Mookie Betts is still just 5-foot-9, which means an inch shorter than Willie Mays was. But he is about to be even bigger than ever in baseball -- and not just because of the new contract extension he just signed with the Dodgers.
Now here Betts was in the bottom of the seventh inning against the Giants on Thursday night in the first official game he'd play for the Dodgers, letting everybody know he was in town. He did it for his Dodgers team with a baserunning play that had a ton of Jackie Robinson to it, on a night at Dodger Stadium that Robinson would have understood completely.
Betts got his first hit for his new team, a single, which was followed by a double from Cody Bellinger. So the 2019 National League MVP had now moved the 2018 American League MVP from first to third. It was still a 1-1 game at this point. The Dodgers still hadn’t blown open the game.
The Giants brought the infield in. There was a ground ball to the second baseman. Betts got the perfect read off the ball and came home anyway, his head-first slide beating the play at the plate and starting what would be a five-run inning for the Dodgers.
“I saw it on the ground and tried to turn on the turbo to get there,” he’d say later.
The Dodgers won, 8-1. Even with David Price -- Betts’ teammate with the Red Sox who came to Los Angeles along with Betts -- having elected not to play this season, and Clayton Kershaw -- who was supposed to start Thursday night -- landing on the injured list, manager Dave Roberts’ team is still loaded. The Dodgers have talent up and down the lineup. They just don’t have anybody who plays the game quite the way Betts does. But then, few teams in baseball do.
In a home run world in baseball -- the season really began with the 459-foot home run that Giancarlo Stanton hit for the Yankees across the country a few hours earlier against the Nationals -- Betts can hit them. He hit 32 for the Red Sox the year he won the MVP and they won the World Series. He hit 32 in a year that he had a .640 slugging percentage and a .346 batting average and a .438 on-base percentage. The number of home runs isn’t a Mike Trout number. The slash line is. Mookie will never hit 45 homers, the most Trout has hit. Trout has never hit .346, either. They’re different players, even only playing an hour away from each other now. But each plays a game the other can understand.
And they both can go get the ball. Please remember that a couple of years ago, Buck Showalter called Mookie Betts “the best right fielder I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.” Betts is at age 27, as they say, the whole package, whether he is batting leadoff or batting No. 2 in Roberts’ order, because he is going to do both this season. He is the new baseball star in a star place, a principled Black player who took a knee during the pregame national anthem on Thursday night and then got up and helped his new team win a game. He only had the one hit and scored the one run, and later struck out with the bases loaded on a chance when he had a chance for a real Hollywood ending to his Dodgers era beginning. But coming home on that grounder changed the night, even Giants manager Gabe Kapler admitted that when the game was over.
Everybody keeps talking about how this season is going to be a sprint. So it was fitting that in Betts’ first best moment -- or maybe we should call it a Betts moment -- he came sprinting home from third base.
There was always going to be a huge spotlight on Betts this season, just because the trade for him, for a player like him in his prime is as big as the Dodgers have made in Brooklyn or in L.A. It only got bigger because of the Trout-like contract extension. But all this attention on Betts is a good thing. He is the fifth-round Draft pick of the Red Sox from 2011 who was signed as a middle infielder; who played shortstop and then was better at second, before being moved to center field and then finally to the crucial expanse of right field for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Now he begins what he himself calls this “new chapter” at Dodger Stadium.
That new chapter really began with an old-fashioned Jackie Robinson moment on the bases, on a Jackie Robinson night for the Dodgers. Roberts says the Dodgers uniform was meant for Mookie Betts. It didn’t take long for Betts to show everybody how right his manager was.