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Alex Speier

Dismal pro debut helped Mookie Betts reach center stage

Mookie Betts made his major league debut in June last season.USA Today Sports

Shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, Mookie Betts will step under a microscope.

The 22-year-old Red Sox outfielder, following a dazzling spring that seemed to validate every trade proposal the Red Sox swatted away involving his name, will kickstart the Red Sox’ season when he enters the batter’s box against Cole Hamels. His plate appearance will be must-see theater.

The prospect does not disturb the 22-year-old. After all, the notion that his every move is subject to scrutiny and dissection is one that he encountered rather ingloriously on August 26, 2011.

That was the day Mookie Betts became a professional. That was the day Mookie Betts received an education in how to accept struggle, how to mature, how to learn.

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“It was terrible,” Betts recalled of his pro debut with a sheepish grin. “I wasn’t really sure how to act that day. But it was a long time ago. Obviously I’ve come a long way since then.”

The box score indicates a 6-1 victory by the rookie level Gulf Coast League Red Sox over the crosstown GCL Twins in the season finale. Betts, less than two weeks after signing with the Sox, made his professional debut on the lowest rung of the minor league ladder in a fashion that would have made it virtually impossible to forecast not only the pace of his startling ascent, but also its defining characteristics.

The 2011 fifth-rounder went 2-for-4, adding a stolen base and an RBI to his pair of singles. That might have represented a fine building block. But that offensive performance was dwarfed by Betts’ day in the field and how he handled it.

He made his debut at shortstop, and things went from bad to horrible to simply wrong in a matter of a few innings. There was a first-inning fielding error. Three innings later, on a grounder, Betts fielded the ball and made a slightly high throw to first that ticked off the top of the glove of a first baseman appearing in his first career game at the position.

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George Lombard, in his first year as a manager, turned to Red Sox field coordinator David Howard and roving catching coordinator Chad Epperson. Betts turned to them after a decent throw turned into an E6.

“There was a bewildered look. He looks in the dugout and goes, ‘Uh,’” Lombard recalled, imitating the frustrated reaction by Betts. “Howie, Eppy – all three of us look at each other. That’s the first lesson we’re going to have to teach him.”

But the need for the conversation was soon amplified, when later that inning, Betts gloved a grounder up the middle and flipped the ball to a second baseman who failed to cover the bag. Betts didn’t take well to the lapse, complaining to his middle-of-the-diamond partner about the lapse that led to the shortstop’s third error of his debut.

“We said, ‘OK, let’s nip this in the bud.’ We called him over and said, ‘You don’t want to show up anybody,’” recalled Lombard. “[Betts] said, ‘But the throw was right there!’ We said, ‘OK, we’ll talk about this later.’”

The way Betts handled the situation offered something of a misleading impression. It suggested a player who was too arrogant about his abilities. To the contrary, he was perhaps overly insecure.

When Betts opted to turn pro, his assumption was that he’d never reach the big leagues. He hoped to play in the Sox minor league system for five years so that he could collect the entirety of his $750,000 two-sport signing bonus, but he had no ambitions that he’d be in a position to reach the big leagues at any point, let alone within three years of leaving Overton High School in Tennessee.

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A day in which he committed three errors added to the self-doubt. His frustrations were self-directed but misplaced.

“I didn’t have that positive [perspective] at that point, when it happened. I was pretty much like, ‘I’m going to play and get out of here. These guys are so good. These are the best in the world,’” said Betts. “Even in the minor leagues, I just said I’ll get my little bit of time in here and then get out of here. I was going to try, though. I wasn’t going to just give up. I was always going to try. I’m here. I figured I might as well try.”

Not only was he willing to try, but he soon showed an ability to listen.

The conversation with Lombard came after the game, when Betts was called into the principal’s office.

“It was scary. It was my first game. I don’t even remember what all was said,” said Betts. “I want to say it wasn’t necessarily a good talk but it wasn’t a bad talk, either.”

The role of a manager in rookie ball is to teach, which means both preaching and demonstrating patience. Lombard’s message that day reflected that responsibility.

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Not only must a player be accountable for his actions – both to himself and his teammates – but he is being watched and evaluated based on how he reacts both to success and adversity. At 18, Betts didn’t necessarily process all of that before leaving Lombard’s office, but it wasn’t too long before the message took. It remains with him.

“When I think about it now, it’s not like they were trying to mess up. I messed up as well. It’s not like I was trying to do it. But now, it’s like, don’t say anything. They’re trying the same way you are,” said Betts. “I felt bad after, when they let me know those types of things. Now, I’ve come a long way. I know how to handle those situations and how to roll with it.”

Lombard saw evidence of growth not long thereafter. In early 2013, Lombard – who’d moved from managing in the GCL to the role of a roving instructor – again crossed paths with Betts, at a time when the then-second baseman was enmeshed in a strange struggle playing for the Greenville Drive. Betts was hitting rockets all over the field with nothing to show for it, resulting in a sub-.200 average in the season’s first month.

The frustration wore on him. Then Lombard saw Betts pop up and run out of the box with only partial effort.

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“He was obviously frustrated at the beginning of the year,” said Lombard. “He hit a ball well and didn’t give his best effort running out a fly ball. I saw it. I wasn’t going to say anything to him then. He came down to me after the game and he said, ‘I apologize.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I didn’t give my best effort on that ball. There’s no excuse for that.’”

For Lombard, that episode underscored who Betts had become, and helped forecast where Betts would go. He was passionate about the game yet coachable. The lessons of the past had taken. He wanted to learn, carried past instruction and conversations with him in order to get better.

About three and a half years after that initial professional misstep, Betts remains mindful of his responsibilities to his teammates, and of the eyes that are following him.

“Now that I know those things matter, I feel people are literally watching your every move,” said Betts. “This game is obviously about failure. You’re going to fail most of the time. It’s how you handle it. That’s the thing I’ve talked to just about everyone in this clubhouse about, how you’re going to handle it. When you’re down, are you going to be mentally down and make it last longer, or are you going to stay positive, keep an even keel?

“That’s what me and [Mike Napoli] talked about [last week]. He said, ‘You’re having a good spring but don’t change. Be the same person you’ve been. Don’t get a big head. Don’t think you’re better than the game, because it will come back and bite you.’ It means a lot coming from a veteran guy who talks to me a lot and takes me under his wing, guys telling me why they’ve played the game this long. It’s about being even-keeled no matter what.”

Since that time in Greenville, Betts has experienced the type of prospect explosion rarely seen, from a player without a known profile to a budding star in less than two years. The noise surrounding him has gone from non-existent to deafening during a spring where he’s hit .429 with a .467 OBP and .750 slugging mark along with 12 extra-base hits in 19 games, commanding attention with every move that he makes at the plate and in the field.

“I feel like that was the last time we ever had to get on him. … I just think that no one had told him certain things. We told him once and never saw those issues again,” said Lombard. “It’s kind of cool to have a guy, the ideal type of player to coach. He’s very talented. He’s got tremendous passion. You’re never going to be able to keep up with him on a work level. He’s always wanting to do more. Anyone who loves the game, I don’t care about status. I’m willing to work with them. But it’s always exciting to see someone get it as fast as he did and enjoy it.”

Now, Betts’ pursuit of self-betterment will be on display on a more prominent stage. When he steps to the plate against Cole Hamels – one of the best pitchers in the game, yet a talent for whom the Sox would not consider parting with Betts – the focus on his actions, on his ability, on his potential will be immense.

Betts will be ready for the scrutiny. And somewhere, George Lombard will find it hard to stifle a grin at the thought of the enormous distance traveled in a very short period of time.


Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.