Nightengale's Notebook: Quietly one of MLB's best, Mookie Betts says he's 'just an average guy'

·22 min read

PHOENIX — He’s the greatest show on Earth, but we stopped paying attention.

He may be the finest all-around player in the game, but we rarely talk about him.

No one in baseball is having a more spectacular May, but we don’t seem to care.

We’re talking about Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts.

“I think Mookie impacts the game more than any player in baseball,’’ Dodgers teammate David Price says. “He can do everything. If you were going to create a baseball player, you’re going to create Mookie Betts.

“The only knock on him is that he’s not 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5.

“If Mookie was 6-4, everybody would say he’s the best player in baseball.’’

Well, no one is going to mistake the 5-foot-9 Betts for Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, he’s not a two-way player like Shohei Ohtani, but with all of the attention focused on baseball’s next-big-thing, we’re forgetting about the guy who’s absolutely dominating the game.

Yes, once again.

Betts is hitting .353 with 11 homers and 26 RBI alone in the month of May, to go along with his .417 on-base percentage and .765 slugging percentage. It’s the most home runs by a Dodger in May since Roy Campanella hit 12 in 1953, and his 20 extra-base hits are tied for second behind only Jackie Robinson in 1949.

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He leads the National League with 14 homers, 49 runs and 105 total bases through Saturday, and his average of 1.1 runs a game is the highest by a Dodger in the live ball era.

Oh, and the five-time Gold Glove winner may be the best defensive right fielder in the game, too.

“We’re in the age of trying to promote the newest and greatest new thing," Dodgers outfielder Kevin Pillar says, “we seem to forget about someone that is still great and the prime of his career. What he’s doing right now is almost expected, even more challenging because the entire world almost expects it.

“To meet that expectation year and year out, I can’t even imagine what that’s like.’’

Mookie Betts reacts after hitting a home run against the Nationals in Washington.
Mookie Betts reacts after hitting a home run against the Nationals in Washington.

Betts, who should be elected to his sixth All-Star Game this season, and already has five Top 10 MVP finishes – including three times as the MVP or runner-up – is putting on a show for the ages. He could join Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as the only players in baseball history to win an MVP award in each league.

“He plays the best right field I’ve ever seen,’’ Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner says. “Not just the catches he makes, but the balls he cuts off, the way he holds guys to singles, the angles and how quickly he gets rid of the ball. He’s just such a complete player, the best in the game.

“We all want to be like Mookie. There’s nothing he can’t do.’’

Well, except draw attention to himself.

He just plays the game, day in and day out, more consistently than anyone else in a uniform.

“People need to be talking about him,’’ Price said.

Well, the only one on the powerful Dodgers who don’t seem to mind the publicity snub is Betts himself. He does his talking on the field, loud and clear.

If you want to go ahead and promote prized prospects who may be out of the game in a few years, or who dazzle one month and fade out of the picture the next, go ahead. Betts will just keep on, keeping on, almost daring anyone to notice.

“That’s just kind of what society is, looking for something new and fresh,’’ Betts, 29, told USA TODAY Sports, “especially in your [media] world. Everyone’s always trying to be the first to see the new player come up, and report on the new players come up.

“There’s a lot of really good players who have been doing it for 10, 12 years, but it’s not new and fresh. It’s not going to really make headlines like the young guys coming up.’’

Now, if he was a foot taller, or 100 pounds heavier, it might be a different story.

“I don’t think there’s anything fun to talk about a 5-9, 170-pound guy out there hitting,’’ Betts says. “There’s nothing flashy about anything I do, so it's probably hard to report on and make headlines. You want to see this big, huge guy. It’s more fun reporting on the Aaron Judges and Shohei Ohtanis of the world than myself.

“I’m just an average guy. It is what it is.’’

There’s nothing that’s average about Betts on the baseball field. You don’t pay a guy $365 million for being average. You’re not leading two different teams – the Red Sox in 2018 and Dodgers in 2020 – to World Series titles in three years if you’re average.

