The 2020 season was an odd one for baseball: Thanks to the pandemic, teams played 60 games apiece instead of the regular 162. And while the compressed schedule produced a number of mildly surreal anomalies—three teams failed to record a single sacrifice bunt—it also allowed for certain things easily missed by box scores and television cameras. Like this: The Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts managed to spend the high-drama moments of last fall’s World Series in conversation with his girlfriend, Brianna Hammonds, who was seated in the right field stands.
COVID-19 may have thinned the crowd, but the stakes of the season hadn’t diminished a bit for the Dodgers, who despite trotting out one of the highest-paid rosters in baseball had come up short in the World Series in both 2017 and 2018. Now their new star Betts—acquired before the season started in a blockbuster deal with Boston, where he’d been an MVP and a champion and was playing like one throughout this series—was nonetheless blithely chatting through the season’s tensest moments, as though he might be treating the sport’s most pressurized event like a beer-league softball game.
When the team’s then first base coach, George Lombard, caught sight of this and suggested that maybe he focus a bit more on the game, Betts was reassuring: “I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I got it. That’s why I’m here.’ ”
And without fail, the outfielder dutifully paused his discussion whenever the opportunity arose to chase down a ball or make a play. Betts, the ink still drying on a 12-year, $365 million contract extension that will make him among the highest-paid players in the sport, remained a dedicated employee. “Sure enough,” Lombard remembers, “right in the middle of these conversations, he’s making these highlight plays.” The Dodgers won the World Series—for the first time since 1988—and Betts, attuned to the moments that mattered most, homered in the first game and again in the clincher.
What were he and Brianna discussing, exactly? Oh, nothing important at all, says Betts. The day-to-day murmurings about dinner plans and childcare exchanged by couples everywhere. We’ve all gabbed with significant others when on the clock. And while Betts’s chatter may have seemed to some like a kind of dereliction of duty—a violation of some unwritten baseball code of the sort championed by the crusty ex-players who populate broadcast booths—he says distractions like that are basically the only way to stay sane. “It’s impossible to lock in for four hours, three and a half hours, however long our game is,” he says. “The more I can let my mind wander, the more I can bring it back and focus [on] each pitch, each play, each inning. If you tell me to lock in the whole time, then I’m going to be awful. I just can’t do it.” Like his fellow millennials, the sport’s most exciting player has determined that baseball is best experienced while also sort of doing something else.
Betts has been playing this way—seemingly checked out but totally dialed in—his whole life. As a high school shortstop, he’d initiate game-long rap battles with his third baseman and left fielder. He kept up the habit even in the minor leagues. “In Double A, man, we would be freestyling!” he says. “But when the pitch was thrown, we would focus.” In the majors, rapping gave way to garden-variety watercooler talk. “We play video games, so we talk about video games. We talk about bowling. We talk about girls,” he says. “We talk about anything.” Including, occasionally, baseball: “We may say something about baseball, like ‘I got this guy. You got that guy.’ But that’s pretty much it. For me, it’s just kind of overkill to watch the game and talk about it at the same time.”
Indeed, Betts has become the rare sort of player whose accomplishments speak for themselves. In addition to his MVP trophy, he’s won five Gold Glove fielding awards in his seven professional seasons. He has his new mega-contract. And he’s got the unique platform that comes with being a Black star in a predominantly white sport.
All good things to have, no doubt. But they also mean that, as the first pitch of the 2021 season approaches, Betts is under no small amount of pressure. He must tend to the hopes of the Dodger faithful who expect a repeat, and to his own efforts to expand the game’s appeal among Black players and fans. And then there are the severe on-field expectations he sets for himself each year, increasingly difficult assignments that he seems to tick off with ease.
It would be enough to make anyone taciturn. But as his chatty World Series heroics showed, Mookie Betts is busy charting a different kind of path. He’s something you don’t see much of in baseball anymore: a ferociously competitive athlete who refuses to let all his winning get in the way of having fun.
10 Things Mookie Betts Can’t Live Without
Late one morning in January, Betts pads into an empty room in the Nashville house he and Brianna are renting for the winter. He has a few weeks’ worth of patchy beard and wears the off-season uniform of a young athlete in much-needed repose—turquoise graphic tee, novelty American-flag pajama pants. He and Bri got engaged earlier in the month in a lavish surprise ceremony. Lately he’s been leading the women in his life—his fiancée; his mother, Diana Collins; a few of their friends—in regular workouts. He’s trying to teach Draco, their new puppy, not to piss all over the place. This off-season—with the engagement, the dog—has felt different from the others. He is 28, a young man making plans to be an older one.
