Mookie Betts’s first taste of a major league clubhouse made him grateful for a demotion
An excerpt from Globe Red Sox reporter Alex Speier’s first book, “Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up,” which tells the story of the history-making 2018 World Series champions. It will be released in stores Tuesday.
By early June [of 2014] [Mookie Betts] was in Triple-A Pawtucket. Red Sox players and coaches were aware of the twenty-one-year-old’s electrifying performance in the minors, the daily stories of his remarkable feats, and were antsy for his arrival in the big leagues. In Triple-A, Betts quickly gave further validation to those sentiments.
In his second game for the PawSox, he stepped to the plate against the Durham Bulls (the top minor league affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) in the top of the eleventh inning in a contest tied, 7–7. In the scouts’ section behind the plate, where Red Sox coordinators George Lombard and David Howard sat, chatter increased. One scout of another team said that Betts would go deep. Another scoffed that Betts had no shot at clearing the fences. Betts almost immediately blasted a pitch over Durham’s Blue Monster, a thirty-two-foot-high, Fenway-like wall in left field.
From then on, the scouts doubted Betts at their own peril. In Triple-A, he hit .346 with a .417 OBP, .503 slugging mark, and 5 homers in 45 games. By late June, in the span of roughly thirteen months, Betts had gone from a player considering the end of his baseball career to one on the cusp of the big leagues who’d been the best player on the field on most nights at four different levels of the minors.
As he made a virtually seamless transition to center field and then right, he’d fulfilled all the on-field prerequisites. On June 27, Betts and his fiancee were headed out for pizza following a PawSox game when he received a call from Kevin Boles. Something had happened, the Pawtucket manager said. Betts needed to return to McCoy Stadium.
“It kind of scared me, honestly,” said Betts.
It shouldn’t have. Boles simply wanted to deliver the news face-to-face: Betts was getting called up to New York. He made his big league debut on Sunday night in a nationally televised game against the Yankees and went 1-for-3 with his first hit (a single) and a walk. Yet Betts would soon be challenged in ways that no one had expected.
During his ascent through the minors, Betts had emerged as one of the most popular players in the system, connecting easily with players at every level. He frequently organized activities and meals with teammates. In the majors, where deference to veterans was expected, Betts didn’t feel like he could do the same. Attempts to create bridges were at times rebuffed by teammates with an implied suggestion that Betts should respect his place and the nature of seniority. Betts, in conversations with [manager John] Farrell and [general manager Ben] Cherington, expressed confusion.
The older players on the Red Sox such as Jon Lester and John Lackey weren’t necessarily malicious so much as they were repeating the lessons they’d been taught, in the same way that they’d encountered them. That said, as more and more players were getting called up in 2014 and further altering the personality of the previous year’s champions, the tone of the veterans hardened, the tough love became ever tougher.
“We had the old-boy crew,” said bullpen coach Dana LeVangie. “They expected that [the young players] were going to go through the same [expletive] that they did.”
The managers and coaches — many with backgrounds of coaching in the minors — didn’t particularly care for it, but it was difficult to ask the players who’d been so good at minimizing their own mistakes the previous year to become suddenly forgiving of them the next.
Then, during Betts’s first homestand as a member of the Red Sox, he had a close friend from Nashville in town. Before a game, he invited him into the clubhouse. For Betts, who’d grown up attached to his uncle’s hip inside the culture of professional baseball, the idea of a friend being in the clubhouse before the game seemed relatively harmless — even if Betts understood that it was inappropriate for his friend to be drinking a beer as game time neared. But to the Red Sox veterans, it was a significant transgression for a young player, a point made clear to him in harsh terms.
As Betts would later explain, it was an innocent mistake. “I didn’t know those type of rules. From what I knew, the clubhouse is like your home.” But other players saw it differently and let Betts know it.
Betts’s sense of being an outsider was further heightened just before the All-Star break. Before a game in Houston, he showed up to the clubhouse hours before most of his teammates to take early batting practice. With time to kill, Betts stretched out to take a nap on a couch. Again, the team’s veterans jumped on him, and Betts got called into Farrell’s office to be advised on some of the unwritten rules of which he was running afoul. (Hindsight suggests Betts was a pioneer: a couple of years later, the Red Sox installed a sleep room at Fenway, and encouraged players to nap before games if so inclined.)
[Senior vice president of major and minor league operations] Raquel Ferreira, perhaps the most trusted voice for young players in the organization, reached out to Betts. She ticked off a handful of transgressions.
“He said, ‘Raquel, what am I doing right?’ ” Ferreira remembered. “I had to explain to him, ‘This team is losing. When you’re losing, things become magnified to a degree that you have no control over. We want you to be comfortable. Just don’t act comfortable, because there’s a difference.’
“But with that 2014 team, they took things to another level, scrutinizing every little thing that some guys did, where all it takes is someone to pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’ ”
Both [Xander] Bogaerts and [Jackie] Bradley largely believed the veterans had good intentions, but Betts couldn’t fathom why teammates would treat each other in the fashion he experienced. His struggle was reflected on the field. He got sent back down to Triple-A once in July and again after a brief call-up in early August.
For most, a demotion from the big leagues to the minors feels like a descent into purgatory. Nothing could have been further from how Betts felt after being sent down for the second time. He arrived in the PawSox clubhouse, dropped his bag with dramatic flair, and pronounced, “I’m back.”
“It was almost a sigh of relief,” said Betts. “I could go back to Triple-A with all my boys and I could have fun. Play the game, have fun, I’m playing every day, I can laugh and joke and all those type of things.”
He felt at home again.