Last August, after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin, NBA players huddled together in their Orlando bubble and decided they wouldn’t play. The Dodgers were in San Francisco to face the Giants, and at the time, Betts was the only African American player on either roster. After discussion with his friends and family, Betts decided he wouldn’t play, but he told his teammates that he’d understand if they didn’t join him in sitting out. “Both teams were actually okay with playing,” he says. “By myself, with 50 guys, I can’t fight that battle.”
But his teammates listened and followed his lead. The game would be postponed. “For him to have that respect, and to have that honest conversation with his teammates, and most importantly for it to be received the way it was intended, speaks to how people feel about him,” Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, one of two Black managers in baseball, says. (Between Betts’s abilities on the field and his sincerity off it, Roberts says Betts reminds him of Jackie Robinson.)
Betts was glad to have the support of his organization, but that couldn’t fix an intractable problem. “It was lonely,” he says, “in the sense that I couldn’t look to my right or my left—just a look! Because you can look at another Black person in that situation, and just look each other in the eyes, and you know immediately how it feels. That part was lonely, that nobody else really understood how it felt.”
I ask Betts if, in the wake of his comments and the league’s mealymouthed “promise to do the work,” he’s heard from anyone at the commissioner’s office on Park Avenue. “No, I have not,” he says.
He’s hopeful for progress on the issue, if realistic about his ability to change things by himself. “I feel like I’m doing a decent job with trying to bring awareness to baseball,” he says. “I can’t say I’m doing a great job. I don’t think I’m doing a horrible job, but it’s just going to be hard.” He’ll pick his spots. “There are some battles that I choose to fight,” he says. “That wasn’t one that I wanted to fight. I feel like we’re so outnumbered that there’s nothing that could resonate enough.”
And so Mookie Betts chooses other battles. He demands to be paid like an elite player and then dares to turn himself into the most exciting talent in the game. He takes a body built to hustle out ground balls and teaches it to deposit home runs in the outfield bleachers. He masters a system that hunts out inefficiencies and then makes brilliantly inefficient plays on the game’s largest stage. Those battles, of course, are inextricably linked to baseball’s struggles with race—to the way the sport has grown increasingly expensive and elitist and has struggled to make sense of a Black player who manages to make the game look fun. Betts will approach these efforts the same way he does any task, working things out one step at a time. By now, you’d be silly to bet against him.