Mookie Betts is rising fast in Red Sox system
DURHAM, N.C. — Monday was supposed to be an off day — the first one in three weeks — and Mookie Betts had plans.
He was going to come back from Trenton, N.J., where the Portland Sea Dogs had just played four games in three days, and relax with his fiancée, Brianna.
They’d been together since middle school. They’d been engaged since December. They had plans.
Then the phone rang. As soon as he saw that the call was from Sea Dogs manager Billy McMillon, Betts said, “Oh, shoot.”
“I kind of knew,” he said.
The call was to tell him that his plans were changing. He was being promoted from Portland to Triple A Pawtucket. But he was going to have to meet the PawSox in Durham, N.C, where they were playing a four-game series.
“Once he told me, it was kind of hectic after that,” Betts said.
He had to go to Hadlock Field to pack up his equipment. He had to go to his host family’s house in Portland and pack up his belongings.
He called his father, Willie Betts. The first thing he said was, “Dad, I’m moving.”
The next thing he said, slyly, was, “See if you can procure me a place to stay so when I get through here [in Durham], when I go back up to Rhode Island, I can move right in.”
Then he got on a plane.
The flight didn’t help to make things less chaotic. He was supposed to land in Raleigh-Durham at 3:30. He got there an hour later.
“As soon as I got in, I didn’t have time to unpack or anything,” Betts said. “I just threw on a pair of shorts, a shirt, and went to hit.”
He barely had an hour to learn new faces, let alone new names. He stepped into a clubhouse that was dramatically different from any of the others he’d been in. It wasn’t the prospect boutique in Portland. It wasn’t the learning environment in Salem or Greenville. When he looked around, he saw players who were trying to get to the majors, players that had been there before and were trying to get back, players that were waiting on their call.
“It’s definitely different,” he said, “and I’m here like I have no idea what goes on.”
The past year has been an exercise in high-speed success for Betts. Not even a year ago, he was buried in the Red Sox prospects rankings. But in 14 months, he has leaped through three levels. A 66-game on-base streak captured the attention of seamheads.
While the Sox didn’t intend for Betts’s progression to be this swift, the possibility of him reaching the major leagues this season is real. The way he’s handled every step gives them confidence that he’ll be prepared should that time come.
“He’s a mature kid and he’s handled the accelerated progression pretty well,” said director of player development Ben Crockett. “Each time he’s been faced with a new challenge, whether it’s moving to a new level or whether it’s going to play against a lot of older players out in the Arizona Fall League or whether it’s heading over to a game in spring training, he’s found himself comfortable in those environments, and I think that’s what’s really allowed him to succeed.”
In a tidal wave of hype, Betts is all but unfazed.
“Just last year, I was in Greenville,” he said. “It’s like I’ve put on every jersey since. It’s kind of weird, but a blessing at the same time.”
When Red Sox area scout Danny Watkins first went to Brentwood, Tenn., to get a look at Betts, he knew he was dealing with an athlete. He had already talked to the baseball coach at John Overton High, Mike Morrison.
“You saw early on with this kid, you just felt like he was going to be something,” Morrison said. “He had the potential to be special.”
When they met, Watkins went through all the baseball evaluations with Betts, but when they were done, Morrison pointed the scout to the school’s basketball coach.
There was a game that night. Betts was playing point guard. Watkins decided to go. He watched Betts command the floor. He brought the ball up, he guarded the other team’s best player, he found shots for teammates. He was “a glider,” Watkins said.
“I was impressed with the leadership he showed on the floor and how he ran the team,” Watkins said. “Then, about the third quarter, he got the ball on the left and made a move to his right, then went baseline, and as he gets closer to the basket, I’m thinking he’s going to dish it to somebody or go up and lay it in. To my surprise, he went up and dunked it.
“That really opened my eyes to the explosiveness that he had.”
He made sure to keep tabs. One of the first times Watkins sat down to have a long conversation with Betts, it was at breakfast with him and his mother, Diana. He could tell right away how close they were.
“She’s a very strong-minded woman, and I could tell that Mookie was very, very respectful of her,” Watkins said.
Watkins also got a subtle clue about what path Diana wanted her son to take.
“His mother told me that they had named him Markus Lynn Betts because she wanted his initials to be ‘MLB,’ ” Watkins said.
The night before Diana gave birth to her son, she was in a bowling alley. It was a league night.
She practically grew up on the lanes.
“I bowled up until the time he was born,” Diana said. “He’s been in the bowling alley all his life.”
At age 3, when Mookie was able to push a bowling ball, Diana put the bumpers up and gave him his start. At 4, when he was able to put his fingers inside the ball and actually roll it, she took the bumpers down.
“We saw that he was actually aiming for a certain spot on the bumper and I’m like, ‘If you’re that smart, that you can aim for a certain spot and hit a certain target, you can roll a ball all the way down the lane,’ ” she said.
Competitiveness was hereditary in the family. Diana played softball in high school. She was a middle infielder and she raised her son to be one, too. When Mookie was young, she was his first Little League coach. She never showed favoritism, and she made sure he never looked down on any other player.
“I always try to tell him to ask questions, be patient with people, and do your best,” she said.
Breaking into the pros
Betts’s easy demeanor, though, is all his dad’s. Willie Betts spent 30 years as a mechanical superintendent for CSX Railroads. No two days were a like, no two people were alike. He had a saying he would always tell Mookie: “Don’t you run till you see me run.”
