA in the fall.
“It’s not cold and you can go to Disney[land],” Betts said. “What’s not to like?”
Other than Devers and occasionally Chris Sale when he’s healthy, the Sox have an entirely new roster since Betts left. But Betts is looking forward to seeing the coaches, staffers, and other old friends.
“My only plans this weekend are to enjoy the atmosphere and the fans and have that experience again,” he said. “I’ve missed it.”