FORT MYERS, Fla. — What is Mookie Betts’s best sport?
The answer seems like it should be obvious. But then, the predisposition to suggest that baseball is the best arena for him to demonstrate his talents might simply be a result of the fact that it’s where he’s most often seen. For those who have seen him in other undertakings, the answer is less clear.
Earlier this week, Betts — the reigning American League MVP, an occasional bowler known to win pro-am tournaments, and a high school district basketball MVP who can dunk — decided to highlight how his athleticism would play on the gridiron. He posted video on Instagram of him running a 25-yard post corner route in which his cut is so extreme that he leaves a defender hopelessly behind him.
So, about that “best sport” question . . .
“It’s kind of hard not to say baseball,” said Deon Giddens with a laugh, “but after seeing him running routes . . .
“After seeing him on Monday, I think he might get a shot with the Patriots — put him in the slot. I think he’d be an awesome wide receiver, to be honest. He has great hands, his quickness was good, he was coming off the line well, in and out of routes.
“I might have to go with football. Maybe I’m a little biased.”
Giddens’s bias stems from his own playing career. He was a defensive back who spent time with the Buffalo Bills in one training camp before a run in the Arena Football League. Now, as the owner of The Training Corner in Nashville, Giddens works with a number of football players — both NFLers and college players preparing for the draft — as well as boxers.
But in 2013, his roster expanded when he got a call from his barber.
“Mookie was in his chair getting a haircut,” Giddens recalled. “He put Mookie on the phone, and he said, ‘I want to come down and I want to train with you.’ That’s how that happened.
“Mookie came in and he said, ‘Man, I’m hitting the ball to the fence and that’s it. I cannot hit a home run. I hit zero.’ ”
Betts was coming off his first full pro season with the Lowell Spinners, in which he hit .267 with a .352 OBP but a microscopic .307 slugging mark. In 292 plate appearances, Betts didn’t hit any homers. He had one triple and eight doubles.
So Betts, who’d turned 20 the previous October, sought Giddens’s help.
“He seemed like he had that pop about him since Day 1,” said Giddens. “There was a certain type of movement that athletes see in each other.
“Back then, he hadn’t come into the Mookie we know now. It was kind of funny to see him. I started grabbing his arms when I first saw him, like, ‘Man, what do you play again?’ I was like, ‘You sure? You play pro baseball?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah.’
“I was kidding him a little bit, started grabbing on him, like, ‘OK, listen man, we’ll work on that.’ ”
Betts weighed about 155 pounds at the time. Giddens worked with him to add strength to his swing without compromising the agility and explosiveness that made him a threat on the bases and an impact player in the field. At that time, Betts was still playing second base.
Betts added about 20 pounds of muscle, and made some swing changes, and the results were dramatic. In 2013, he hit .314/.417/.506 with 15 homers, 55 extra-base hits, and 38 steals in Single A Greenville and High A Salem, emerging as one of the best five-tool prospects in the minors.
“It was crazy to see the jump from zero to 15 in one offseason,” said Giddens.
The payoff for the training work was apparent. Betts saw the potential for growth, and he and Giddens started defining goals: Reaching the big leagues in 2014? Check. Hitting 20 homers in 2015? He hit 19 between the big leagues and a one-game rehab assignment. All-Star status in 2016? Check-plus, with Betts getting the starting nod and finishing second in the AL MVP race.
Then came the down year of 2017, in which Betts hit .264/.344/.459. He still hit 24 homers, swiped 26 bags, drove in 102 runs, and won a Gold Glove, but he went back to Giddens after the season intent on reversing the slippage.
“I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to pick it up,’ ” said Giddens. “ ‘From our standards and what you’re telling me you want, we’ll push harder.’ He said, ‘Don’t ever lay off of me. I need you to stay on me. No matter what I’m doing, I need that extra push.’
“I said, ‘We’re going to hit it even harder. This is going to be the hardest work we ever put in going into 2018.’
“He was committed. He sold out to it. I just saw a different person going into 2018.”
And the baseball world saw a different player. Betts, of course, had a nearly perfect year: a batting title, a 30-30 campaign, a World Series title, and an MVP.
“It just means that you put in a lot of work, and it showed,” Betts said. “You don’t get to where you are by just sitting on your butt and expecting it to come. I worked hard to get to where I am and I’m continuing to get better and better.
“I know and understand that. In order to be great, you have to continue to put in the work. I had a good year. In order to be great, you have to have a bunch of good years.”
“We’re at the mountaintop right now,” added Giddens, “so the only thing to try to do is to go back and try to duplicate it, and this time, let’s work on keeping you healthy throughout the whole year.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know if we can go higher than that, but we’re definitely going to try.’ ”
On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine surpassing one of the greatest all-around seasons in major league history. On the other hand, considering that Giddens still can’t claim definitively that Betts is playing his best sport, he’s learned not to assume that there is an identifiable limit to the 26-year-old’s abilities.
“Anything you give him or anything you ask him, if he doesn’t know it, he’ll get it in the first 5-10 minutes, and immediately becomes one of the best at the sport, whether it’s football, baseball — even paintball,” said Giddens. “He’s probably the best person I’ve ever seen playing paintball as well.
“Across the board, he’s a freak of nature. I haven’t seen anything like it.”