In the second inning of Fenway Park’s Opening Day, Mookie Betts came to bat with Xander Bogaerts and Sandy Leon on base and sent a pitch that ricocheted off the third row of seats above the Green Monster. It was 4-0 so quickly that it felt like Pedro Martinez’s ceremonial first pitch was the one Betts rejected over the wall.
It’s served as a microcosm of his ascent from promising minor league infielder to starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox in just one calendar year. He’s shot past so many other highly rated prospects to force his way onto the roster in the middle of a lost season last year, and today, he kept adding to his myth. It feels like he’s a character out of every sappy baseball script. He’s feeding every trope and cliche, smiling and hitting and leaving everyone wondering if this is history unfolding.
That hope that’s always springing eternal in every piece opining on baseball’s Opening Day is rooted in failure and the future. The shortcomings of past seasons and the infusion of talent and health that greets April creates a powder keg of excitement, assuming the team is doing anything right at all. Will David Ortiz keep defying age? Can Dustin Pedroia bounce back? Will the new free agents play up to their contracts?
So here’s Betts, the Red Sox’ 22-year-old center fielder by way of second base who had his name dangled in trade rumors for Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels for months, now taking that hope that’s manifested in statistical daydreams and t-shirt sales and turning it into something tangible. Whether or not it’s going to last doesn’t seem to matter, because right now it’s real and it’s thrilling.
On Opening Day, with Hamels dealing off of his own mound, Betts took him deep from the leadoff spot he earned in Spring Training for his first home run of the season. And today, in his first home opener, he started the game off by leaping to steal a home run away from Washington’s Bryce Harper. He followed that up in the bottom half of the inning with a walk that he turned into one stolen base, then a second thanks to a shift the Nationals were playing on Ortiz. Ortiz took that gift and drove in Betts on a single. Then he sent that three-run homer over the wall. The Red Sox eventually won, 9-4. Betts was Player of the Game, obviously.
★ ★ ★
There’s the promise of prospects and there’s the reality. The promise is that Willie Mays is patrolling center field somewhere in every team’s system. The reality is usually that ending up with someone like Chris Coughlan would be a massive win. Players come up, they show a spark, they struggle and, with health participating, they settle into the player that they’re going to be.
At some point this season, Betts is probably going to struggle. He’ll get a game or two or three off in center field in favor of Rusney Castillo, he’ll tweak his swing and his approach, he’ll spend some time out of the leadoff slot.
But that time isn’t today. Today, Betts put New England on notice and gave Red Sox fans a real, tangible reason to believe that this could be a special year. Already, Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez are hitting, the starting rotation has looked the part one turn through, Ortiz has been Ortiz. And those special years always seem to have one breakout star emerge along the way.
For the past two days and for the first time in 2015, it’s been sunny and warm in Boston. Pleasantly breezy, nothing more than a sweatshirt needed to be outside, no threat of rain. It was a beautiful day to watch Mookie Betts put on a clinic. It’ll be even more fun to watch him try to top today for the rest of the summer. And it’s all going to go by in a blur.