Today he’s not doing all that much, which is sort of intentional: Betts’s competitive drive is such that, if not carefully tended, it’s liable to leak out in areas he’d rather it didn’t. Madden, for instance. Betts usually plays with a few friends as a way to relax. Every once in a while, though, he’ll find himself toggling over into practice mode, running plays against the computer to see how they’ll work against his friends. He’d rather not do things like this, but sometimes he can’t help himself—the impulse to get better tugs at him and brings out a side of his personality he prefers to reserve for opposing pitchers. So, he says, “I try not to turn it on.” Because “once I turn it on, I can’t turn it off until I’m done.”
One place Betts does unleash his competitive streak is the bowling alley. He has bowled since he was a kid—his mom was obsessed, and he spent four or five days a week at the lanes with her while growing up. She took the bumpers away early on, and Betts’s fierce ambition did the rest. “It was a challenge for me to learn,” he says. “And anytime I get some type of challenge, my brain flips and tries to solve the puzzle.”
He has remained active as a competitive bowler and is playing in a local tournament in a few days. In preparation, he’s trying to figure out which combination of six or seven bowling balls he plans to take—his selection being dependent, he tells me, on the specific oil patterns at the tournament site. An acquaintance owns a home with lanes nearby, and Betts has the run of the place. He has in his possession 30 to 40 bowling balls, by his count, so firing up the oil-pattern-laying machine and testing his balls for the tournament takes time—an hour and a half if he’s by himself, two and a half if he goes with friends, which he prefers. It happens to be fun, but fun is not the point. “We’re just putting in work,” he says, “trying to figure out the best way to attack this pattern.”
It would be incorrect to describe Betts’s interest in, or talent for, bowling as a mere hobby. He competes in celebrity tournaments—Chris Paul throws a big one—and the odd Professional Bowlers Association event when his schedule allows. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman remembers calling the superstar after the trade to welcome him to the team. “I’m really sorry,” Betts answered, “but I’m in the middle of a bowling tournament. Can I call you back?” Betts says he would love to compete in more tournaments. It’s just that the pro-bowling season overlaps with the pro-baseball one, and he’s got his commitments.
By now he’s posted enough perfect 300 games that he’s stopped keeping count. And anyway, he says, perfect games are “cool to people that don’t bowl.” True bowlers just want to win, and so for the past few winters Mookie Betts has entered a run of local bowling tournaments in Texas, where a bunch of pro bowlers tune up ahead of their season. This year Betts’s three-man traveling party divided his nine balls among their checked bags and carry-ons and flew to Dallas. He hit a few tournaments there, and then the group rented a minivan to drive to Houston for a few more. The competition was serious, but these were not glamorous tournaments: Betts spent much of his holiday under harsh fluorescent lighting, stationed between the pizza counter and the arcade. This just happened to be where the action was. When he started competing in tournaments, the aim was simply to not come in last. Now it’s to win money, which he managed to do on the Texas run. The $365 million man took home some cash—$300, he thinks—at one tournament. With sincerity, he calls it the best few hundred dollars he ever made. “It’s not really about the money. Obviously it’s more just to say I did it,” Betts tells me. “It’s hard as hell to cash in a tournament like that. With professionals. I was proud of myself, for sure.”
When he was a kid, Betts suspected for a while that he might make a career out of bowling. His athletic gifts are such that he always thought he’d go pro in one sport or another. “I never really thought I was going to be a lawyer or anything,” he says. “That never even crossed my mind. It was always some type of professional athlete.” He’d hustle from 3 p.m. bowling matches to 7 p.m. basketball games. He was less in love with baseball, which he pursued in the summertime in order to hang out with his friends who played. “I didn’t know how good I was at baseball,” he says. “Other people could hit really good, and other people could field really good, other people could run the bases, other people could do all the same things I did.” He struggled to see how he stood out. “I didn’t have a whole lot of power. I wasn’t that fast, but I was a pretty good defender. I was always one of the smallest kids.”
