Whether Nashville’s Mookie Betts wins the National League MVP award this week or not, he’s emerged this season as baseball’s top personality. This should not be confused with its best overall player, though a case could clearly be made as well for Betts that way. But after leading the Dodgers to their first World Series win in 32 years (and a good case could be made he should have been World Series MVP also) Betts has become a rare transformative player in a sport where few names are known beyond the circles of hardcore fans and those who root for particular teams.
For many years there’s been a debate over whether Betts or Mike Trout of the Angels was baseball’s finest all-round player. Many media observers gave the nod to Trout because he was a center fielder, the outfield’s most important position. There was no question both men were superb defenders and complete players on the offensive end, able to hit for power and average, while also capable of stealing bases when needed.
But while Trout had another good season, the Angels again failed to make the playoffs. Meanwhile Betts, playing for a new team in a different league under the extreme circumstances of a pandemic, had a year for the ages. He batted .292 with 16 home runs and 10 stolen bases in a 60 game season. For those in love with analytics, his OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) was 149, 14 points higher than last season. He also had a higher wins above replacement (WAR) figure than Freddie Freeman, though Freeman’s overall figures are more impressive when factoring in batting average and slugging percentage.
Still, Betts was doing all this for a team under enormous pressure. His huge salary was questioned in some circles, while others wondered if he’d have any problems with the transition to a new league. Now the MVP award is a regular season honor, so what Betts did in the postseason won’t count. But he earned a Gold Glove in right field in his first season and in the playoffs his sensational catches, great base running and clutch hitting were on full display.
However there’s another area where Betts has an importance that far surpasses that of Trout and Freeman. He has an exuberant personality, and is one of the rare Black American stars in a sport that’s increasingly attracted fewer African American players and fans in recent decades. Betts is also a superb bowler and excellent basketball player, the kind of all-round athlete baseball used to routinely get, but now most often go to the NFL or NBA.
It’s very revealing that so many Black athletes would rather play a sport whose average career length is less than four years as opposed to one where it’s routine for players to at least last into their mid and late ‘30s. Plus baseball contracts are fully guaranteed, while the vast majority of NFL contracts are not.
Why MLB doesn’t have Betts, as well as some other bright young Black stars like the Chicago White Sox’s Tim Anderson, doing regular commercials and promos is baffling. There have been a zillion columns written about the loss of interest in baseball among young people, Blacks in particular, and here baseball has a dynamic young Black man who should be front and center in their promotional campaigns.
Betts has the kind of appeal and profile that could persuade other multi-talented young Black athletes to at least consider playing baseball as a career. MLB could also help out by investing a lot more money in college programs, allowing schools to provide more full scholarships to promising Black players who might prefer going to school for three years rather than riding buses in the minor leagues (although the fate of those leagues is now fully up in the air).
At any rate, whether Betts wins MVP or not, he’s become a dominant figure in baseball. If MLB is smart, they should make him one of the premier faces of the sport for years to come.