In a room full of young men maturing quicker than most their age while playing a kids game as their career, it’s easy to find the youngest of the bunch, Mookie Betts.
He is a bit shorter than the rest, fresh-faced with a quiet, respectful demeanor. The 19-year-old is only one year removed from high school, but you wouldn’t question him if he said he was only a junior.
Betts was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB entry draft following his senior season in high school when he batted .509 and was named a Louisville Slugger All-American.
His athleticism at shortstop and his speed also factored into Boston’s decision to take the high schooler, who stole 54 bases in 60 attempts over his final two seasons.
Weighing the options
A three-sport standout at Overton High School in Nashville, Tennessee, Betts excelled in baseball, bowling and basketball.
His junior year he averaged 220 on the lanes and was named the High School Bowler of the Year by The Tennessean.
He could easily have gone on to bowl for a top college program (yes they do exist), but those interested knew well enough that bowling was not in Betts future.
After averaging over 14 points per game and leading his team to a district championship he had offers to play basketball at Lipscombe, Trevecca Nazarene and the University of Central Florida.
But Betts has always considered himself a baseball guy first-and-foremost, so he committed to play at the University of Tennessee, a place he fell in love with the instant he set foot on campus.
“That was tough,” said Betts on making the decision between college and pros. “I really, really loved UT when I went there on my visit. I enjoyed being there with my friends. I had a few family members there too.”
Ultimately, the opportunity to sign with the Boston Red Sox and the eagerness to begin his career in baseball won out.
“I just knew that I was ready to start my professional career and my parents were behind me, which made it a little bit easier as well,” said Betts.
Getting comfortable and gaining traction
His locker in the Lowell Spinners clubhouse is right next to the 6’4”, 270 pound David Chester, so it’s easy to perceive Betts as this lost, lonely youngster in a sea of giants.
But like many of the players around him, Betts spent his time in extended spring training in 2011 and 2012, allowing him to form a bond with his teammates and gain a level of comfort he was not sure he could reach.
“I thought I was going to come in and struggle and not really talk to anybody and kind of be on my own,” said Betts of his initial fears coming in. “It’s really been the complete opposite. Just being with these older guys helps me stay on an even keel. No matter how good I do, or how bad I do, they make sure I keep talking.”
He has also shown that he can be too willing and eager at times in the field, as evident by his team-high six errors.
The key for Betts’ development is being able to shake those errors off, which is where his those older teammates come in to play.
“It really does help having these older guys here that I can really look up to. They’re wise, so they know the ins-and-outs, and what to think about different situations.
“What really helps is that I ask and they’re not scared to tell me. They won’t hold back. They’ll tell me anything and everything that I need to know. That really works out for me in the long run.”
At the plate he has had his early struggles, batting .238 through 16 games with only two walks. He did steal five bases before he was thrown out once, but the Spinners will need him to get on base so that they can utilize this aspect of his game a bit more.
“I think that’s probably one of my best attributes, if not my best,” said Betts of his work on the base paths. “I think I naturally run the bases well. I have no idea how I do it, it’s all instincts I guess, but you just keep on working.”
When it comes to working on his plate prowess, Betts may just be able to take a little from the days when he was hurling a 16-pound ball down a 62-foot long wooden lane.
“The concentration aspect,” said Betts. “You have to concentrate walking up to the lane, having the same approach each time and throwing the same shot each time. When you go up to the plate you concentrate on having the same swing every time, fielding the same throwing each time. It’s repetition.”
He has the knowledge and support system in place to succeed. He is wiser than he may even expect he is and he is maturing quicker than he probably knows. Now Betts must find a way to roll all of these things together.
Craig Forde can be reached via email at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BeyondFenway.
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