What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the deal between Mookie Betts and the Dodgers.
It’s like going back in time to the 1950s, but instead of the boroughs of New York, it’s the freeways in Los Angeles.
Those were the times when New York baseball fans argued who was the best young player in the game: Willie Mays of the Giants or Mickey Mantle of the Yankees. They each were inducted into the Hall of Fame, with Mays becoming one of the greatest players in baseball history.
Now, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and after Mookie Betts’ 12-year, $365 million contract extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers was announced Wednesday, you can hear the debates starting in L.A.
The folks in Southern California can spend the next decade comparing and contrasting, slicing and dicing, screaming and Tweeting, the greatness between Betts and Angels star Mike Trout.
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Man, if people aren’t envious enough about the folks in Southern California having the perfect weather and gorgeous beaches, now they’ve got the best two players on the planet, too.
Trout, who signed a 10-year, $360 million extension a year ago, said he couldn’t help but get excited when he saw the news that Betts was going to be hanging in SoCal through 2032 and shot him an immediate text.
“I’m excited for him,” Trout said. “What a great person. I never heard anything bad about him. It’s a big moment for him, a huge moment.
“I’m happy for him, being so close to him. It’s pretty cool to have him out here.”
The two star outfielders who have won four of the last six American League MVP awards (three by Trout) — with Betts finishing second to Trout in 2016, and Trout finishing second to Betts in 2018 — now could dominate the Southern California baseball scene for the next dozen years.
“His game is unbelievable,” Trout said. “I love how he plays. I never see him upset or anything. He always plays the game with passion. And, obviously, he puts up big numbers every year.”
The Dodgers were well aware of Betts’ resume when they acquired him in February from the Boston Red Sox, along with former Cy Young winner David Price. They saw the four Gold Gloves, the three Silver Sluggers, the MVP and, of course, the World Series ring.
Yet, almost from the moment he arrived in L.A., the Dodgers fell in love with him. They saw the passion. The burning desire to win. He was the one who spoke to the team on the first day of camp, telling them he wasn’t coming to Los Angeles to win an eighth consecutive division title. He wanted another World Series ring.
“You don’t see a guy coming into a clubhouse, not knowing too many guys, get up and basically challenge the whole team to be accountable,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner told USA TODAY Sports in March. “That was something pretty special. It’s something I’ll probably never forget.”
Well, the Dodgers certainly never forgot it, and within weeks of Betts’ arrival, team president Andrew Friedman opened negotiations in an attempt to keep Betts from not only reaching free agency at the end of the season, but wearing another uniform. The talks were interrupted by the pandemic shutting down baseball, leaving open the possibility that Betts could become a free agent without ever putting on a Dodgers uniform.
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“When we made the trade, we made it with more than 2020 in mind,” Friedman said. “We appreciated the risk that came with that. We did it with our eyes wide open. We traded a lot of talent away. We got a lot of talent back.
“We were going to do everything we could to try to keep him here for the rest of his career.”
And when spring training resumed three weeks ago, so did the talks. They reached a tentative agreement Tuesday before finalizing it Wednesday, a deal that includes a staggering $65 million signing bonus, making it a whole lot easier to afford the housing prices in Beverly Hills.
“The world changed in the middle of it,” Friedman said, “but our desire to get something done didn’t change. When you’re making an investment of this magnitude, you’re not just betting on ability, you’re also betting on the person. We couldn’t be more comfortable to make that bet on Mookie.”
The feeling was mutual, Betts said, even though the Dodgers knew a whole lot more about him than he did about the organization or city.
He was only in Los Angeles one day for a press conference before heading to Phoenix for spring training. He went home to Nashville when baseball was shut down. He only was able to spend time in Los Angeles the last three weeks during Spring Training 2.0.
Still, it was enough time for him to know this is where he wanted to be, and if there was a deal to be done, he wanted it resolved before the season-opener Thursday at Dodger Stadium against the San Francisco Giants.
“The people here made me feel so comfortable,” Betts said. “The talent all the way down to the minor leagues, everybody in the front office from the owner on down. Everybody’s amazing. This organization is a well-oiled machine.
“I love it.”
The mission now is simple: Win a World Series and end the Dodgers’ 32-year drought.
And then win another and another.
“I’m here to win some rings and bring rings back to L.A.,” Betts said. “That’s what I’m focused on.”
He could have stayed in Boston, of course, and won more World Series titles for the Red Sox, but he rejected their overtures. He turned down at least $300 million at one juncture, perhaps even $325 million.
If the Red Sox offered him the same deal, would he have signed it?
Betts appreciated the question but deferred, taking the high road, just saying the contract was the fulfillment of a dream.
“This is what I’ve been working for my whole life,” Betts said. “It’s something I dreamed about. I got to give my parents pretty much all of the credit.”
The Dodgers have won seven consecutive division titles. They’ve won two National League pennants. The only thing missing is a World Series title.
That’s about to change, led by the only player in baseball who can at least rival the talent of the guy across town.
He may not be Trout. Nobody is. But Betts just may be the closest.
“Mookie can impact a game at every facet,” said Friedman, who had never spent more than $94 million on a player since his arrival in 2014. “But what really stood out to us is the work ethic, the burning desire to get better on a daily basis. That tone is set for young players now and will come up in the future and will leave an indelible mark on the organization.”
The Dodgers have their star. The man who gives them three MVPs, along with Cody Bellinger and three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.
Soon, perhaps even this October, they will have their trophy, too.
“We are consumed by doing everything we can to win championships,” Friedman said. “The whole goal is to win championships. I can’t wait to win the first one, bring it to the fans and get greedy.”
In the words of their new face of the franchise: “I know the Dodgers are going to be good for a long time.”
So does the rest of the baseball world.
Follow columnist Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.