September 22nd, 2017 was a pretty memorable night for Los Angeles Dodgers fans. That Friday at home versus the San Francisco Giants, the Dodgers clinched the National League West division with a 4-2 win. Also that night the team's star player, a 22-year-old rookie named Cody Bellinger came to the plate in the third inning with the game tied 1-1, and hit fly ball to centerfield.
Bellinger's three-run swat wasn't just another home run – at least not to statisticians and baseball historians. His 39th home run of 2017 also broke the National League's longstanding rookie record, retiring an existing mark shared by Wally Berger, who first set it at 38 in 1930, and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who tied it in 1956.
But Bellinger, it seems, isn't too focused on his collecting accolades. Instead, it was just another necessary contribution to the Dodgers' team effort, something that everyone in the organization has been building all season.
"I am pretty laid back, I think, and I don't so much want the spotlight on me," Bellinger tells Rolling Stone. "I just like to go to the field every day, do my routine, talk baseball, and have as much fun with it as you can."
With their postseason set to begin Friday in L.A versus the Arizona Diamondbacks, so far it looks like the Dodgers have had some fun in 2017. Concluding the season with a 6-3 win against the Colorado Rockies last Sunday, the Dodgers logged a 104-58 record, the best in baseball and the club's best since 1953. They've also solidified home field advantage for the rest of the playoffs. All year Bellinger played a big part.
Bellinger took his first Major League debut April 25th at left field, the position where he would remain for his first seven starts and most of the season's first half. By the time the Dodgers would sweep 2016's champion Chicago Cubs, in three games on May 28th, Bellinger would not only start to shift positions, eventually going to full-time first base, he would also shape headlines.
Early June saw the left-hander hitting in almost every game and slugging in the upper .500s. By mid-June, he was hitting home runs regularly, and hit two each in back-to-back outings against Cincinnati and then Cleveland, June 11 and 13, respectively. Ten days later it was 10 home runs in 10 games for Bellinger, and he was noted as the fastest ever to 21 home runs as a first-year player. Things kept getting better both for the Dodgers and Bellinger. It's no wonder he is the shoo-in for the National League Rookie of the Year award, and maybe even for the league's MVP award.
Spotlight or not, however, the Dodgers rookie star doesn't take anything for granted, and he is always sharpening his saw. He says that consistent efforts in workouts and batting practice are a cornerstone of good baseball. So is paying close attention to reading the moves pitchers make.
"I think the biggest part for me," Bellinger says about his constant efforts to improve, "is watching video. All the in-depth scouting reports we have on the opposing pitchers – just kind of learning how to study that, it's huge."
Despite his youth, Bellinger adds too that keeping his body tip-top is also something he takes very seriously.
"Obviously I can eat whatever I want, but being a part of the Dodgers organization is great. Our chef cooks all organic food, and that helps."
Bellinger also says he's also partnered with MET-Rx as a part of his overall nutrition regimen, something he says has rounded out the results of his diet and exercise. "One challenge I've had before this year was putting and keeping weight on," Bellinger says.
He does confess, however, to having cravings. "Sometimes you end up at a Starbucks before the game when you're on the road," Bellinger says, with a laugh, before admitting what his biggest food vice is. "I like Frappucinos. For their sugar."
But a transition from the minors, where Bellinger started in 2013 at age 17, to the big leagues requires more than a cool head and a sugar rush. He says that even the strongest players still have to work at being good hitters.
"Hitting is tough. I've made more adjustments at the plate this year than I ever have. Small adjustments, but they end up being big adjustments when you're succeeding or failing," Bellinger says.
Whether Bellinger is just a super-hard worker, or maybe even a natural, it looks as though his efforts and his 548 plate appearances have paid off. At the conclusion of the 2017 season, Bellinger led the Dodgers in home runs, runs, runs batted in (RBIs), as well as slugging among position players. Bellinger was also selected for the 2017 All-Star Game in Miami, along with fellow Dodgers infielders Corey Seager and Justin Turner, as well as starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Alex Wood, and closer Kenley Jansen.
From the very beginning, the 2017 season has been an exciting, perhaps legendary one. A month in and six days after Bellinger's first at-bat, the Dodgers started May in third place behind Colorado and Arizona. But after a two-month long tussle with both division rivals, Los Angeles was atop the standings by three and a half games on July 1st. Mid-summer would be even better for the Dodgers. They would win all but three of their 23 July games, and by August 20th the Dodgers were ahead by a whopping 20 games.
