Rosenthal: Mookie Betts’ latest goal? Become ‘a legend in the game’

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mookie Betts keeps upping the ante. He talked last season about wanting to become a Hall of Famer. His latest goal: To become, in his words, “a legend in the game.”

Betts, 31, made that declaration in an interview I conducted with him Tuesday for Fox Sports. I asked him, after winning two World Series and an MVP award, what keeps him going at this stage of his career. What motivates him. What fuels him.

“My family, obviously,” said Betts, who is married with two children. “But then just a drive within myself just to be great. I want to be great. When I’m done, I want you to remember not necessarily just the baseball player, but Mookie. I want to be a legend in the game.

“How I create that, I have no idea. I’m just kind of going about it and bringing smiles to people’s faces when I can, trying to sign some autographs when I can, be the best player I can be when I’m playing, be the best teammate I can be.

“Whatever comes my way, I’m just going to try and be the best at it no matter what. If it’s sitting on the bench, I want to be the best cheerleader. Whatever it is. I think if I can do that, I feel like that will create some type of legacy that I can leave. You won’t remember all the on-field stuff, but I want people to remember who Mookie was off the field for sure.”

Major leaguers rarely speak this way. Until recently, the sport’s culture discouraged individualism of any kind. Freedom of expression is becoming more accepted, as evidenced by the league’s “Let the Kids Play” promotional campaign in 2019. But even now, few players openly discuss individual goals, preferring to focus only on the team.

Betts, to be sure, is intent on his Los Angeles Dodgers winning the World Series, something they did in the shortened 2020 season, but haven’t accomplished in a full season since 1988. Coming off the team’s $1 billion offseason, which included the additions of Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, he spoke of a “sense of urgency” this spring.

“We’ve been to the playoffs so many times and haven’t come through,” Betts said, referring to the team’s 11 straight playoff appearances. “We’ve gotten one, but one for nine or ten is not very good in our sport, really in general.”


Betts fields ground balls at Camelback Ranch earlier this month. (Rick Scuteri / USA Today)

To become a “legend in the game,” at least from the perspective of Dodgers fans, Betts knows he must perform better in October. He was brilliant in the 2020 postseason, but went a combined 2-for-25 as the Dodgers were knocked out in the past two Division Series, first by the San Diego Padres, then by the Arizona Diamondbacks, both times after winning 100 or more regular-season games.

Yet, when Betts mentioned his goal of becoming a legend, he was not necessarily talking about on-field performance. I asked him when he realized it was possible for him to achieve such status, and that it was something he even wanted. His answer was telling.

“My friends really stay on me,” Betts said. “They tell me to embrace who you are. Embrace when you walk into somewhere and someone wants to come take a picture or someone gets nervous. I used to kind of shy away from it. Now when I see somebody that’s kind of shy, I go and talk to them. I go and humanize myself.

“I’m a normal person just like everyone else, but there are some things that I do a little differently, and there are some lives that I affect a little differently, and I think I should embrace that. I’m trying. I’m doing my best. It’s weird for me, and it’s weird even saying something like that. But it really stems from my friends. They’ve been with me since I was in the fifth grade, so they’ve seen where I was then. We had no idea any of this was going to happen.”

“This” includes his remarkable 2018 season with the Boston Red Sox, when he won the American League batting title with a .346 batting average, helped the Red Sox win the World Series and was voted AL MVP. It also includes seven All-Star appearances and six Gold Gloves, not to mention a $365 million contract, the third largest guarantee in major-league history.

Betts’ popularity, however, stems not only from his immense all-around skills, but also from fans relating to a player who is listed at only 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Betts is far from a behemoth. He also displays, at times, an endearing, almost childlike joy for the game.

The Dodgers plan to use Betts mostly at second base this season — he joked to reporters recently that he left his right-field glove and cleats in Los Angeles. Last season, he moved deftly between right, second and shortstop, demonstrating rare versatility, particularly for a superstar.

“It just felt like I was able to be a kid again,” said Betts, a native of Nashville, Tenn. “Growing up, I never played one position. I was almost like the utility guy. I had four uniforms, and whoever called and needed a right fielder or a shortstop or a second baseman or a third baseman or a first baseman, that’s kind of where we went. It’s almost weird playing just one position, especially in the outfield.”

Wait, Betts played for four different youth teams at once?

“Wherever they needed,” he continued, smiling. “Sometimes I would go just pitch, and sometimes I would go play left. It didn’t matter. My dad, I appreciate that from him because I think that really taught me how to be a baseball player instead of just playing one position the whole time.”

For Betts, it was the start of something big, a major-league career that is about to enter its 11th season. The Hall of Fame seems well within his reach, and still he wants more. To win another World Series. To be admired on and off the field. To become — yes, he said it — a legend in the game.

(Top photo of Mookie Betts: Masterpress / Getty Images)

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