The question catches Mookie Betts looking as though it were a backdoor slider.
The Boston Red Sox’s young center fielder is being asked to explain his love of bowling. After all, it’s a sunny Tuesday afternoon in late December, and he’s in the basement of the home of a 17-year-old bowling phenom named Kamron Doyle, rolling on the two lanes Doyle’s parents had installed when they built their 7,700-square-foot house in the tony Nashville suburb of Brentwood.
“I have no idea what it is about bowling,” says Betts, 23, who has brought six of his own 15-pound bowling balls just for this short practice session. “It’s just a love I have for it. I can’t even explain why. Bowling is just fun for me.”
But Betts takes his bowling seriously. His mother, Diana Benedict, is a longtime bowler, and she started him in the sport when he was 4.
She will admit basketball was his true love. Betts also dabbled in football through middle school (even playing with future Navy QB Keenan Reynolds), and always enjoyed bowling – “I grew up in bowling alleys,” he says – but was a terrific point guard, averaging 14 points, nine assists and three steals as a senior at John Overton High School in Nashville.
“He was the best player I ever coached,” says James McKee, his basketball coach at Overton. “He was that rare kid at that age who had the intellect and the ability to play at a high level. He understood that for us to be our best, he had to facilitate for others.”
His former coach says he and Betts sometimes golf together in the offseason. Wait, the guy can golf, too? “He won’t have played in however long and he’ll pick up a driver, hit it 280 and beat you,” McKee laughs.
As good as Betts was at basketball, he was even better on the diamond. He batted .549 as a junior, and he followed that up by hitting .500 with 29 steals as a senior.
Mike Morrison is entering his 20th season as the Overton baseball coach. And yes, hands down, Betts is the best player he ever coached, too. And it wasn’t just the skill. Sure, his bat speed would make Dale Jr. jealous and he could run like a gazelle. But the demeanor that accompanied the athleticism is what really set him apart.
“He had ice running through his veins,” Morrison says. “Nothing rattled him. Ever.”
The Boston Red Sox selected him in the fifth round of the 2011 amateur draft, and once Betts and the team reached a deal, baseball became his sole focus. It hasn’t taken long to prove that choice correct. Betts zoomed through the Red Sox’s farm system, debuting in the majors on June 9, 2014, at the tender of age 21, and appeared in 52 games that year before becoming the everyday center fielder in 2015.
Betts proved worthy of his meteoric rise in his first full season. The kid whose initials are “MLB” (Markus Lynn Betts, if you’re scoring at home) hit .291 with 18 home runs, 42 doubles, eight triples, 77 RBIs and 21 stolen bases, mostly batting out of the leadoff spot. But it was Betts’ 68 extra-base hits that stood out for Boston fans. The only players in team history to record more in a season before they turned 23 are Ted Williams (80) and Bobby Doerr (69). They both did it in 1940, and they both now reside in Cooperstown.
How did he get here so fast?
“I think just hard work, taking a lot of swings, preparing myself,” Betts says. “The Red Sox’s minor leagues also have great coaches. I got put in a situation where there were the right coaches around me. I credit them and all of the hard work I put in for my success.
“You get lucky and do it once,” he adds. “My plan is to be consistent. I don’t necessarily want to have better numbers than I did last year. I just want to be consistent. That’s all. If I can do that same thing or somewhere close to it every year, I’ll have a pretty decent career and be able to play for a long time.”
That’s the thing about Betts. He is as even-keeled as it gets. He’s the bubble in a level. Remember how Morrison said nothing gets to Betts? The baseball coach also said he never saw anyone with more friends. According to Morrison, no matter where the Bobcats played, somebody always knew his star. And people who didn’t wanted to.
“I’ll never forget this. We were down in Gulf Shores, Alabama, during Mookie’s junior year,” Morrison says. “Hueytown, Alabama, was playing in the game behind us. I knew Hueytown had Jameis Winston. Jameis comes into our dugout and goes, ‘I just want to meet this Markus Betts everybody is talking about.’
“Mookie got along with everybody,” he continues. “He was never a showboat. Everybody liked him.”