Moreover, the Dodgers just looked unstoppable. Bellinger and Turner were hitting almost everything that came across the plate. On the pitching mound, they acquired starter Yu Darvish to join Wood, Rich Hill, and soon Kershaw was back from a stint on the disabled list. Jansen had logged 33 saves and had a ridiculously low 1.33 ERA. Sports Illustrated put the team on their cover, suggesting the 2017 Dodgers were the best team ever.
Then things got bumpy.
First the Dodgers lost five in a row at the end of August; conceding two games at home to NL Central meddlers, the Milwaukee Brewers, then three losses in a row at Arizona. L.A. bounced back for one game after that, but then lost three more to the underachieving Padres, before crashing at home and losing 13-0, again to Arizona on September 4th. After that double-digit stunner, the Dodgers would lose two more to the Diamondbacks, followed by four more at Colorado, and then one more, losing 8-6 to the Giants, the worst team in baseball. In all, during a late August to early September stretch, the Dodgers failed to win an unthinkable 16 of 17 games.
It's safe to say, too, that the Dodgers' late summer swoon freaked people out a little. Dodgers fans, even beat writers, started to fret about their team's "freefall," as media labeled the ongoing streak "worrisome" and "nightmarish." One Dodgers blog fitted its "Collapse" meme with the team's intertwined "LA" logo. And the Washington Post pointed out that the last time the Dodgers lost 11 in a row, they were based in Brooklyn.
But over the two-week period hardly anyone stopped to remember, on balance, how good the Dodgers were. Even during their 11-game losing streak the Dodgers were still 40-plus games over .500. And when they finally ended their losing streak on September 11 the Dodgers still boasted the best record in baseball, at 92-52. Nevermind that they were also the only team at that point in the season to have won over 90 games.
When asked about the slump, Bellinger conveys that is that losing never seems like a necessary or acceptable part of the game. But he concedes his team it might have overcome the perfect psychological challenge at just the right time.
"It was tough. I'm kind of glad it happened though," Bellinger says. "I think if we rolled through September just like we did through the rest of the season and [then] into the playoffs, if we had a slow start, we might not have known how to bounce back." However hard it was then, it's all eyes forward now.
"The regular season is over – that's in the past. We're just focused on the postseason. And now I'm sure we've got the right guys in the clubhouse to get through."
Perhaps part of what makes Bellinger successful is an ideal combination of things found in the best players of every sport, in every era. Besides the even-keeled aspect of his self-identified "laid back" personality, it's pretty clear that there's a coachability and a willingness to listen, learn, and take direction from experienced others. This may be a humble rarity among ambitious first-year athletes trying to make their mark in sports. But Bellinger says it's easy to stay focused and keep a level head when working under a leader like Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.
"I think for all of us, [Roberts] keeps the mood light in the clubhouse, which is important everyday," Bellinger says. He also asserts that having a former player at the helm, who has played so many roles on the baseball field, helps. "He's a player-manager. And when you get to understand his understanding of the game, how he operates, getting the best out of our guys in the clubhouse, you have to respect that."
Starting with such a bang, Cody Bellinger is, just like his counterpart in the American League, rookie Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, a revolution. Yet he's as much an anomaly in baseball as was his father, albeit a very different one. Despite their apparently hereditary, ever-present smile and a shared tall and lanky frame —Cody is 6-foot-4, and his dad is 6-foot-3 – the experiences of the two couldn't be more different.
Cody's father, Clay Bellinger was first drafted in 1989 by the San Francisco Giants, also playing both infield and outfield, including first base. But unlike his son, Clay spent a good decade in the minors. Clay didn't hit the majors until age 30, when he was brought up by the New York Yankees for his Major League Baseball debut at the Yankees' 1999 home opener. The elder Bellinger played part in three Yankees teams that went to the World Series, from 1999 to 2001, winning two, before a short stint with the Anaheim Angels, who would win the Series in 2002.
Cody, who was just swinging at t-balls during his dad's MLB career, says growing up in a baseball household shaped his mindset and approach to the game. Even better is the fact that his father, Clay, is "a good coach" even from outside the locker room.
"He knows my swing pretty well, so if he's watching – he usually watches every game – if he notices something he will tell me or tell our hitting coach, and we'll go in the next day and watch video and try and figure things out."
Bellinger says that he and his dad talk a ton about baseball, but mostly about hitting and the quality of his swing. Even when you are killing it at the plate, Bellinger says "the more eyes you have helping you out, the better."
"I think everyone's favorite part of the game is hitting – especially when you're having success – considering it's so hard to do," Bellinger says. "I don't think there's a better feeling in the world."