To understand Mookie Betts — the intense work ethic, the unquantifiable intangibles, the elite abilities — start with his parents.
His mother, Diana Collins, worked at the Tennessee Department of Transportation. His father, Willie Betts, built a career as a railroad mechanical superintendent after serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
They divorced when Mookie was in elementary school but the two retirees remain close. They’ve been in Texas since their 28-year-old son entered the bubble for the National League Division Series. They watched him, from afar at Globe Life Field, lead the Dodgers, the organization that acquired and made him a very rich man this year, to the World Series with an array of contributions.
He’s made great defensive plays in right field seem routine. He’s delivered hits in clutch spots. He’s wreaked havoc on the bases, sensing opportunities to strike ahead of time. He’s always thinking, always scheming, always working to maximize his five-tool skill set to satisfy his unquenchable desire to win. The package derives from traits instilled by his parents.
“You wouldn't have been able to tell that we didn't live together as much as we were all together,” Mookie said.
His win-at-all-costs attitude comes from Collins — an avid bowler, former softball player, and Mookie’s first baseball coach. It all started there.
Nobody wanted Mookie at the beginning of his baseball life. His mother took him to the local Little League in Nashville to sign him up when he was 5 years old. He was tiny. “Little bitty kid with little legs,” Collins said, and the format the league used to fill out team rosters didn’t help.
Collins didn’t have any connections in the league so to get Mookie on a team she had to approach each coach asking if there was a spot available. The first two coaches told her there wasn’t any room for her son.
But the third rejection angered her the most. The man looked at Mookie, Collins recently recalled, and told her he wanted bigger kids because he wanted his team to be competitive. By then, Mookie was crying.
“Mom, I'm not going to be able to play,” Mookie told his mother.
“No, you're going to play,” Collins assured him.
She looked around and saw enough children rejected to form a new team. So she created one for them and became the coach. The team wasn’t competitive. They won just one game that season. But the one win mattered: it came against the coach who didn’t want Mookie.
“I told Mookie, ‘Today's going to be a little different because we were playing this one team,’ ” Collins said in a recent videoconference with 300 coaches from the Dodgers RBI program as part of the Dodgers Foundation’s Girls Coaching Series. “'Every ball that comes, I want you to get it and get an out. I don't care where the ball is.'
“So, Mookie, he was running into right field and chasing the guy home. So the coach said, 'You're not teaching him right!’ And I said, 'I'm teaching him how to win. That's what you wanted to do, right? That's what you wanted to do. You made sure you told me you wanted to win, so I'm teaching Mookie how to win.' And I was done with him.”
Mookie said he doesn’t remember that day. But his mother continued to stand in his corner. There was the time, Mookie recounted, that he was almost suspended from school for playing pingpong. Betts was a high school senior, shortly before he became the Boston Red Sox’s fifth-round pick in 2011, and his mother went to bat for him.
“She's like a best friend, but my mom too,” Betts said Thursday. “She disciplines me the same way as any other mom does, but she was always there for me to talk to. I could be honest with her.”
Willie Betts, Mookie said, was the behind-the-scenes anchor who taught him how to win — the thinking, planning and work necessary to succeed.
Willie Betts was born in 1943 in Louisiana, in the Jim Crow South, and moved to Louisville, Ky., at the age of 4.He grew up using his hands, from cement work to rebuilding cars. As an adult, he oversaw 300 miles of railroad and his son’s budding baseball career.
“I made sure he was treated right,” Willie Betts said. “That’s all he needed.”
Mookie spent the school year with his mother and summers with his father. Willie, retired by then, took his son to baseball and basketball practices and games. During the summer, when Mookie would play three or four baseball games on hot days, Willie Betts would build a canopy to shield families from the sun. When it was cold, he set up a heater with four different heads so everyone stayed warm. He found solutions.
“My dad is who taught me to think about everything you're doing,” Mookie said. “Think about the strategy, think about the logic behind each and everything you do. Learn not just how but learn why so when the time comes and the situation arises, you know why you need to do what you’re doing.
“My dad was the guy that would work behind closed doors that you didn't know, you didn't really know what he was doing until it was time to show up.”
The combination of lessons propelled Mookie’s major league career to another level after the 2016 season. Mookie had finished second in the American League MVP for the Red Sox that year. He was a star for one of MLB's flagship franchises. It wasn’t enough. Betts said he knew it would be difficult to repeat that season — he batted .318 with 31 home runs, an .897 OPS, and led the majors with 359 total bases — unless his effort and focus were steady every day.
“Watching the greats play, they’re all just really consistent,” Betts said. “They hit their home runs constantly, drive in runs constantly, walk constantly, make good plays constantly. There’s not just one and then a long period of time before another one. You just have to be good at all aspects of the game all the time. Don’t take plays off. That was in 2016 when I told myself that’s what I want to do.”
Betts carried that message to his new Dodgers teammates nine days into spring training in February. He challenged them to generate urgency every day. He implored energy and accountability. That mind-set, he said, would lead to winning a World Series.
Eight months later, the Dodgers are three wins away from their first championship since 1988 — four years before Diana Collins and Willie Betts welcomed into the world the boy taking center stage in 2020.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.