“He may not look all of that physical compared to some other players,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “but when he’s on the field, all eyes are on Mookie. There’s not a better right field defender in the game, or guys that can impact the game in so many ways. He’s playing as good as anybody on the planet.’’

And all of the gratification Betts needs are the smiles all around him.

“What people don’t know about him is that he’s a pleaser,’’ Roberts said. “He wants to make sure that his teammates, the fans, the coaches, appreciate what he’s doing. I think that’s what motives makes him, and that’s very humble.

“You do something, you know you’re talented, but it means so much to him for people to appreciate what he’s doing, and that’s because he cares about people.’’

You’re really not going to appreciate Betts’ greatness unless you’re with him every day, watching him spend hours in the batting cage, as second baseman Gavin Lux says, constantly working on his defense, as left fielder Chris Taylor says, or just his sheer tenacity to help his team win any possible way, third baseman Justin Turner says.

“I got to play against him for a long time,’’ new Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman said, “but now watching him play every single day, how he plays right field, what he does on the base paths, the little things you don’t get to see, is pretty special. When you watch him work so hard, and how much he cares, there’s a reason he’s this good.’’

Maybe there will come a time he gets noticed more by the corporate world, too. Eating sandwiches at Subway? Getting insurance policies with State Farm?

“Who knows, maybe one day,’’ Betts says, laughing. “But I’m not playing for the recognition. I’m just having fun, each and every day. No matter how good, or bad I do, I’m going to enjoy it.’’

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to do the same.

From suicide survivor to mental health advocate

Drew Robinson could feel those dark, ghastly thoughts seeping into his mind, and it absolutely terrified him.

“Please God, not again."

It was two years earlier that Robinson, a former major-league player, tried to kill himself. He took a gun to his head, shot himself, but miraculously lived, losing his right eye.

He believed it was God who kept him alive, acting as an advocate for mental health awareness, while returning to baseball, this time as a minor-league player in the San Francisco Giants organization.

But here he was, once again feeling waves of suicidal thoughts, unable to escape the demons.

“It was very confusing time for me when I was thinking about retiring from baseball,’’ Robinson told USA TODAY Sports. “Baseball is everything I always wanted. I started having those episodes again.

“I realized I still needed help.’’

Robinson, who was on daily medications with a therapist, with weekly psychologist appointments, retired from baseball last July playing for Triple-A Sacramento, but those waves of depression refused to go away.

“I was having episodes before I retired, but this last winter I was getting full-blown relapses of depression,’’ he said. “I was getting suicidal thoughts again. I knew there was more work to be done.’’

Drew Robinson before game against the Las Vegas Aviators at Sutter Health Park on May 27, 2021.
Drew Robinson before game against the Las Vegas Aviators at Sutter Health Park on May 27, 2021.

He turned to NeuroStar, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) therapy, which has worked wonders for him.

“Even though I was having suicidal thoughts,’’ Robinson says, “the fact I was able to get through it, shows it’s working.’’

Robinson, 30, who’s a mental health advocate for the Giants, is available to anyone battling depression, and would love to make a difference for every athlete battling the same demons.

“The Giants allow me to use my platform and impact these players,’’ Robinson says. “It really has been very fulfilling, dedicating my life to therapy work. I go around and preach some of the things I was avoiding when I was younger.’’

These are the final days of Mental Health Awareness Month, but for many ballplayers, every day of this young season is a grueling challenge.

Veterans mired in slumps are left with doubts if whether they’ll ever be able to turn it around. Rookies and young players are constantly battling fear they could be demoted to the minors any day – and perhaps never make it back.

GMs and managers with struggling teams are left with questions of their job security, and whether another losing streak will leave them unemployed.

“It’s living with this constant fear of failing,’’ Robinson says.

“It used to be something that people just didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t encouraged, and guys were so afraid to let anyone know, believing it was a weakness. A lot of people were afraid of taking medication or seeing therapists. There was a stigma over these things. Now, you’re seeing guys open up, and willing to get help.

"It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength."

The need for help, Robinson says, is greater than ever with the negativity of social media, knowing that one bad performance or a week’s worth of struggles will bring out the sheer vile of keyboard warriors.

