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VOL. 40 | NO. 40 | Friday, September 30, 2016

Boston loves Mookie

Nashvillian, MVP favorite has quickly won the heart of Red Sox Nation

By Tom Wood

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A month or so ago, Boston fans selected Nashville native Mookie Betts as their favorite Red Sox player in the fifth annual New England Sports Survey.

And in voting for the player “most admired for their contributions to the team,” it wasn’t even close. The 23-year-old Overton High School graduate drew 34 percent of the votes – well ahead of the 21 percent accorded David “Big Papi” Ortiz, who is having a stellar final season for the Red Sox and is one of the most popular New England sports figure of all time.

The survey, conducted by Channel Media & Market Research polled 10,968 Red Sox fans, a healthy sampling.

Come mid-November, we’ll find out if the rest of the baseball world agrees – or perhaps the other way around – when the American League Most Valuable Player and other postseason honors are announced.

Betts and Ortiz are considered by many baseball observers as among five front-runners for the annual honor along with Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays (the defending AL MVP) and outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado is also a leading contender.

“Mookie absolutely is going to come down to the wire as one of the finalists in the American League for MVP. I think he’s got a real shot to win it,” says Buster Olney, a former Nashville Banner sports writer who now is a senior writer for ESPN and also serves as the network’s MLB analyst and Sunday Night Baseball reporter.

This is all heady stuff for a player just five years removed from high school, a guy who is remarkably personable, poised and well-balanced for his age.

But like a true fan of the game – and the Red Sox – he’d rather talk about his superstar teammate.

“Having a front-row seat in David’s final year is definitely a blessing,’’ Betts explained from Baltimore last week, where his team swept the Orioles and took a big step toward the American League East title.

“Being able to watch him do this, having one of the best seasons of his career in his last year, has definitely been cool.”

Asked to assess his own record-setting season, Betts admits this year has gone even better than he imagined, both personally and as a team. The Red Sox, with a hot August and September, are seeking their first World Series crown since 2013. They also won in 2004 and 2007.

“I’m definitely surprised. I wasn’t expecting this,” adds Betts, born Markus Lynn Betts. The Mookie part comes from former NBA star Mookie Blaylock, of whom his parents were fans.

Future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, left, one of the most revered players in Red Sox history, is playing his final season and posting MVP-worthy numbers in the process. Still, Red Sox fans have decided Mookie Betts is their favorite player and “most admired for (his) contribution to the team.”

-- Ap Photo/Elise Amendola

“I have had some success and that has definitely brought confidence, and confidence brings more success. I’ve stayed confident and believed in my abilities. Most importantly, I’ve just had fun and enjoyed it every step of the way.”

By the numbers

Odds posted at Bovada.com earlier this week had Betts finishing third behind Ortiz and Altuve in the Most Valuable Player race, while stats guru Dan Szymborski listed Betts as having a 35.1 percent chance to win compared to Altuve (16.6), Trout (14.1) and Ortiz (12.9).

“A lot of it is going to depend on what happens with the playoff race. But (Betts) has just continued to exceed any of the expectations for him,” Olney explains.

Members of the Boston media who have chronicled Betts’ rapid rise agree with Olney’s assessment.

“Altuve is having an otherworldly year and seems like the frontrunner for AL MVP, but Betts is right up there with him,” adds Jen McCaffrey of Masslive.com.

“No one expected Betts to be a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy in his second full season in the majors. He keeps exceeding expectations.”

Chad Finn, a columnist at Boston Globe and Boston.com, also likes Betts’ MVP chances.

“If (the Red Sox) are leading (their division) at the end of September, he will probably be the front-runner,” Finn points out.

Until all the votes are counted, it’s anyone’s well-educated guess. But here are a few reasons why it should be Betts:

On Sept. 20, Betts became the first player to reach 200 hits this season, and only the second player in Red Sox history to reach the 200-hit plateau before his 24th birthday. The first to achieve the mark was Johnny Pesky in 1942.

By reaching that milestone, Betts became only the seventh player in baseball’s storied history with 200 hits, 30 home runs, 40 doubles and 20 stolen bases in the same season. He joins Jacoby Ellsbury (2011 Red Sox), Alfonso Soriano (2002 Yankees), Larry Walker (1997 Rockies), Nomar Garciaparra (1997 Red Sox), Ellis Burks (1996 Rockies) and Chuck Klein (1932 Phillies).