Still, he hit .509 his senior season of high school, and pro scouts took notice. The Red Sox used an early pick to select him in the 2011 draft, but he was expecting to attend the University of Tennessee instead. He told the Sox that he would need a signing bonus of $750,000 to go pro, and to Betts’s surprise, they met the number. He signed with them just 30 minutes before the deadline to choose between college and the bigs. The team saw something he hadn’t seen in himself: His scores on proprietary “neuroscouting” tests that measure reaction time and decision-making ability, Sports Illustrated reported, were off the charts. (“I thought I sucked,” he says now.) He signed the contract.
He was sent to play in Lowell, Massachusetts. His first full season, in 2012, looked fine from the outside—he got on base often enough and played strong defense—but he’d entered fearsome new territory. “I didn’t even hit a ball that hit the fence,” he recalls. “I had one ball all year that one-hopped the fence. I had zero power. The competition was completely different.” He started working with a trainer during the off-season, feverish in pursuit of a target that now seems quaint: “Obviously the goal was to hit a homer.”
He managed one in spring training the next year, but then the wheels came off. He struggled for his first six weeks in Greenville, South Carolina. “I was just trash,” he says. The line between success and failure in baseball can be maddeningly thin, but he knew which side he was on. “That was the first time in my life, really, that I failed miserably.” It hurt. Doubt crept in. A career in baseball could mean years struggling to climb the minor-league ladder. Monthslong stretches between home runs. He started to consider alternatives. “I know I can be successful in basketball,” he recalls thinking. “I know I can be successful bowling. Why am I going to sit here and waste my time doing this?” And so, five years before winning the 2018 American League MVP award, Mookie Betts signed up to take the ACT college admissions test. “I pretty much almost quit baseball,” he says.
The baseball gods had other plans. He had scheduled the test for early one Saturday morning, after a Friday-night game—not technically his last, but spiritually the end of the line. When that game went into extra innings, he decided to reschedule the ACT—the team was playing the next night, too, and he didn’t want to tire himself out with hours of multiple-choice questions.
The delay proved providential. He spent a few days tinkering in the batting cage. The previous season, he’d used an exaggerated leg kick to generate power, to little effect. He was bigger now but still using his old swing, and it wasn’t working: “I was trying to supply power with my leg kicking, instead of just stepping and letting the strength that I had built over that off-season work.” He junked the leg kick. In his first game with the new swing, he bagged three hits—including a home run. A switch was flipped. “I just started hitting,” he says, “and a year later I was in the big leagues. Life happened really fast.”
Betts’s arrival in pro baseball coincided with a moment of great upheaval about how the game should be played. When he showed up in 2011, the sport was moving into a post-Moneyball phase—valuing players with unloved abilities was no longer the hot idea. Suddenly there was a newer new idea afoot: Advanced forms of statistical analysis could be harnessed to turn good players into superstars.
Betts was the perfect test case. He began his career as a light-hitting speed-demon second baseman, the sort of player encouraged to put the ball on the ground and use his legs to eke out hits. But you can’t homer on even the best-struck grounder, so the Red Sox taught him to use his unique combination of hand-eye coordination and athleticism to put the ball in the air—in the process molding him, at a slight five feet nine and 170 pounds, into an unlikely power hitter. Betts hit five home runs his rookie year and upped it to 18 the next. Then 31. “It’s not like I hit it far,” Betts notes. But he’d begun to hit it far enough.
Some parts of the sport, though, were slower to change. Betts, a midseason call-up, was the new guy on the 2014 Red Sox, a veteran club that had won the World Series the previous year. With that crew, rookies shared a number of hazing-adjacent tasks: They had to pick up bottled water and beer for bus rides and schlep the team’s luggage. They couldn’t use the elevator at the hotel until all the vets had gotten up to their rooms.
It ate at him. One episode, where he was razzed over the team bus’s intercom for forgetting the beer, crystallized two things: First, that when he was in charge of the clubhouse, he’d set different rules. And second, that in order to win the influence to someday rewrite the rules, he needed to excel under them for the time being. “My motivation was I’m going to be so good that I’m not going to get you any more fucking beer,” he says. “I’m going to be the best player on this team, so when I have to get the beer, I don’t. That was when my tunnel vision kicked in and I was ready to go.” By 2016, his second full season in the bigs, he was the runner-up for the AL MVP award. In 2018, it was his.