“It affects these guys so much,’’ Robinson says. “It’s just inevitable that you’re going to see some things that trigger you negatively. It can have a lingering effect. When you have a good game, you think how good you are, and it’s very validating. Then, it becomes addicting.

“The most important part is the initial awareness and understanding, working on the emotional, physical and spiritual side of things. What you think about yourself, what you say about yourself is more important than what others say about yourself.

“My favorite quote is that 'People would rather hear from you, instead of hearing about you.'"

Heartbroken Ken Griffey Jr. steps to the plate

The letter from Ellen Ross, the grandmother of 13-year-old Jordan Robinson, reached the MLB offices several weeks ago.

Ross was distraught, saying that her grandson was subjected to racial taunts from kids and parents in Myrtle Beach, SC., and now wanted to quit baseball.

MLB officials decided to grant a free trip to the Hank Aaron Invitational to Robinson, an A-student at Ten Oaks Middle School, and asked if Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. would be willing to make a phone call to Robinson.

Griffey declined.

He had a better idea.

Griffey said he would fly to South Carolina, stop into Robinson’s school, and personally deliver the news.

“He thought he was in trouble when they called him into the principal’s office,’’ Griffey told USA TODAY Sports. “His grandmother was there. The principal. As a 13-year-old, you’re thinking, 'What did I do?'"

Robinson sat down, Griffey entered the room, and Robinson was speechless. Griffey informed him of the Hank Aaron Invitational, and for the next 45 minutes they talked, with Robinson never even asking for a picture, an autograph, or anything more than a handshake.

They talked about life, and the cruelty that Robinson endured being the only Black player on his team, not only getting taunts from opposing players, but even the parents.

“They were calling him names, making monkey sounds, all of that,’’ said Griffey, a special advisor in the Commissioner’s Office and a spokesman for the Youth Development Foundation.

“It’s upsetting to see kids hurt. It doesn’t matter what color you are, to see kids not be able to be a kid, and enjoy some of the freedoms that come with being a kid, that’s heartbreaking.

“No kid should have to deal with that. It’s sad. We just lost 31 innocent lives with the two shootings, and here’s a kid who just turned 13 who wants to be with his friends and just be a kid. Instead, you have adults taking advantage of a situation.

“We all have to work together to make sure our youth is part of this great games of baseball.’’

Forgotten heroes

They have fought for their country. Some of have returned without limbs, physical disabilities and health problems.

They are our nation's military veterans.

UMPS CARE created a campaign to support Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy.

It may be too late for many veterans to have a major-league umpiring career, but with the sharp decrease in umpires throughout the minor leagues, collegiate and high school ranks, there are plenty of openings. Umps Care is making sure veterans have every opportunity.

“I was at a point where I was kind of lost what I wanted to do post-military, I was kind of treading water,’’ said retired Master Sergeant Ray Figueroa, who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, and served in Kuwait. “I went almost eight years going from one job to another not finding anything that really satisfied me on a personal level. I just kind of felt lost without the military, not so much the structure, but the feel of being around veterans. I missed the people.’’

Figueroa, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was informed of the Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy last year from a friend. He went to Charlotte, N.C, last summer to learn about umpiring, spent five weeks in January at the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Florida, and voila!

Figueroa, who has hearing loss from the military, has already umpired 55 high school and collegiate games this year in Michigan, and has found a new calling after his military career.

“It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in the last 10-plus years,’’ Figueroa said. “I’m surprised how many veterans are in the same boat I’m in. It almost feels like I’m in the military again, with that kind of brotherhood when I put on that uniform.’’

NFL referee Jeff Seemen, who joined retired MLB umpire Gary Darling and 14 members of the Wounded Warriors at an Umps Care golf event to raise awareness this past week in Phoenix, said he always remembered the encouragement offered by one of his former mentors, Mike Pereira.

“If they can read a tank manual or operate a tank, they can sure read a rule book,’’ Seemen said. “Think about it, these are driven guys who are competitive and fun to be around. The sacrifices they’ve made, the preparation, shows you that they are wired to succeed.

