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Dodgers’ Mookie Betts is his harshest critic. It’s what fuels him to be great

Mookie Betts never wanted to live in Los Angeles.

He didn’t enjoy his short trips here as a visiting player. Bad traffic. Sprawling. It was overwhelming for someone who spent most of his life in Nashville and Boston, smaller cities that are easier to navigate. He never saw himself here.

But he didn’t have a choice in February 2020, not after the Boston Red Sox traded their franchise cornerstone to the Dodgers. He was introduced at a news conference on the field at Dodger Stadium. He was in Arizona for spring training the next day.

“Coming out here,” Betts said last week, “I was already kind of skeptical.”

A month later, Major League Baseball suspended operations and the world shut down. Suddenly, there was a possibility that Betts, a free agent that offseason, would never play a game in a Dodgers uniform. In retrospect, the pause might have cemented Betts’ future in Southern California.

The pandemic allowed for Betts to drive around L.A. without the gridlocked freeways, slowly familiarizing himself with the city. By the time a 60-game season beginning in late July, with a three-week training camp at home, was salvaged, Betts was more comfortable with his surroundings. He envisioned the opportunities. He saw a future here.

That vision, and $365 million, prompted Betts to sign a 12-year contract extension the day before his first game as a Dodger. It’s the second-largest contract in MLB history.

“My point to him was, ‘We’re partners,’” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “‘You don’t have to worry about anything contractually and everything is around just helping the Dodgers win.’”

Two years later, Betts, 29, will start the first All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium since 1980 as one of the faces of the franchise. He’s rebounded from, by his standards, a disappointing season to fuel the Dodgers to the best record in the National League while garnering the respect of his peers.

“I think everyone knows Mookie as a superstar, but he’s so nice, he’s so kind, polite to so many people,” said Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner, who will also start in the All-Star Game on Tuesday. “I really respect him off the field, even more so than on the field.”

It will be Betts’ sixth career All-Star Game appearance and fourth as a starter. The outfielder has won a World Series with two of MLB’s flagship franchises. He’s been named the American League most valuable player and National League MVP runner-up. He’s a five-time Gold Glove winner, a four-time Silver Slugger winner and a batting champion.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run July 5 against the Colorado Rockies .

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Everyone agrees he is one of the best players in the world. Everyone except Betts.

“He still doesn’t think he’s very good,” Dodgers pitcher David Price said. “I got to tell him every day how good he is, but that’s just the type of player, type of person Mookie is.”

Nobody in the Dodgers clubhouse has known Betts longer than Price. They were teammates for four seasons in Boston, winning a World Series against the Dodgers in 2018, before they were shipped to L.A. In those six years, Price said, Betts’ lack of self-confidence has periodically surfaced — a rarity among elite athletes whose egos often don’t allow for vulnerability.

One story Price relayed: In 2016, Price’s first season with the Red Sox, he walked into the clubhouse in New York at 12:30 p.m. for a series opener against the Yankees. It was early, early enough to believe that teammates weren’t yet in the batting cage. So when he and Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia heard the thwacks coming from down the hall, they assumed it was a coach’s kid. It wasn’t.

“It’s Mookie in there hitting, and after every swing, going, ‘Man, I suck. What is going on?’” Price said.

“He still doesn’t think he’s very good. I got to tell him every day how good he is, but that’s just the type of player, type of person Mookie is.”

— Dodgers pitcher David Price

Another story: Price opted out of the 2020 season, citing COVID-19 concerns, but remained in constant contact with players, coaches and front-office members. When Betts’ Dodgers career got off to a slow start in front of cardboard cutouts, Price spoke to Friedman.

“‘Go up to him and tell him how good of a player he is, how much fun you have watching him play,’” Price said. “The real Mookie Betts showed up after the first couple of weeks and that was really fun.”

The Dodgers posted the best record in the majors that summer and won their first World Series in 32 years. Betts was in the middle of it all, dazzling in the batter’s box, on the bases and in right field.

“I think that is Mookie’s fuel,” Friedman said. “I think he goes through a lot of periods where he doesn’t feel like he’s one of the best players on the planet and it probably contributes some to his work ethic. But it is astonishing to be as talented as he is and the times that he will question that.”

Then last year happened. Betts was good but regressed from his production in 2020. Injuries, notably a hip problem, limited him to 122 games, but he said that wasn’t why he didn’t fulfill his expectations at the plate. “I just was in my own head,” Betts said. “People play through injuries all the time and are successful all the time. But that injury, though it did hurt, it only hurt running. It didn’t hurt hitting. Hitting was all a me thing.”

His .264 average and .854 on-base-plus-slugging percentage were his worst since 2017. The start to this season was worse. He went eight for 45 with two extra-base hits in his first 11 games. Then, on April 22, he hit his first two home runs against the San Diego Padres. After the game, he said he had to “take ownership for sucking.”

“Once I was able to look in the mirror and own that, then I was able to take steps to help myself,” said Betts, who has been playing with a cracked rib for a few weeks. “I wasn’t blaming other people. I was definitely blaming myself, but I was just blaming it on, ‘Oh, I didn’t have a good swing’ or ‘I got a strike called so I didn’t really get the at-bat that I should’ve gotten.’ Things like that. Those are all excuses. Everybody gets screwed sometimes. It’s not about that. It’s about how you handle what’s next.”

Mookie Betts celebrates after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants on May 4 at Dodger Stadium.

Mookie Betts celebrates after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants on May 4 at Dodger Stadium.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Betts has listened to mental health audio books to help overcome mental hurdles. In early May, amid a torrid stretch, he said he listened to “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, a marathon runner and former Navy SEAL.

He recently finished listening to “Will,” a memoir by actor Will Smith. “It definitely changed my perspective on life in general,” Betts said. “He’s the one that helped me with being [focused on] where my feet are and not worrying about fear, not being scared of things — especially when it hasn’t happened.”

Ron Roenicke, a special assistant in the Dodgers’ front office, was Betts’ bench coach in Boston in 2018 and 2019. Without hesitation, he labeled Betts a perfectionist in everything he does, whether it’s baseball or all the off-the-field hobbies he’s picked up. “He’s not OK with just being one of the guys,” Roenicke said. “He’s tremendously talented, but you look at his frame [5 feet 9] and whatever he is, 170 pounds, he gets everything out of what he has. If he was just super confident, cocky, he would probably have a different personality. He wouldn’t get after it like he does.”

And he probably wouldn’t have become a perennial All-Star with generational wealth. He definitely wouldn’t live in Los Angeles. But this is home now.

He got married here during the winter. He spends his free time during the season bowling at a few alleys and has subbed in for friends in leagues. He picked up DJing during the pandemic and has a turntable set up in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. He has special handshakes with everyone around, down to the team’s sideline reporter and a public relations official.

He’s comfortable. Sometimes he’s even confident.



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