GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If the Dodgers win the World Series this year, Mookie Betts’ inaugural address to his new club will go down as the greatest tone-setter since Kirk Gibson in 1988.
Flashback to Vero Beach. Gibson, who had just joined the Dodgers as a free agent, went ballistic over Jesse Orosco painting eye black around the rim of his cap before the first game of the spring, then dressed down his new teammates for a cavalier approach toward their job.
There’s no comparing the 1987 Dodgers, who went 73-89 and finished fourth, to the 2019 edition that won 106 games. But the messages from Betts and Gibson when they addressed their first full-team meeting were eerily similar.
A furious Gibson demanded accountability and intensity. A composed Betts? Same.
“When you stand up in front of the team on the first day and essentially call everyone out, says he wants to hold everyone accountable for their effort -- not just in the game, but in the workouts -- that’s like, all right, you learn what he’s about really fast,” said Justin Turner. “Same principle [as Gibson’s speech], just not critical of us. This was him saying this before he knew anybody. Just signs of leadership, it jumps out at you.
“The first week he was here early, getting out before guys were getting going, so we didn’t really have that many conversations with him. Just kind of assumed he was a quiet guy who goes about his business. Then Day One, you realize you were way off. He was proactive, let’s get in front of this -- Day One is as urgent as Game 7 of the World Series. It was awesome, actually.”
Gibson was so angry after Orosco’s prank during warmups that he stormed out of camp minutes before he was to debut as a Dodger. Betts’ Dodgers debut in Sunday's 4-2 win over the Cubs was far less dramatic, as he flied out three times, the last one a sacrifice fly that drove in a run. Defensively, he had no action in right field.
Like Gibson, who won a World Series in Detroit in 1984, Betts joins Los Angeles having won a World Series in Boston in 2018 -- beating the Dodgers -- and, like Gibson, winning an MVP Award. But that win only came after Betts tasted first-round defeat in the postseasons of '16 and '17. He told his new teammates the difference between winning it all and falling short was total commitment.
Everybody in baseball knows the Dodgers have been to the postseason seven consecutive seasons and still haven’t won a World Series since 1988, when Gibson was named Most Valuable Player as much for his fiery leadership as his production.
The franchise and fanbase are desperate to end that drought. Betts has been anointed as the game changer. If there’s pressure on Betts to make it happen, he’ll deal with it.
“Do I feel pressure? Sure, I guess, but I channel it into working hard and making sure I take care of business,” Betts said. “It’s going to take all of us taking care of business, it’s not going to be just me. Have to keep that in mind.”
Enrique Hernández was just as impacted by Betts’ address as Turner was.
“That hit me, the first day of Spring Training he addresses a group he doesn’t know, that’s not easy to do the way he did,” said Hernández. “Regardless of your status in the game. I thought it was great, it was awesome. It was, 'this is how I play the game,' and I respected the heck out of him for that. The way he talks about the game, there’s a lot of similarities with how I play and how I feel the game should be played.
“It just made me feel like I’m really looking forward to playing a full season with him and being around him and seeing the type of leader he is. After hearing that, he’s not going to just be impactful on the field, but also in the clubhouse.”