“When you think about it, their career path now has less obstacles because there are fewer guys competing for those jobs.’’

There has been about a 25% decline in umpires, officials and referees throughout the country. The industry took a hit because of COVID, but also because of the mistreatment and abuse they endure by parents at the youth level.

“We have such a shortage of umpires and officials in all of sports,’’ said retired umpire Gary Darling. “A lot of people just don’t want to do it. They get turned off by the verbal and physical abuse, people hitting umpires, and the craziness of parents and coaches at the lower levels.’’

Well, who can be more trained than veterans to endure the hostility, even if it means that Figueroa takes out his hearing aids during games to reduce the senseless abuse?

“My hearing is not that great, so that’s a bonus for me,’’ Figueroa said. “It’s too late for me, but it would be incredible to see someone from the Wounded Warriors program make it to the big leagues.

“There are a lot of guys that have been through way more than me, guys missing limbs, amputees, and guy needing service dogs. Some guys just can’t bend over at the plate as much as other guys with physical problems.

“This is such a great organization. I wish I had started a lot earlier in my career, but no matter what, I know this is the organization I want to be with for life.’’

Around the basepaths...

– The Seattle Mariners ownership group, which had a recent conference call, is frustrated and upset over the team’s play this season.

This is a team that was supposed to finally contend, ending their 21-year playoff drought – the longest in North American team sports – and t – and entered Saturday with a 19-27 record, and already are 10 games out of first place in the AL West.

“You are,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said, “what your record says you are.”

The Mariners provided contract extensions to GM Jerry Dipoto and Servais last September through 2024, but if the team shows no improvement the rest of the season after winning 90 games last year, it’s widely expected in the industry that someone will pay the price.

“We’re going through some painful times right now,” Servais told Seattle reporters. “We have to make some adjustments here, and it needs to happen quick.”

One of the moves made was signing veteran outfielder Justin Upton. The Mariners have the second-youngest group of position players in baseball, and badly are in need of veteran leadership after Kyle Seager’s retirement.

– Phillies manager Joe Girardi’s job appears safe for the rest of the season, but if they fail to make the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year, he could be gone. The Phillies have not exercised the 2023 option in his contract.

“My support of a manager is that they’re managing, right?” Phillies GM Dave Dombrowski said. “If I didn’t support them, they wouldn’t be managing.”

– The arbitration hearing on Trevor Bauer’s two-year suspension violating MLB’s domestic violence policy began on May 23, and is expected to last through most of June before arbitrator Martin Scheinman renders a decision to uphold the suspension or reduce it.

Even if the suspension is reduced, the Dodgers are expected to release him once the suspension ends. Bauer was scheduled to earn $32 million this year, but was only paid about $3.86 million before his suspension began.

– Just in case you wondered when the Dodgers’ powerful reign would end, well, there’s no end in sight.

Scouts who have examined every level of their farm system insists it’s still among the most powerful in the game, saying their Class A roster alone consists of five starters who could reach the major leagues.

– The tanking Oakland Athletics are getting some surprising good pitching performances, particularly from their bullpen, but don’t expect it to last. The A’s will trade a couple of pitchers away at the deadline, and those that stay will be on inning limits, shortening their seasons.

– Dodgers Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw is scheduled to throw off a mound for the first time since going on in the injured list two weeks ago with a back injury, and remains hopeful of rejoining the team before the end of June.

– David Ortiz, who will be inducted in July into the Hall of Fame, had a message for Red Sox ownership this week:

Keep shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

Bogaerts is expected to opt out of his contract after the season and test free agency if they can’t reach an extension.

“It would be stupid to let a guy like that go, to be honest with you,” Ortiz told reporters at his celebrity golf tournament. “I’m telling you because I played with Bogey for a long time and Bogaerts is the perfect fit, perfect player for any organization. He will represent this organization on and off the field. So that conversation needs to take place.’’

– Houston Astros Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell blasted the movie, “Moneyball,’’ on the air this past week, saying that the movie is more fiction than reality.