In other words, stay calm.
Betts constantly leans on his parents.
“They’re really like my best friends, too,” he said. “It could be literally anything, I can go to my parents and talk to them and they’ll be honest with me. Whether it’s what I want to hear or what I don’t want to hear, they’re going to be honest with me.”
It’s what Watkins noticed when they all sat down for breakfast.
As apparent as Betts’s baseball talent was, what Watkins saw more was how strong his mental makeup was.
“It was obvious to me that this was a well-rounded kid,” Watkins said. “He wasn’t going to get too carried away with any level of success that he was going to find.”
When the 2011 draft came around, Watkins knew the Red Sox had a chance to sign him even though Betts had an offer to play for Tennessee. After the Sox took him in the fifth round, the negotiations went down to the deadline. When the Sox were unable to sign Senquez Golson, another two-sport athlete who chose a college football career over baseball, they made Betts a $750,000 offer.
“That particular summer, there were a lot of players that went down to the wire,” Watkins said. “Ultimately, I feel like Mookie wanted to sign and that we wanted to sign him. With two people wanting the same thing, I felt good that we could make it happen.”
A .267 season in Lowell in 2012 made it easy for Betts to fly under the radar. But his .352 on-base percentage, his 32 walks, his 20 stolen bases, and his day-to-day consistency in the field were all quiet indicators of the player be could be.
“Right off the bat, the athleticism stood out defensively,” Crockett said. “I think in the box, he’s always had a pretty balanced approach, he’s always had a pretty good feel for the strike zone and a good approach at the plate.
“So I think as a young player, showing those skills is sometimes younger guys can be challenged with, and he did those things well. I think that stood out right when we got him.”
Things clicked last season, when he hit .314 in 127 games between Greenville and Salem. He found a way to get on base in each of the final 30 games of he season.
A voice of experience
One night last season, if you can believe it, Mookie Betts went 0 for 4.
He called his uncle, Terry Shumpert, to talk through some things.
Shumpert, a former major leaguer whose 14-year career included a season with the Red Sox (1995), was watching the game online. From what he saw in Betts’s swings, he figured Betts didn’t have much to worry about.
“Yeah, you hit a couple line drives today,” he told him. “Tomorrow you’re going to go 2 for 4.”
He went 2 for 5.
“Somehow, he knows what’s going to happen before it happens,” Betts said.
He knows because he’s been there.
Shumpert was 22 when he was promoted to Triple A, a year older than Betts is now. What Betts is seeing, Shumpert already has seen, and hindsight is his gift to his nephew.
“For my family, I was the pioneer, I was the first one to journey towards those steps,” Shumpert said. “So I was able to teach him and talk to him about some of the pitfalls that I believe were obstructions to my career.”
Shumpert was toward the end of his career in 2004, going through one last Triple A grind with the Pirates affiliate in Nashville. He played only 69 games, but he would bring his nephew into the clubhouse.
“Mookie was able to see a ton then,” Shumpert said. “He was in the locker room after batting practice, see how the guys act, see how the guys work. He was old enough to be able to pick it up and see how those guys and myself come to work every day and prepare.”
They had a laugh when Betts called Tuesday to let Shumpert know he was heading to Durham to meet up with the PawSox.
“You beat me by a year,” Shumpert told him. “Now go ahead and beat me by a couple years and make it to that show.”
After he went 0 for 4 his first night in Durham, Betts called his uncle.
Shumpert had seen his at-bats. He saw the screamer Betts hit to third in his last at-bat that was cut off by a diving grab. He didn’t make any predictions. He just told Betts that things would change at this level.
The next night was different. Betts had 24 hours to acclimate himself. Before the game, he sat around with the veterans playing cards, killing time.
“He came in, got to have a full, regular day, relax,” said 10-year veteran Brandon Snyder, who was one of the first in the clubhouse to reach out to Betts. “You could see he was ready to go.”
When Betts came up to the plate in the 11th inning, with the game tied at 7, he already had two hits in his first five at-bats. PawSox manager Kevin Boles could sense something.
“We’ve heard about him,” Boles said.
On a 1-and-1 count, Betts got a breaking ball and sent it howling on a line into left field. The 25-foot Blue Monster in the Durham Bulls Athletic Complex wasn’t tall enough to keep the ball in the park. With one game-winning at-bat, he all but confirmed the mythology that has followed him.
“What an exciting player,” Boles said. “He can do something at any moment. You can’t go wrong with having an athlete like him.”
How plans can change
Just a week ago, all the Bettses’ calendars were marked up. Willie Betts had been in Portland to catch a handful of games, and he was plotting his next trip. The plan from there was to head to Ohio for the Sea Dogs’ series next weekend against the Akron Zips.
It was supposed to be a family event, 40 people in all, from both Willie’s and Diana’s sides, plus Mookie’s fiancée’s family.
The rooms were booked. The itinerary was mapped out.
“We had actually gone on Priceline and gotten rooms,” Diana said. “We had planned the events we were going to do that day.”
Then, obviously, the plans got caught in another gust of the whirlwind that’s been the past year for Betts. But as much as his life has changed, they’ve been the kind of changes Betts wants.
“When it’s positive change,” Diana said, “you embrace the change.”
It didn’t take Willie long to start making new plans. As soon as Mookie was called up, Willie started committing the PawSox’ schedule to memory.
“We already know where we’re going,” he said. “I’ve got everywhere he goes for the rest of the season — if he stays where he is.”