This is an excerpt from the cover story of the September issue of Baseball Digest, written by NBC Sports Boston Red Sox Insider Evan Drellich. The issue and full story is on newsstands now.
Summer opportunities to cook are rare for Mookie Betts, the Red Sox right fielder who is on pace to finish 2018 with one of the best seasons this century. But he still watches Food Network, one of his longtime favorite channels, when he can.
As a middle schooler in Nashville, Tenn., Betts would take shopping trips to Kroger, a grocery chain, to mimic meals he saw prepared on TV. Long before he was regularly playing on a full-sized diamond, and well before he became a fixture in the Most Valuable Player discussion, he was cooking dinner for his parents.
"I would say, 'Mom, I want to do this,'" the 25-year-old Betts said. "And my mom would give me some money and I'd ride my bike up, get groceries and everything. And then I'd come back and experiment, cooking and those types of things. That's kind of how I learned how to cook.”
Today, Betts is the leading contender to take the title of "best player in baseball" away from Mike Trout, in no small part because of his willingness to venture into new waters. Not everything always went to plan as a cook, of course. "I burned a few things," the four-time All-Star said.
After school, young Mookie sometimes turned to biscuits for the sake of speed.
"Just because I was hungry and didn't feel like cooking dinner," Betts said. "Three o'clock in the afternoon, so it wasn't dinner time. Throw biscuits in the oven and whip up a couple eggs. And one day, I threw biscuits in the oven, and you know, it takes 10 minutes or so to do that.
"I fell asleep. My mom came home. I used to get home around 2:45, and she got home around four.”
The burning smell was impossible to miss for anyone who was awake. His mother, Diana Benedict, helped avoid a crisis for the budding sous-chef.
Almost unbelievably, a season in which Betts may win MVP honors began with an experiment. And for a time, it seemed like the recipe put him in danger of burning down the proverbial house.
In 2018, a trio of new voices around the Red Sox helped Mookie Betts roll out his inner slugger.
First-year manager Alex Cora ’s younger, more vibrant personality loosened the clubhouse after a rough end to 2017. Cora pushed a different approach at the plate: hunt your pitch rather than work the count.
At the same time, newly acquired slugger J.D. Martinez and hitting coach Tim Hyers brought a shared mindset to the clubhouse: cherish the ball in the air, because line drives and deep fly balls are what lead to extra-base hits and home runs.
In the era of the strikeout, pitchers less frequently attack the corners. They attack high and low, and hitters must adjust their swings accordingly.
Hyers is the hitting coach and well respected, but Martinez has probably made the most impact on Betts. One of the best free-agent signings in team history, Martinez has been a model and tutor as he and Betts barrel up the ball in a higher percentage of plate appearances than anyone else, as of July 23. (Yes, they track those things.)
A self-described "feel" hitter, Betts in spring training was ready to take the next step in his craft, to gain a greater understanding of bat path and launch angle.
Or so he hoped.
“Always a feel for me,” Betts said of his learning style. “I can look at it and mimic something, but if it doesn’t feel right, then I kind of don’t trust it.
"This whole season, hitting has been kind of that anxiety – you know, fear," Betts said. “We all saw how I started in spring training, and I was trying to learn something new. I was like, 'Phew, I don't know, this may be my end.'"
Betts laughed when joking about his struggles. But he truly did have a rough performance in Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla. He was hitless through his first 16 at-bats. On March 16, after hitting safely in five straight games, Betts was still batting just .179.
"It was bad," he said. "I was actually really scared. Luckily, I was able to use my abilities that God gave me at picking up on things and kind of adapting. You give me a little something, I'll work it and kind of make it my own within that structure. Seemed to work so far."
Betts is no stranger to transformation. He was a middle infielder with virtually no power when he entered pro ball out of Nashville’s John Overton High School. Today, he’s one of the game’s best defenders in right field, with a pair of Gold Gloves.
To understand how he made himself an exemplary all-around player, one has to understand how rapidly he assimilates information. That begins with Betts’ willingness and desire to explore.
"You never know what you like, what you don't like," Betts said. "That may not be necessarily with everything (in life), but most things. This whole season kind of started with an experiment."
For more on Betts on and off the field, pick up a copy of Baseball Digest at a local newsstand or subscribe online.