Quietly, and then all of a sudden, Mookie Betts had become a star—and one with the good sense to appreciate how unique that made him. Early on Betts determined that he would turn down whatever contract extension he was offered in order to make it to free agency, where he’d be able to earn something closer to his true market value. He just as soon would have re-signed in Boston, he says—but only if they made the right offer.
Just like learning to lay off outer-half curveballs, turning down big dollars took practice. “The very first contract extension I ever saw was super hard to turn down,” he says. “It was like $90 million or something. They slid over the sheet of paper, and I saw the number, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I had never seen that before, so that was hard to turn down. But once you can figure out how to say no, then it becomes easy as anything. Saying no the first time is the hardest thing.”
It got easier—but also stranger. He couldn’t wrap his head around asking for anything less than what he knew he deserved. “I don’t care if you’re working at Waffle House or for the Red Sox or for the Dodgers,” he says. “You should just get paid what you’re worth.” Ultimately the Red Sox decided they’d rather trade Betts than lose him to free agency, shipping him to Los Angeles. Dodgers executive Friedman concedes the obvious. “It’s not often that a player of his caliber is available via trade,” he says. Dave Roberts, the team’s manager, is more blunt: “My first reaction was ‘I can’t believe it’s really going to happen.’ ”
Betts thought he’d be with the Sox for life, and says he loved his time there—he and Bri had begun looking at new houses before the trade. But he isn’t sentimental about the bonds between player and team. The Red Sox “didn’t owe me anything; I didn’t owe them anything. The city didn’t owe me anything; I didn’t owe the city anything. We did what we were supposed to do. And at that point,” he says, “it’s a business.” The Sox couldn’t—or just wouldn’t—pay him what he knew he was worth. So he wound up with a team that could.
Nearly everything in Betts’s career has happened faster than he expected—including that moment when he’d be called upon to set the clubhouse’s rules. In February 2020, during his first spring training with the Dodgers, he noticed that the team seemed a little too loose in its approach to practice. “This ain’t going to work,” he remembers thinking. He called up his girlfriend. “I was like, ‘Brianna, I see why we beat them in the World Series.’ It was because we were way more prepared than they were.” So in the locker room, Betts gathered his new teammates and issued a challenge: The group was good enough to win a title, he said, but only if everyone practiced with urgency. “I thought it was going to make some people mad, but it didn’t,” he says. Instead he won the team over. “He demanded excellence from us,” Roberts says. Eight months later, the Dodgers were champs.
Betts’s skills put him in rare company in pro ball, but his status as a Black superstar makes him something of a unicorn: The proportion of Black MLB players peaked at around 18 percent in the 1980s and has plummeted to less than 10 percent in recent years. “I’m trying to do my part in getting guys into baseball,” Betts says. He hopes that his approach—playing the game with uncommon passion; becoming a Jordan Brand athlete—rubs off. But the obstacles are manifold. It’s an expensive sport, he notes. And: “It’s boring and it’s not as fun as other sports.”
Baseball is also a conservative sport, and in a way that no single player can change on his own. When the wave of civil rights protests began last summer, Major League Baseball was notably slower than the NFL and the NBA in responding; its anodyne official statement was released nine days after George Floyd’s death and failed to include the words “Black Lives Matter.” By opening day, in late July, “BLM” was stenciled on mounds across the league. Betts knelt for the national anthem and said he felt that the league “did not do a good job” in meeting the moment. Asked about it now, he says, “I don’t think it was cared for enough. I feel like we just kept going as if nothing happened.”
He’d seen his peers in other sports pushing their leagues for accountability, but the demographics of those sports made protest a fundamentally different proposition. “I don’t think the MLB was really worried about that,” Betts says of the prospect of Black baseball players refusing to play. “Because if all the Black players in the MLB sat out, they wouldn’t miss a beat.”
Last August, after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin, NBA players huddled together in their Orlando bubble and decided they wouldn’t play. The Dodgers were in San Francisco to face the Giants, and at the time, Betts was the only African American player on either roster. After discussion with his friends and family, Betts decided he wouldn’t play, but he told his teammates that he’d understand if they didn’t join him in sitting out. “Both teams were actually okay with playing,” he says. “By myself, with 50 guys, I can’t fight that battle.”
