NEW YORK — With either a phone or a camera or a beer in hand, most everyone in the room at some point gravitated to Mookie Betts. Media members formed a semi-circle in front of the outfielder in the visitor’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, while teammates snuck up behind him.
A handful of Red Sox teammates staged what amounted to a small procession. Just a little respect to be paid to one of the greatest talents they’ll ever play with: a beer down the back, move out, and let someone else do the same. Bathe and repeat. How everyone in the world shows gratitude, of course.
By now, everyone in the baseball world should understand what the numbers highlight, and what the eighth-inning home run that put the division to bed further validated.
Betts is the best player in a room full of the best. He should be the 2018 American League Most Valuable Player.
As the Red Sox make their plans for the postseason as division champs for a third straight year, Betts is finishing what the best season in baseball — for a position player, at least — and the home run that sealed the Yankees’ fate as a Wild Card team in 2018 should be newly added to his highlight reel. An 8-6 lead grew to 11-6, and the champagne that the Sox waited two nights in New York to pop was finally ready with his blessing.
Maybe J.D. Martinez is the best pure hitter in baseball. Mike Trout fans can stomp their feet all they want in an MVP conversation, and they have a case. Jose Ramirez and Matt Chapman deserve nice things and words. But the Betts of 2018, the one that went 4-for-5 with a pair of doubles Thursday and became only the second leadoff hitter in franchise history to hit 30 home runs, tops them all.
Betts tied a season-high with five runs driven in, three of them on the moonshot to left off Aroldis Chapman, close enough to the line to make you pay close attention, high enough that you knew it was gone as long as it was fair.
Even Alex Cora has told Betts time and again that he is the best in the broadest sense. Cora, as has often been the case in the manager’s first year, is correct.
“He repeatedly tells me, there is no doubt you're the best player in the league,” Betts said.
There are always pockets that develop in locker-room celebrations, friends standing with friends. The 2018 Red Sox didn’t lose their minds in jubilation once they secured the East with an 11-6 win on Thursday night in the Bronx. But everything about this third straight division title, about the victory that sealed it and the season was a reminder of what changed. Cora and the culture and Martinez and hitting coaches Tim Hyers and Andy Barkett and the new swing philosophy and the environment that helped Betts prove 2016 was not a fluke. That he really belongs in a conversation about the best anywhere.
A lot of focus Thursday night was on the message that always exists in these moments, particularly given the Sox recent run of East titles: there’s more to do.
“We haven't won anything yet. Well, we haven’t won what we want to win yet,” Betts said. “I think you just have to take things in stride. We’ll enjoy tonight tonight, then be ready to get ourselves ready for the postseason.”
Betts can continue to add to his stats in the final days here, playing the field and DH’ing. The latter was his position on Thursday. But the final week, barring an insane barrage of home runs from Trout or something really abnormal, shouldn’t change anything.
This is Betts’ year, whether fWAR is your thing or not. Look at the numbers, then look to the middle of the room on the best team in baseball when the champagne is flowing. When they show the same person, the math becomes easy.