Betts is now listed among seven players age 23 or younger to have 200 hits and 30 homers in the same season, joining Alex Rodriguez and Hal Trotsky (twice each), Garciaparra, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and Joe DiMaggio.

But there’s more to Betts’ game – and his popularity – than hitting.

Cast your vote

Sure, there’s the presidential election in November, but you can also cast a vote for Nashville native Mookie Betts and your other favorite baseball players for the 2016 Esurance MLB Awards.

Voting is underway through Nov. 11 at MLB.com/awards to help decide the annual Esurance MLB Awards, which annually honor baseball’s greatest achievements.

The balloting process includes five groups, each of accounting for 20 percent of the overall votes: media, front-office personnel, retired MLB players, Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) voters and fans like you at MLB.com.

This is not part of the voting process conducted by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which selects four major awards in each league: MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. They will be announced in mid-November and presented in January 2017.

-- Tom Wood

He plays great defense, whether it’s making spectacular catches in right field or gunning down opposing base runners with spot-on, great throws. You watch replays night after night on SportsCenter or MLB network and just shake your head.

He’s a human highlight reel.

Nashville connections

Betts played high school ball as an Overton High Bobcats for coach Mike Morrison and spent time on summer sandlots in the Greater Nashville Baseball Association. He signed to play at the University of Tennessee but was drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round in 2011. He opted to turn pro.

Morrison is not surprised by the level of success Betts has achieved in the majors, both on and off the field. He is beloved by teammates and fans alike.

“He had all the tools in high school to become a great player, he was a great player when he came to us,” Morrison says. “He is definitely one of the leading (MVP) candidates, it depends a great deal on how their teams finish. If one team falters, that could hurt (their chances).

“If Boston stays in the running, Mookie could potentially win it.”

Morrison says the player Boston has fallen in love with this season is exactly the same Mookie Betts who endeared himself to the Nashville baseball community, in general, and the Overton fan base in particular.

“Mookie was too small to play football, so he was the team water boy. It was not above him, it was his way of supporting friends who supported him in basketball,” Morrison says. “That’s just his nature. Mookie has never seen himself as a person who was above anybody.”

Boston Red Sox outfielders Andrew Benintendi, left, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts celebrate a recent win with their post-game, a center field meet-up and dance, featuring different moves from game to game.

-- Ap Photo/Nick Wass

As Morrison notes, baseball wasn’t the only sport in which Betts excelled. Not only did he star on the basketball team, but he excelled on the bowling team with a 221.4 average to lead the Bobcats to the state quarterfinals. He has bowled four perfect 300 games and competed in the PBA World Series of Bowling this past February.

‘Best player from around here’

Three Nashvillians who played in the Red Sox organization say they’ve never seen a player quite like Betts, on or off the field.

“I can’t put into words what he’s doing day in and day out. He’s shocking the world, breaking all the records he’s breaking. It’s absolutely phenomenal,” says Michael Coleman, who played at Stratford and was drafted by Boston in the 18th round of the 1994 amateur draft.

He played for the Red Sox in 1997 and 1999, and the Yankees in 2001, and now owns M3 Baseball Training Facility in Antioch, where Mookie trains during the offseason.

“He’s having fun. It’s a continuation of last year. We set some goals that he achieved last year, and then set some goals for him to accomplish this year. He’s doing really well.

“I’m not at all surprised at what he’s done this season. He’s a great kid from a great family and has a work ethic like nobody I’ve ever seen. I hope he continues (to progress),” Coleman adds.

Charlie Mitchell, who like his brother John starred at Overton before being drafted by the Red Sox, called Betts “the best player ever from around here,” and adds he’s pulling for the “Johnny O guy” to win AL MVP honors.

“He’s so young and he plays like a seasoned veteran. He’s got just as good a chance as anybody, and since he’s a Bobcat, I’ll be rooting for him. He’s an exciting guy who can run, hit and play defense,” adds Charlie Mitchell, who pitched for the Red Sox in 1984-85.

Brother John Mitchell, who was traded to the Mets in 1986 and played for the Orioles in 1990, called Betts “a real competitor in a good way,” while Lem Pilkinton, who was drafted by the Red Sox in 1986 and also played minor league ball in the Blue Jays and Mariners organizations, recalls coaching Betts six years ago in the Sandlot league at age 17.

“He put himself on the map that summer. He was absolutely tearing it up. Every college team was calling him, offering him a full-ride scholarship. So you know he was a really good player,” explains Pilkinton, who owns Hit After Hit Baseball Academy.

