RENO — He was still standing 60 feet away, but he wasn’t staring at the same thing.
He wasn’t looking at R.A. Dickey or Chris Sale or Johnny Cueto. The batter’s eye wasn’t watching him from center field. The Green Monster wasn’t peering over his shoulder from left field.
He wasn’t digging his spikes into the dirt in the batter’s box. He was in a pair of Dexter bowling shoes, stepping onto one of the 78 synthetic lanes at National Bowling Stadium, affectionately known as the Taj Mahal of Tenpins.
It was Lane 40, to be precise, right in the heart of the World Series of Bowling.
The sound of the first shots of the competition sound like something between a stampede and a never-ending cascade of dominoes. It’s the only time bowlers in this event roll from all 78 lanes at once.
As he got ready to make his approach, Mookie Betts felt something familiar.
“I had the little butterflies,” said the Red Sox outfielder. “It was actually pretty similar to my first at-bat in a game. When I’m walking to the plate, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, what game it is, every time my first at-bat, I have some type of butterflies in my stomach as I’m walking to the plate.
“And for some reason, my first ball was like little butterflies. It’s pretty cool. I think it just shows that I care about it.”
They fluttered away immediately, and Betts was in the middle of a free-for-all with 200 of the world’s best bowlers in the PBA’s World Series of Bowling.
A look to his left and he could see PBA tour legends such as Norm Duke and Walter Ray Williams Jr. A look to his right and he could see 16-time PBA title winner and 2006 Player of the Year Tommy Jones.
They were faces Betts grew up watching.
“I watch bowling pretty much every Sunday,” Betts said. “So I see those guys on the TV.”
For the next four days, they would be his rivals. He didn’t see himself as a celebrity making a cameo. He saw himself as a player trying to compete.
He had done it already, making the quantum leap from a minor league baseball prospect to major league center fielder two years ago. Now he was doing it in an entirely different sport.
“It’s kind of like being in the minors, and I feel like I know I’m in Single A or something,” Betts said. “I’ve got so much work to do to finally get to where they are. But I know it’s a process.”
His first roll dropped nine pins. He came back and picked up the spare.
Mookie Betts PBA Tour practice session
. . .
When the PBA reached out to Betts with the idea of playing in the World Series, he wasn’t sure. He had been bowling since he was 4, when he was barely heavier than the ball. His mother, Diana, had the bumpers put up for him.
“He really wanted to push the ball to a certain spot on the bumper,” she said. “I watched him, and I said, ‘This little boy is actually rolling at a certain spot.’ He was hitting the same spot, saying, ‘Mom, if I roll at that same spot right there, that dark spot, it’ll go straight there and I’ll knock them all down.’ ”
Bowling was practically in Betts’s blood from birth — even before.
Diana was a state champion bowler when she was 8 years old. She was nine months pregnant with Betts on Oct. 6, 1992, but she had three leagues to bowl in that night.
“They almost had to literally carry me off the lanes,” she said. “I said, ‘I’ll drive home, I’m good.’ My stomach was hurting a little bit — I’m only nine months pregnant — but I’m still good.”
The next day, Mookie was born.
By the time he was a senior in high school, Betts was topping out at 290 on the lanes. He earned the Tennessee Boys Bowler of the Year award in 2010.
But the PBA was different. When he talked about it with his mother and father Willie, he told, them, “I’m not on that level.”
“I knew that this was going to be the cream of the crop, the best of the best,” Betts said. “Initially, I was like, I really just don’t want to come and embarrass myself.”
They gave him a nudge.
Although he was apprehensive, Diana told him, “You’re a competitor.”
“We knew he wasn’t going to finish last,” Willie said.
In October, Betts started preparing in his hometown of Nashville. He hit the lanes every other day at Donelson Strike & Spare and Oak Valley Lanes. He got tutelage from a childhood friend, Kamron Doyle, a 17-year-old prodigy who won his first PBA regional at 12, then finished 61st in the 2012 US Open two years later. They’ve know each other since Doyle was 7.
Still, Betts said, there was only so much preparation he could do.
“You can always prepare to give yourself the best chance, the best opportunity to succeed,” he said. “But when you get here, it’s obviously going to be different.”
. . .
When he got to Reno on Sunday, Betts said, “I was expecting the worst.”
So was A.J. Johnson.
