Dodgers’ Mookie Betts is his harshest critic. It’s what fuels him to be great

Mookie Betts never wanted to live in Los Angeles.

He didn’t like his short trips here as a guest player. Much traffic. expansive. It was overwhelming for someone who has lived most of their life in Nashville and Boston, smaller cities that are easier to navigate. He has never seen himself here.

But he had no choice in February 2020, not after the Boston Red Sox sold their cornerstone franchise to the Dodgers. He was introduced at a press conference on the field at Dodger Stadium. The next day he was in Arizona for spring training.

“When I came out here,” Betts said last week, “I was a bit skeptical.”

A month later, Major League Baseball ceased operations and the world closed. Suddenly there was a chance Betts, a free agent this offseason, would never play a game in a Dodgers uniform. In retrospect, the hiatus may have cemented Betts’ future in Southern California.

The pandemic allowed Betts to navigate LA without the gridlocked freeways and slowly become familiar with the city. With a 60-game season beginning in late July and a three-week home training camp bailed out, Betts felt more comfortable with his surroundings. He saw the possibilities. He saw a future here.

That vision and $365 million prompted Betts to sign a 12-year contract extension the day before his first game as the Dodger. It is the second largest contract in MLB history.

“I wanted to tell him, ‘We’re partners,'” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “‘You don’t have anything contractual to worry about and it’s all about helping the Dodgers win.'”

Two years later, 29-year-old Betts will start the first All-Star game at Dodger Stadium since 1980 as one of the faces of the franchise. He has bounced back from what was by his standards a disappointing season to lead the Dodgers to the best record in the National League while earning the respect of his peers.

“I think everyone knows Mookie as a superstar, but he’s so nice, he’s so nice, polite to so many people,” said Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, who will also start Tuesday’s All-Star Game. “I really respect him off the field, even more than on the field.”

It will be Betts’ sixth career All-Star Game appearance and fourth as a starter. The fielder has won a World Series with two of MLB’s flagship franchises. He was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player and the National League’s MVP runner-up. He is a five-time Gold Glove winner, four-time Silver Slugger winner and batting champion.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run against the Colorado Rockies July 5.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run against the Colorado Rockies July 5.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Everyone agrees that he is one of the best players in the world. All except Betts.

“He still doesn’t think he’s very good,” Dodgers pitcher David Price said. “I have to tell him every day how good he is, but that’s just the kind of player, kind of person that Mookie is.”

Nobody in the Dodgers’ clubhouse has known Betts longer than Price. They were teammates in Boston for four seasons and won a World Series against the Dodgers in 2018 before being shipped off to LA. Egos often don’t allow vulnerability.

A story Price passed on: In 2016, Price’s first season with the Red Sox, he entered the New York clubhouse at 12:30 p.m. to play a series opener game against the Yankees. It was early, early enough to believe the teammates weren’t in the batting cage yet. When he and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia heard the punches coming down the hallway, they assumed it was a coach’s kid. It was not.

“It’s Mookie in there punching and after every punch he’s like, ‘Man, I suck. What’s going on?’” Price said.

“He still doesn’t think he’s very good. I have to tell him how good he is every day, but that’s just the kind of player, the kind of person that Mookie is.”

– Dodgers pitcher David Price

Another story: Price pulled out of the 2020 season, citing concerns about COVID-19 but kept in constant touch with players, coaches and front office members. As Betts’ Dodgers career took off before cardboard cutouts, Price spoke to Friedman.

“‘Go up to him and tell him what a good player he is, how much fun you enjoy watching him play,'” Price said. “The real Mookie Betts showed up after the first few weeks and that was really fun.”

The Dodgers had their best record in the majors this summer, winning their first World Series in 32 years. Betts was right in the thick of it, dazzling in the batter’s box, on bases and in right field.

“I think that’s Mookie’s fuel,” Friedman said. “I think he goes through a lot of phases where he doesn’t feel like one of the best players in the world and that probably does something to his work ethic. But it’s amazing to be as talented as he is and the times he questions that.”

Then happened last year. Betts was good but declined from performance in 2020. Injuries, particularly a hip problem, limited him to 122 games, but he said that’s not why he didn’t live up to his expectations on the plate. “I was just in my own head,” Betts said. “People play through injuries all the time and succeed all the time. But this injury hurt, but only when running. Hitting didn’t hurt. Hitting was my thing.”

His .264 average and .854 percentage on base plus slugging were his worst since 2017. This season started worse. He went eight for 45 with two extra base hits in his first 11 games. Then, on April 22, he hit his first two homers against the San Diego Padres. After the game, he said he had to “take responsibility for sucking.”

“Once I could look in the mirror and admit that, I was able to take steps to help myself,” said Betts, who has been playing with a broken rib for several weeks. “I didn’t blame anyone else. I definitely blamed myself, but I just put it down to, ‘Oh, I didn’t have a good swing’ or ‘I called a strike, so I didn’t really get the shot I should have.’ stuff like this. These are all excuses. Everyone gets screwed sometimes. That’s not what it is about. It’s how you deal with what’s next.”

Mookie Betts celebrates after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants May 4 at Dodger Stadium.

Mookie Betts celebrates after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants May 4 at Dodger Stadium.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Betts listened to mental health audiobooks to help overcome mental hurdles. In early May, amid a hot spell, he said he heard “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, a marathon runner and former Navy SEAL.

He recently finished listening to “Will,” a memoir by actor Will Smith. “It definitely changed my perspective on life in general,” Betts said. “He’s the one who helped me to be [focused on] where my feet are and not worried about fear, not afraid of things – especially when it didn’t happen.”

Ron Roenicke, a special assistant in the Dodgers’ front office, was Betts’ bench coach in Boston in 2018 and 2019. Without hesitation, he called Betts a perfectionist in everything he does, whether it’s baseball or all of the off-field hobbies he’s picked up on. “He doesn’t agree to just being one of the guys,” Roenicke said. “He’s enormously talented, but you look at his form [5 feet 9] and whatever he is, 170 pounds, he gets everything out of what he’s got. If only he was super confident and cocky, he’d probably have a different personality. He wouldn’t do it the way he did.”

And he probably wouldn’t have become an eternal All-Star with generational wealth. He definitely wouldn’t live in Los Angeles. But that’s home now.

He got married here in the winter. He spends his free time bowling at a few lanes during the season and has substituted into leagues for friends. He took up DJing during the pandemic and set up a turntable at the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He has a special handshake with everyone around him, right down to the team’s reporter on the sidelines and a public relations officer.

He’s comfortable. Sometimes he’s even self-confident. Dodgers’ Mookie Betts is his harshest critic. It’s what fuels him to be great

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