LOS ANGELES — A sliver of the current world is Mookie Betts backlit in blue, his hands clasped politely before him, speaking softly, a microphone missing chunks of his sentences as he leans back or trails off.
This must all be so strange for him.
Sixty games and then another month from free agency …
“We gotta get to the season first,” he says Monday afternoon.
And just outside a couple weeks before he wears a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.
“I still now have my doubts,” he says.
Then there’s that, too, on top of him being in Los Angeles and not in Boston, on top of his buddy, David Price, having chosen to stay home instead, on top of any kind of season echoing across an empty Dodger Stadium, and on top of the fact that had he stayed home like Price he’d have lost the service time necessary to reach free agency.
Of the nine known players to have opted out of a rushed season wrapped in spit tests, nasal swabs, face masks and massive risk anyway, six — Price, Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Félix Hernández and Nick Markakis — had cashed in at least once in free agency. The system is kinder to them. They won’t ever miss the service time. Betts was drafted nine years ago, put in his time, became one of the best in the game, and fought for every inch of this thing. He’d earned this November.
“I mean, yeah,” he says, “that’s definitely something to think about. I’m not in the same predicament as someone who can opt out. I’m kind of in a different spot. My decision is gonna obviously be different. That’s the situation I’m in and whatnot.”
He sits for about 15 minutes and grants he is uneasy. Testing protocols had not held up over the holiday weekend. It looked messy, particularly from the inside, where a mess could splash up on a man and his family and his teammates. Anxious players complained. Frustrated teams ordered ballparks closed. Mostly, summer camps trudged toward an opening day two-and-a-half weeks near, best they could, one eye on the ball and another on the clock.
“I can’t say I’m that confident because I haven’t been shown yet, it’s kinda tough to be confident in something that hasn’t proved to be foolproof,” Betts says. “There’s not a whole lot I can do. It’s not in my control. But it’s in somebody’s control. And whoever’s control it’s in just has to find a way to make it work or this whole operation may not be able to work.
“I know it’s hard. I’m not blaming or saying this, that or the other. It’s hard, but, you know, somebody’s gotta do it and we have to just figure out the right way to do it.”
He’d spent the prior three months loving on his young daughter, Kynlee, back home in Tennessee, shaving four strokes off his golf handicap (“I think I was about a 12 or so and now I’m probably like an eight. Ish,” he says) and fishing for catfish in the rain. What followed were a few days of gathering up his baseball gear, getting in some swings and hustling to L.A., a place and team that could end up being all transaction and no experience.
What is to come of a Dodgers season that would have Betts in right and Cody Bellinger in center, of a Dodgers roster that might’ve posted 100 wins or more, is no more predictable than the other 29. The organization is into its fourth decade without a championship, and also on a run of seven consecutive NL West titles, and what that means in the summer of 2020 is a promise for temperature checks and Zoomed hitters meetings.
It is strange for everyone, certainly not just in baseball. In fact, maybe baseball least of all. But, baseball is where they are, assuming they get to the baseball and don’t stall out in the preparation for baseball. Betts, the superstar who arrived five months ago, in the days before when we figured every summer would always have baseball, reports into that strangeness on top of that hill daily now.
Maybe he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll never have set down his bags, L.A. being a way to get from here to there, through no choice of his own.
“Free agency is like on the back burner,” he says. “That’ll come. That’s nothing I’m really thinking about right now. I think the main concern is the safety and health. There’s a lot going on.
“The market will be what the market is. We’ll just kinda cross that bridge when we get there.”
He smiles plenty. He looks into the camera and answers questions from people he does not know, from faceless voices that are unfamiliar. He says he does not regret turning down that $300-and-some million from the Red Sox, that what’s out there will have to do, that he’s excited to be a Dodger if that is to be. He says he loves his pal David Price and is here perhaps in some part for the service time and, yes, really wants to win another ring and fish for catfish in the rain.
Everything else, well, can only be strange.
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