“He had the quickest hands I’ve ever seen, a great eye and always made good contact with the ball. He was a great kid, a great teammate. Everyone on the team liked him.”

Then and now

Those same personality traits are evident today – and reflected by his popularity in the New England Sports Survey.

If you’re not familiar with their history, the Red Sox were the last team to have a black player (Pumpsie Green in 1959, a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier). Boston fans weren’t always so kind to black ballplayers.

Nearly sixty years later, a Southern black man from Nashville is the team’s most admired player.

“That’s certainly changed a lot around that franchise,” Olney says. “When I first started covering baseball, you’d hear a refrain from African-American ballplayers that maybe they wouldn’t want to play for the Red Sox. I don’t hear anything about that anymore.”

Betts says he tries to be a role model and treat fans the same way he wants to be treated – like a regular guy.

“I just try and smile and make sure I say, ‘hey,’ you know, talk to people. Because I’m a normal person, too. I make sure everybody else knows I’m a normal person,” Betts says.

“I just try to be a good role model for our young guests, especially for young black athletes who get sidetracked and what-not. Things happen, and I just try to be the best role model I can be … and to be a good example, because you can be anything you want to be.

“I want everybody to know that, to put their mind to it and go do it. So I want to be a good example for everyone to see.”

Globe columnist Finn says part of Mookie’s connection to Boston fans is his size. Betts stands just 5-foot-9 and tips the scales at 180 pounds.

“Part of (Betts’ popularity) is that he’s not the biggest guy, so it makes him easy to connect with. He looks like an ordinary guy walking down the street, the high school kid who’s the star of the team.”

Coleman, a close friend who texts Betts after almost every game, says fans, friends and teammates can’t help but be drawn to his charm.

“He’s got a smile that lights a room up. Mookie is very good with kids. You can’t help but be drawn to him. He keeps me laughing whenever we’re together in the offseason,” Coleman points out.

McCaffrey, who writes for Masslive.com, tells of how Betts has taken players to dinners during spring training and developed a trivia game to help them bond.

“I think fans appreciate his tenacity and just the overall enthusiasm in his everyday play. Red Sox manager John Farrell constantly notes how many questions Betts asks [in order] to improve in the field, at the plate, on the bases, and I think people appreciate that,” McCaffrey explains.

“He’s so eager to learn. Boston has been so used to the superstar athletes that have a “diva” vibe over the last 10 years or so, that this influx of young guys like Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, etc., playing with their all is refreshing.”

Olney shared spring training stories of the first time manager Farrell saw the up-and-coming Betts in camp, and of how he impressed Ortiz.

“(Farrell) walked into the dugout and – the way he explained it to us – was he did a double-take. ‘That’s Mookie Betts? That’s the big slugger who’s putting up a lot of extra base hits?’ Because he’s not that big,” Olney recalls Farrell saying.

“But the thing about Mookie is that he has such an understanding of hitting and he’s so smart and his preparation is so good and his legs are so strong that he’s become one of the best power hitters in baseball – which is something you wouldn’t have necessarily expected the first time you saw him.”

Dream season

It’s been an All-Star season for Betts, regardless of whether he wins AL MVP. Fans voted him in as a starter at the July 12 All-Star Game in San Diego, where he singled and scored a run in two at-bats.

Just prior to that game, it was announced that Betts had become the first MLB player to secure a major endorsement deal with Axe Bat.

Its unique design – literally, an axe-handled baseball bat – has made it a popular club.

Betts’ multi-year deal calls for him to have “design and development input,” the company website states.

It likely is just the first of many endorsements for Betts, who is making “just” $566,000 this season but could be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars for his next contract.

So the future is bright for Betts and fiancée Brianna Hammonds, who will be married Jan. 7 in Nashville.

All-Star Game voting tends to be a popularity contest, but postseason honors are more about production.

Either way, Betts is at or near the top of the list.

“That’s all irrelevant to me right now,” Betts says. “I’m just trying to play the game to win the World Series.

“You have to focus on the game because that’s what’s most important at the time. You can’t let other distractions and talk outside of the team distract you. (That’s when) bad things happen.”

But Betts acknowledges this has been a special year on many levels.

“It’s been great. This is one of my favorite teams. We laugh, we joke, we enjoy every game, we go out there and play,” he says. “I think that shows when we’re out on the field when we’re laughing and smiling and what-not.”

And a special year needs a special ending. So what are the odds that Mookie will win the AL MVP award?

Place your Betts.

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