"I think even the concept [is a farce],” Bagwell said during the Astros’ broadcast. “They had the three best pitchers in baseball. You could’ve stick anybody out there. My son’s little league team could have been out there with those three pitchers. And they get all this hype.”

Yes, the movie ignored the prowess of their three pitching studs: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.

“I like the concept of getting on base, don’t get me wrong,’’ he said. “But to make a movie out of it? To get all this credit that they’re so smart?

“The Braves won for 15 years with [Greg] Maddux, [John] Smoltz and [Tom] Glavine,” Bagwell said. “They had to score three runs a game. And won 15 years in a row. Why aren’t they called the 'Moneyball' team? …

“Give me Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine and I can run some guys out there who can take some walks.”

– Scouts are raving about Angels starter Noah Syndergaard, who has transformed from a sheer thrower to a pitcher, since recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Syndergaard no longer throws 100 mph, averaging about 94 on his fastballs this year, but he has shown pin-point control with a full arsenal of pitches.

In his last start against Texas, giving up just four hits in eight innings, he threw 73 of his 93 pitches for strikes (78.5%) without a single three-ball count.

– Players like Dodgers outfielder Kevin Pillar who experienced the pitch clock and automated strikezone in the minors this season have raved about the effectiveness of the strikezone, but say they feel rushed in the batter’s box with the pitch clock.

The automated strike zone severely limits the complaints on both sides, and also makes it totally unnecessary for catchers to frame pitches in an attempt to fool the home-plate umpire.

– GMs, managers and pitching coaches rejoiced when MLB pushed back the deadline for pitching staffs to be cut from 14 to 13 pitchers by June 20, but beginning next year, no team will be permitted more than 13 pitchers the entire season.

“I don’t think anything bad can come out of it,’’ Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior said about the delay. “It’s been an unusual three years.’’

– Remember when the Pirates dangled All-Star center fielder Bryan Reynolds all winter and spring in trade talks, and ultimately decided to hang onto him until at least the trade deadline.

Well, he’s hitting just .217 with just 10 RBI and a .694 OPS. A year ago, he hit .302 with 90 RBI and a .912 OPS.

Bryan Reynolds reacts after striking out against the Angels.
Bryan Reynolds reacts after striking out against the Angels.

– The hidden secret to the Angels’ success this year?

They lead the major leagues in defensive efficiency after ranking next-to-last a year ago.

Take a bow, shortstop Andrew Velazquez, who leads all shortstops with seven defensive runs saved.

“Velazquez has made some plays at short that I've never really seen before,’’ first baseman Jared Walsh told the Orange County Register.

– Dodgers manager Dave Roberts insists that Freddie Freeman’s at-bats “are some of the best I’ve ever seen. He’s relentless.’’

– The Minnesota Twins continue to win, without center fielder Byron Buxton. He entered Saturday in a 3-for-45 skid, without a hit since May 15, with his batting average sinking to .202.

– Don’t blame D-backs veteran starter Madison Bumgarner for screaming every time he sees the Dodgers.

He hasn’t beaten the Dodgers since 2017, going 0-9 with a 4.15 ERA in 12 starts.

– Colorado Rockies right-hander German Marquez entered the year as one of the better starters in baseball and a valuable trade chip if the Rockies decided to shop him.

These days, no one can figure out what has happened to him.

Why, since his first start of the season, he has yielded a 7.12 ERA in his last eight starts, with opponents hitting .332 with a .932 OPS. He has surrendered more hits and runs than any qualified starter in the National League.

– Matt Carpenter was required to shave his beard before joining the Yankees this week, having to introduce himself to not only his new teammates, but his family.

“My kids didn’t recognize me when I walked out of the bathroom,” Carpenter said. “I’ve got a six- and five-year-old at home and they’ve never seen me without a beard.’’

– The Yankees and Mets each are assured of being in first place on Memorial Day for only the second time in history, the last coming in 1988 when neither team reached the World Series.

Follow USA TODAY Sports MLB insider Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @BNightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB: Mookie Betts on fire but Dodgers star is 'just an average guy'