“Mookie Baseball” may be the antithesis of “Johnny Football,” but he’s considering stepping out a bit more during the 2016 season…if bowling can be considered stepping out. He says fellow Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is a serious bowler who he is sure will join him for an excursion or two. He also hopes David Price, the Red Sox’s big offseason free-agent signee – who is from nearby Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and played at Vanderbilt – will tag along. Price came to a Saturday morning celebrity tournament in Nashville put on by Mookie’s mom in December and rolled a 210 in his first game, to Betts’ pleasant surprise.
“He could be really good with some time,” Betts says. “I hope he’ll bowl with us, but pitchers usually play golf on their off days.”
Betts stepped up his bowling this offseason, participating in the PBA Tour World Series of Bowling in Reno, Nevada, at the invitation of the PBA. He acquitted himself well despite admitting a few butterflies. This wasn’t a bowler taking batting practice in Fenway, this was a baseball player on the same lanes as guys such as Norm Duke and Walter Ray Williams Jr., consistent PBA stars. But Betts managed a 224 in his first game as well as a couple of scores in the 240s, earning the admiration of the real pros.
“He loves to bowl. He’s very competitive just like in baseball,” says Doyle, the youngest bowler ever to cash in at a PBA event. “He likes to get better and likes the challenge. He’s only been back bowling for a couple of months now…If he keeps at it there’s no telling what he can do.”
Betts has the run of the Doyle home, according to Cathy Doyle, Kamron’s mother. “He comes and goes whenever,” she says. “He knows how to get in. He has been here when we’ve been on vacation.”
Betts says he likes bowling because it requires repetition and good mechanics – not unlike the skills required to become a good hitter.
“You focus for each pitch; [in bowling] you focus for 3-4 seconds as you approach and release the ball. Most people don’t know about oil patterns and how to play them and transition with them,” he says. “You have to have sound mechanics to repeat the same delivery each time. That’s the hard part. Since I don’t bowl all the time I’m not consistent with my mechanics.”
If any Red Sox fans are fretting over Betts’ bowling dalliance, they needn’t worry. He has been in the cage plenty this offseason, too, keeping his sweet-swinging bat in a groove. The Red Sox finished last in the AL East in 2015, and that didn’t sit well with anyone in Boston, least of all the guys in the locker room.
“Every year you go in and you obviously want to win a World Series, at least make the playoffs,” Betts says. “That’s all I can think about right now.”
One thing Betts has learned quickly is that the majors are a grind. Players need to find routines that work to get their bodies and minds right. Guys who don’t adjust don’t last.
“Everybody is good in every professional sport. They have basically the same athleticism,” Betts says. “The guys who are consistent all the time – like your David Prices and David Ortizes and Dustin Pedrioias – that’s the end goal. The only way to do that is to go through the grind and learn what it takes to be consistent and not have really high highs and really low lows. Just try to keep it all around the same middle.”
Thankfully for the Red Sox, Betts’ “middle” is a career year for a lot of major leaguers. He played out of position last year, moved to center field after playing as a middle infielder in high school and in his brief time in the minors. He exceeded expectations, making the sublime seem routine, but says the switch was overwhelming at first, and believes he still has a lot more to learn about playing the outfield. But ultimately, he’s a team guy.
“I just want to be in the lineup,” he says, adding that he plans to arrive at the Red Sox’s Spring Training home in Fort Myers, Florida about two weeks before official full-team workouts begin on February 24. “All of the positions are important. You run out there with eight guys you’ll miss that ninth guy and wish you had him. It doesn’t really matter where I play.”
What will he play next? On New Year’s Day, Betts tweeted, “All I want to do is go moose hunting. Anybody know somebody that can help me out?” Yes, the tweet was sincere; he’s ready to add hunting to his resume.
“I don’t know, I just got this urge,” he says. “I’m going to go deer hunting or whatnot, but might as well do a deer and a moose. I’ve never been hunting before, but I might as well start with a big dog.”
Never been hunting – let’s start with a moose? Then again, who’d bet against this guy? Surely no one in the Red Sox organization. Maybe after rolling a few frames and getting a set of antlers on the wall, he can hunt some even bigger game. Pennant, anyone?