Mookie striving to show the world that he's still Mookie at SS

April 2nd, 2024

This story was excerpted from Juan Toribio’s Dodgers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

LOS ANGELES -- still remembers it all.

He remembers everything that came after the Red Sox moved him from second base to the outfield. Betts won’t ever forget all the dropped fly balls before games. He can still talk about the balls he lost in the sun. The footwork needed work. He even needed to readjust the way he threw the baseball to better resemble an outfielder.

“You guys all know me as a good right fielder. But nobody else remembers that because that was 10 years ago,” Betts said as he clapped his hands together inside the Dodgers' dugout. “That was before Mookie was Mookie.”

Before “Mookie was Mookie” in the outfield, before he claimed six Gold Glove Awards in right field that are now displayed at home, Betts made plenty of mistakes. In order to become one of the best defensive right fielders in the game, Betts said he had to go through an hour of early work, get more reps during batting practice and then top it off by usually being the last player on the field.

At that point in his life, Betts was just a young player trying to make a name for himself. He understood his best path to becoming a starter in the Majors was to become a good outfielder. However, 10 years later, Betts is in a much different situation.

Betts is one of the best players in the game, a likely Hall of Famer. He’s one of the highest-paid players in the game and among the real stars on a Dodgers team that is recognized around the world.

None of that stopped Betts from taking on the challenge of becoming the starting shortstop this season midway through Spring Training. Nobody would’ve blamed Betts from saying no and staying at second base, as was promised in the offseason. Instead, Betts understood playing short was what gave the Dodgers the best chance to win. He wanted to take on the challenge.

“Let’s do it,” Betts recalled telling the Dodgers. “I know it’s a tough challenge, but when stuff is not challenging, who has fun? For me, something that’s super is easy, that’s not fun for me. When you have the world against you, it’s like, ‘Cool, let’s go out there and do it.’”

Once he accepted the responsibility of becoming the everyday shortstop, Betts immediately remembered those early days as an outfielder. He knew this was going to be his toughest challenge to date. But like he always does, he wanted to excel at it.

Over the last month as the shortstop, Betts has followed the same blueprint from 10 years ago. Four hours before each game, Betts is usually the first person out of the Dodgers’ dugout to take early work at short. An hour later, Betts is still out there trying to simulate game action.

“If I mess up a play, the next day you better believe I’m about to do that 100 times until I do it right,” Betts said. “I know it’s a premium position. I know it’s a harder position. But I believe in myself that I’m going to outwork everybody. And let’s say something happens where I’m not able to do it, you can damn guarantee it wasn’t for a lack of effort.”

Pedro Montero -- the Dodgers’ Major League video coordinator, who also does on-field work before games -- estimates that he has hit at least 70 grounders a day to Betts over the last month. Most days, that number goes over 100. During the optional workout before the two games in Seoul, South Korea, it was even more than that.

“He’s driven to be great,” said Dodgers first-base coach Clayton McCullough. “This is a new challenge for him that I think internally he’s been wanting to do for a while and show that he can do it. And not just do it, but excel and be much better than OK.”

Through seven games, Betts has had some ups and downs. He looked tentative during the series in Seoul and had a couple of miscues during the Freeway Series leading up to Opening Day against the Cardinals. But over the last few days, people around the team have marveled at how ready he looks to handle the daily demands of the position.

His athleticism is showing more and more each day. It’s also helping his offense as Betts is off to one of the best starts of his career at the plate, hitting a homer in four consecutive games for the first time as a pro.

Betts’ 2023 season was exactly why the Dodgers traded for him in February 2020. They knew Betts was always going to be in contention for MVPs, Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves. But what he’s accomplishing -- and what’s still left -- is blowing away even their wildest expectations.

“I just don’t think there’s any player in baseball that can do that. Six Gold Gloves in right, to come over and play Gold Glove-caliber defense last year at second, and then slide over and play shortstop and still perform at the top of the order like he has,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “You just don’t see superstars that are willing to kind of put themselves in a compromising situation.”