Former Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts says he doesn’t hold any hard feelings toward his old team, but he couldn’t help it if the business of baseball came between them.
Betts dished to GQ about his much-discussed exit from the Red Sox, who traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers before the 2020 season. The star rightfielder went on to sign a massive contract and immediately won a World Series with his new team last season.
But Betts also opened up about his difficult early career in the Red Sox’s minor league system, a time that almost brought his career to an end.
The Red Sox took Betts with their fifth-round pick in the 2015 MLB draft, convincing him to sign out of high school instead of going to the University of Tennessee, his hometown college. But he struggled in his first season with the Class-A Lowell Spinners, hitting just .267 with no home runs.
“I was just trash,” he said. “That was the first time in my life, really, that I failed miserably.” His doubts grew so great he even signed up to take the ACT college admissions test, admitting he “pretty much almost quit baseball.”
But after an extra-inning game forced him to reschedule his ACT exam, Betts says he played around with a new swing in the batting cage over the next few days — dropping the leg kick he once used. The change made all the difference.
“I just started hitting,” he said, “and a year later I was in the big leagues. Life happened really fast.”
Betts goes on to recount his early years with the Red Sox’s big league club, including how the team helped him increase his home run total by coaching him to put the ball in the air more.
He also talked about the hazing he experienced as a young major leaguer — fetching water, beer, and luggage for Red Sox veterans — and his determination to shift the team’s culture.
“One episode,” the article describes, “where he was razzed over the team bus’s intercom for forgetting the beer, crystallized two things: First, that when he was in charge of the clubhouse, he’d set different rules. And second, that in order to win the influence to someday rewrite the rules, he needed to excel under them for the time being.
‘My motivation was I’m going to be so good that I’m not going to get you any more f—— beer,” he says. “I’m going to be the best player on this team, so when I have to get the beer, I don’t. That was when my tunnel vision kicked in and I was ready to go.’ By 2016, his second full season in the bigs, he was the runner-up for the AL MVP award. In 2018, it was his.”
After that MVP campaign and World Series title in 2018 came the contract showdown with the Red Sox as Betts sought to cash in on his stellar play.
“The very first contract extension I ever saw was super hard to turn down,” he said. “It was like $90 million or something. They slid over the sheet of paper, and I saw the number, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ I had never seen that before, so that was hard to turn down. But once you can figure out how to say no, then it becomes easy as anything. Saying no the first time is the hardest thing.”
“I don’t care if you’re working at Waffle House or for the Red Sox or for the Dodgers,” Betts added. “You should just get paid what you’re worth.”
The Red Sox balked at Betts’s contract demands and eventually sent him, pitcher David Price, and cash to the Los Angeles Dodgers for three players, including hopeful star outfielder Alex Verdugo. Betts then signed a 12-year, $365 million deal with the Dodgers.
“[The Red Sox] didn’t owe me anything; I didn’t owe them anything,” Betts said. “The city didn’t owe me anything; I didn’t owe the city anything. We did what we were supposed to do. And at that point, it’s a business.”
The rest is history: Betts got paid and won another ring while the Red Sox watched from home after finishing the shortened 2020 season last in the AL East.
The outfielder also talked about being one of the few Black ballplayers in MLB and the struggle he and other Black players faced to express themselves during last year’s social unrest after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the shooting of Jacob Blake — all unarmed Black people.
“It was lonely,” he said, “in the sense that I couldn’t look to my right or my left—just a look! Because you can look at another Black person in that situation, and just look each other in the eyes, and you know immediately how it feels. That part was lonely, that nobody else really understood how it felt.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.