When Johnson learned that the PBA had invited Betts to play in the World Series, his skepticism was almost a reflex. He had seen the red carpet rolled out for celebrities before. If it wasn’t comedian Kevin Hart, it was rapper Lil Wayne or NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens. Now, it’s the center fielder for the Boston Red Sox.
“I was kind of like, ‘Oh man, it’s going to be another T.O.,’ ” Johnson said. “They’re doing it for publicity.”
Johnson is one of the PBA Tour’s rising stars. He has rolled 14 perfect games. He was a Team USA member in 2012.
“A lot of those guys, they have no idea,” Johnson said. “They’re doing it because it’s a celebrity event and they’re having fun.”
In a way, he was right.
PBA commissioner Tom Clark wholly embraces the appeal of having athletes/celebrities cross over in the bowling world.
“It helps our cool factor,” Clark said.
But Betts was unusual because he wasn’t just parachuting in; he had a genuine interest in and talent for the sport.
Before Clark started working for the PBA, he was a writer at USA Today. He had a relationship with sports agent Tom George, and when Clark left USA Today, George started representing Chris Paul. When George found out that Paul liked bowling, he called Clark.
“I’ve got a guy who likes bowling,” Clark said. “What should we do?”
They set up a pro-am event. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony played.
Clark said to himself, “This is a TV show.”
The next year, it was on ESPN. They’ve done it six times since.
“For his first few years in the league, Chris Paul would tell me that we made him more famous than basketball did,” Clark said. “I think that’s changed now.”
Betts hopes to play in Paul’s tournament in February if it doesn’t run into spring training, but the idea of Betts hosting something similar has crossed Clark’s mind.
“I think he could definitely be that type of guy,” Clark said. “He is going to be a great player for a long time. So he’ll have friends and he’ll make bowling cool with other baseball players who’ll say, ‘I bowl, too.’ And they’ll want to bowl against him. And they’ll say, ‘I’m the best Major League Baseball bowler.’ I think the more great athletes, hip people, famous people that love our sport the better.”
. . .
Exposure aside, Johnson put his doubts on hold and looked into Betts’s bowling background. He found videos online.
“I was very surprised,” Johnson said.
The four hours Johnson spent watching Betts on the opening day of competition Tuesday only impressed him more. It wasn’t just the 224 Betts rolled in his first game or the 245 in his third or the 249 in his seventh.
It was Betts’s attention to detail. Betts picked Johnson’s brain for the best approaches to take on the lane. From behind the lane, Diane and Willie looked like Sox manager John Farrell and bench coach Torey Lovullo, dialed into every shot.
“It’s cool to see that they’re into it and he’s trying to have success and he’s not just doing this just to be here,” Johnson said. “He’s trying to bowl well and have success and it’s really cool to see that. Especially with his family here and they get into it a little bit.”
Betts ran into potholes. A pair of splits sabotaged his second game, and he grimaced at a 140. He tried to read the lanes and get himself back on track, and realized the difference in levels between himself and the other competitors.
“They can read these lanes and know what to do to start striking again,” he said. “I can’t do that. I was pretty much rolling the ball down the lane and hoping for the best. That’s not going to work.”
He hit his biggest snag of the night on the first frame of his final game. After nearly four hours of bowling, his thumb had shrunken from squeezing it into the hole on the bowling ball. On an approach, the ball slipped from his hand and fell, nearly landing on his foot.
“At that point, I was trying to brace myself and not fall,” he said. “I didn’t care about going over the line at that point.”
It was a game-changer.
“I was like, ‘Now what?’ ’’ said Betts. “It’s like starting the game with a strikeout. Like, ‘Dang, I struck out first at-bat. Now, all right, come on, come on.’ If you’re in a slump and you start the game with a strikeout, your mind just goes that way.”
But his showing still impressed people.
“He’s earned a whole lot more respect from the guys here on the tour than some of the other guys that have come in — 100 percent,” Johnson said.
If the invite comes next year, Betts said, there’s no doubt he’ll be back.
“It’s cool getting respect from some of the guys,” he said. “Most of the guys tell me, ‘You’re actually pretty good.’
“I know there’s room for me to grow. It’s just good to know that I’m not just a joke out here. I actually am coming to compete. Even though I play baseball, I’m here. I’m going to take this seriously, too.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.