Pure joy: Betts a new kind of Hollywood star

September 12th, 2020

So this is all has done for the Dodgers so far this season: Been the best player on the best team in baseball.

Through Thursday night’s games, he was the WAR leader for all position players in the sport. His batting average was .301, which means a lot lower than it was for the Red Sox in 2018 when he was the MVP of the American League. But he had hit 14 home runs and knocked in 33 and was slugging .602 and had a OPS of .983, and in a season in which Cody Bellinger, the reigning MVP of the National League was hitting .211 entering Saturday's action, it has mattered a lot to the Dodgers.

The Dodgers won 106 games last season, ending up with a winning percentage of .694. They were 32-13 coming into this weekend, which happened to be a winning percentage of .711 that works out to 115 wins over a 162-game season. Mookie has somehow made an already-great Los Angeles team better, even more fun to watch, while showing everybody, really from the start of the season, why he has made himself into one of the best all-around players of his time. He was one of the greatest all-around players the Red Sox ever had. The Dodgers? They have to go way back to find someone who can do all the things he does on a baseball field: run and hit and hit for power and play the best right field around. He is the kind of dazzling presence in the middle of the action that Jackie Robinson once was.

Mookie Betts, who came up as a middle infielder, even played second base for his team against the Diamondbacks on Thursday night, just in case his manager, Dave Roberts, might need him there once the Dodgers are back in October. It was Betts’ first start at second in six years.

“He was drafted as a second baseman, he takes grounders every day in the infield and he came to me a couple weeks ago and we were talking about potential scenarios and how we move players around the diamond and if there ever was an opportunity in the postseason, when things sort of get crazy, he might find himself in the infield,” Dave Roberts.

The scenario that matters most to Roberts and the Dodgers is the one in which they finally win the World Series this season, after the seven straight National League West titles they have won, after playing in the Series in two of the last three years, after the heartbreak loss to the Nationals in the NLDS last season, when the great Clayton Kershaw had the ball in relief and the Dodgers had a 3-1 lead until Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto went back to back with homers to tie the game, before Howie Kendrick won the series with a grand slam off Joe Kelly in extras. The Yankees haven’t won a Series in 11 years. The Dodgers haven’t won since 1988.

But now they have brought Mookie Betts to Dodger Stadium, in one of the most dramatic trades the team has ever made, as far back as you want to go, and that means all the way back to Brooklyn. And here is what he has been for them so far, through more than two-thirds of the short season:

He’s been Mookie.

He’s been doing what he did for such a long time in Boston, which means playing so much bigger than he is (5-foot-9). He fills up a box score and runs the bases and makes throws from the right-field corner to third base like he did one night to nail Ketel Marte of the D-backs on the last day of July. The Dodgers are so good, again, that sometimes you can lose sight of how good Mookie Betts is at baseball, and how seamless his transition to his new team has been.

The best part for the Dodgers, who signed him to that 12-year, $365 million contract not long after he got to L.A., is that Betts doesn’t turn 28 until October. Mike Trout just turned 29. A little further south, the Padres have Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Manny Machado. This is a very good time to be a baseball fan in southern California.

Here is how Roberts has described to me, and more than once, what it is like to manage Betts and just watch him play ball every day:

“Pure joy.”

Betts was with the Red Sox when they played the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, at the end of the best season any Red Sox team has ever had. He wasn’t the MVP of that Series, because Steve Pearce was the unlikely star, but Betts hit a home run off Kershaw and he had five hits in five games and scored five runs as the Red Sox won in five. When it was over, he talked about the triumph as “a dream come true.”

LeBron James once talked about taking his talents to South Beach. Mookie, because of a trade that rocked Boston as much as it rocked L.A. (the Red Sox had never had a player quite like Mookie, either), rocked all of Major League Baseball, really, has now taken his immense talents to SoCal. Two years ago, Mookie Betts was the best player on the best team. Still is. Playing the game the way he always has. Pure joy.