But his teammates listened and followed his lead. The game would be postponed. “For him to have that respect, and to have that honest conversation with his teammates, and most importantly for it to be received the way it was intended, speaks to how people feel about him,” Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, one of two Black managers in baseball, says. (Between Betts’s abilities on the field and his sincerity off it, Roberts says Betts reminds him of Jackie Robinson.)
Betts was glad to have the support of his organization, but that couldn’t fix an intractable problem. “It was lonely,” he says, “in the sense that I couldn’t look to my right or my left—just a look! Because you can look at another Black person in that situation, and just look each other in the eyes, and you know immediately how it feels. That part was lonely, that nobody else really understood how it felt.”
I ask Betts if, in the wake of his comments and the league’s mealymouthed “promise to do the work,” he’s heard from anyone at the commissioner’s office on Park Avenue. “No, I have not,” he says.
He’s hopeful for progress on the issue, if realistic about his ability to change things by himself. “I feel like I’m doing a decent job with trying to bring awareness to baseball,” he says. “I can’t say I’m doing a great job. I don’t think I’m doing a horrible job, but it’s just going to be hard.” He’ll pick his spots. “There are some battles that I choose to fight,” he says. “That wasn’t one that I wanted to fight. I feel like we’re so outnumbered that there’s nothing that could resonate enough.”
And so Mookie Betts chooses other battles. He demands to be paid like an elite player and then dares to turn himself into the most exciting talent in the game. He takes a body built to hustle out ground balls and teaches it to deposit home runs in the outfield bleachers. He masters a system that hunts out inefficiencies and then makes brilliantly inefficient plays on the game’s largest stage. Those battles, of course, are inextricably linked to baseball’s struggles with race—to the way the sport has grown increasingly expensive and elitist and has struggled to make sense of a Black player who manages to make the game look fun. Betts will approach these efforts the same way he does any task, working things out one step at a time. By now, you’d be silly to bet against him.
Back when he was in the minors, Betts learned an invaluable lesson from one of his coaches: “Everybody has good days, and everybody has three or four hits on those good days. That’s not the hard part,” he says. “The hard part is when you don’t feel good.”
Betts has fewer bad days than most baseball players, but they still happen every once in a while. “I can’t control that I hit a line drive at somebody,” he says. “That’s out of my control.” Even some pitchers get the best of him. (“He drives a Benz too,” Betts reminds himself of his well-compensated opposition.) The way to deal with bad days, he has learned, is to pinpoint the things you can control—and then apply maximum intensity to achieving mastery. This means that you don’t just practice your bowling; you study the oil patterns and you put your 40-odd bowling balls through tryouts. It means that you spend hours in one-on-none mode in Madden. And it means that you approach baseball not as the sort of player you’ve become but as the light-hitting middle-of-the-road player you once might have been. “He’s got the instincts that a backup utility infielder has, that that guy has needed to get to where he’s at,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers executive, says. “For one of the most talented players in the game to have those instincts on top of that ability almost is unfair.”
This righteous perfectionism is second nature. For as long as Betts can remember, he says, he’s been applying the same mindset, no matter the objective. When he was in high school, his mom barred him from playing football—he was just too small, and she worried that he’d get hurt. (“He came out of high school weighing 150 [pounds],” Diana tells me. “So you can imagine that in ninth grade he probably weighed 100.”) Still, Betts wanted to hang out with his friends on the team, so he signed up to serve as the water boy. “I was the best,” he says now. “I was the GOAT of water boys. I took pride in it.” Players would toss the bottles around, leaving them for Betts to pick up. He never held this against them. “I didn’t think, My man, don’t throw it on the ground. Hand it to me. They’re playing their sport. The last thing they really need to think about is throwing a water bottle or whatever.”
What counts, he realized, was playing your part and remaining hell-bent on getting better. It doesn’t matter if you’re the quarterback or the water boy, an amateur bowler or the MVP right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Throw that shit,” he’d tell his teammates. “I’ll get it and fill it up. I’ll have it ready.”
Sam Schube is GQ’s senior editor
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2021 issue with the title “Mookie Betts Can’t Stop Getting Better.”
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Behind the Scenes with the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts
Photographs by Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Sittings editor: Josh Owen for AMAX Talent
Hair by David Hiland for Forty Ten Barber Studio
Skin by Sherita Leslie for AMAX Talent
Tailoring by Brooke Hagaman for AMAX Talent
Set design by Elise Lacret
Produced by Agency MJ