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Mookie Betts and his missing smile

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... baseball doesn't seem to be as much fun for Mookie as it used to be. And that makes it less fun for us, too.

Dick
Flavin

There is something missing from the Red Sox this year. It's something that endeared us to the team in recent years, especially last season. I'm not sure if the fact that it's gone missing is a cause of the team's spotty performance in 2019 or a result of it, but I do believe there is a relationship there.

Here is what is missing: Mookie Betts doesn't smile much anymore. Have you noticed?

In years gone by his enthusiasm and his love for the game seemed to bubble out of him. Whenever he would make an outstanding play in the field or deliver a base hit, he'd break out in a spontaneous smile and his whole face would light up. It was infectious; we'd find ourselves sitting at home in front of the television, smiling along with him. He might be playing hundreds of miles away, in Houston, Oakland, or New York, but we'd feel connected to him. It was fun to be smiling back at the TV set.

No more. Mookie doesn't smile much during games these days. He wears his game face, no nonsense, all business. Oh sure, there are times before and after the games when you'll see that electric grin, like when he met and hugged his distant cousin, the Duchess of Sussex, over in London. He doesn't seem to be grouchy or difficult to deal with at all, but it's just different than it used to be.

Now, when the game starts, there is a serious expression on his face, like just about all the other players. Is it because he's having an off-year? He's hitting about 80 points lower than last season when he led the major leagues in batting average and was the best all-around player in the game. His power numbers are down. He made the all-star team this year but not as a starter. His reputation is not what it was a year ago. That certainly could have something to do with lack of smiles.

It's not that he doesn't care any more or that he's not trying as hard. No one has ever questioned his commitment or his effort. Maybe he's trying too hard.

Whatever it is, baseball doesn't seem to be as much fun for Mookie as it used to be. And that makes it less fun for us, too.

Then there is always the business end of things to consider. The Red Sox are fully aware of what a valuable property Mookie Betts is. Not only has he produced outstanding numbers on offense and glittering play on defense, but he also seemed to have a special connection with the team's fans. So management offered to open the purse strings during the off-season, essentially asking Mookie to name his price to sign a long-term deal. But, through his representatives, he declined to bite, saying he'd rather wait to see what the market-place has to offer when he reaches free-agency at the end of the 2020 season.

There is a certain risk that goes with taking such a position. What if he were to be seriously injured before he reached free-agency? What if his numbers were to go down?

His numbers have gone down. His perceived worth today is not what it was four months ago, before the season started. Last year he was compared most often to Mike Trout, the man who does it all, year in and year out, for the Los Angles Angels. In the spring, Trout signed a contract extension worth $430 million over twelve years. It is unlikely that Mookie could get a deal now comparable to that, but he might have gotten something approaching it back in March. He could probably still command something in range of Bryce Harper's or Manny Machado's deals, in the $300 million range, but has he left $100 million or more on the table? That's serious money, and missing out on the opportunity to get it is not something that elicits spontaneous smiles.

Of course, Mookie's numbers could come back up and he could be the hottest thing on the market when he's eligible for free-agency at the end of next year. Then again, they could go back down, or he could be injured.

You know what they say in gambling parlors: "Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances."

On top of all those pressures Mookie faces is the fact that baseball is a hard, hard game. Ted Williams used to say that the most difficult thing in sports to do is hit a round ball squarely with a round bat. It is made infinitely more difficult when the ball is coming at you at speeds up to, and sometimes exceeding, one hundred miles an hour and with all kinds of different spins on it; and it might be coming in chest high, or at your knees, or outside, or inside, or -- God forbid -- straight at your head.

Mookie Betts achieved superstar status last year. He became one of the best players in the game. Make no mistake, he is still a terrific player, but an objective assessment would not even rank him as the best player on the Red Sox in 2019, let alone in all of baseball. Both Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers are having better years. Is this year just an aberration? Or was it last year that was the divergence from the norm? Does even Mookie know? Here are his batting averages in the four seasons previous to this, years that he has been a regular in the Red Sox line up: 2015 -- .291; 2016 -- .318; 2017 -- .264, 2018 -- .346. Thus far this year, he has slipped back into the .260s again. The averages have fluctuated wildly, but in years gone by his infectious exuberance for the game has been evident by the constant smile he always seemed to be wearing. That's what has made him the most popular player on the Red Sox.

Let's hope he regains his batting stroke before the year is over and that he finds his missing smile.

Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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