Mookie Betts’ World Series showcase is just what baseball needs

Mookie Betts is our Willie Mays.

He is not as good as Mays because we can probably say that about every human who has ever walked our planet. Mays is our greatest living player and perhaps just the greatest to ever play baseball.

But if Mike Trout is our Mickey Mantle, Betts is our Mays. It is not just because he is brilliant at everything you can do on a field. Others are too. Others were in Mays’ time. Anyone can buy five tools at Home Depot, but only a craftsman can fully exploit them.

So it is also the IQ and savvy with which the Dodger right fielder plays. Aptitude, attitude and adaptability. It is the big and small. Betts can hit and hit for power. But he has a pretty good argument, for example, that he is both the best defender and base runner in the sport.

It is the way the game feels under his control, slowing down and speeding up at his will. Betts is like a brilliant point guard — a Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd or Steve Nash — in that he seems to be dictating pace while also having command of all around him. He plays as if there is a jazz soundtrack that only he can hear, cool and aggressive simultaneously. This feels Mays-esque.

Like Mays, his postseason hitting pales to his regular season (Mays had one homer and a .660 OPS in 25 playoff games; Betts one homer and a .722 OPS in 33 playoff games). Yet, Betts just played a seven-game NLCS in which he batted .269 with one extra-base hit and one RBI and still was as integral as any Dodger, namely because of his defense. He made a play in each of Games 5, 6 and 7 that swung momentum and perhaps the series away from Atlanta and to Los Angeles going to the World Series for the third time in four years.

mookie betts is baseball's most exciting athlete
Mookie BettsGetty Images

Usually an outfielder will be better coming in or going out. Betts is superb at both. His full-flight racing forward shoestring catch in the third inning of Game 5 changed the series. Atlanta was leading 2-0 in the game and three-games-to-one in the NLCS. If Betts muffs the play in any way it is 3-0 and the inning plays on. Instead, Marcell Ozuna left early from third and was ruled out for an inning-ending double play.

The play has been replayed quite often since. If you have a chance to look at it again ask yourself this: How many players would have been able to keep their feet after making that catch? And how many players could have regathered themselves, struggled initially to find the ball in their glove and still made an on-line, no-bounce throw home that if Ozuna even would have tagged legally he might have been out? It is where athleticism meets an intuitive understanding of the game. Betts talked afterward about how his full focus was on not falling. How many players in the heat of that moment on such a tough play to just catch the ball have the serenity under pressure to also know: Don’t fall?

Betts also would rob at least extra bases for Ozuna with a jump at the wall — retreating — in Game 6 and take away a Freddie Freeman homer in Game 7, his elbow above the 8-foot high fence at Globe Life Field. Betts is 5-foot-9, an inch smaller than Mays, but able to make up for lack of size with exquisite timing. And talk about timing — if Freeman’s ball goes, the Braves would have led 4-2 in a game they would lose 4-3.

For good measure, Betts’ extra-base hit in this series was a Game 7 single he turned into a double by reading that center fielder Christian Pache had to move too much to his left to be able to stop and throw him out at second.

Look, there is only one Mays. But the only Markus Lynn Betts will be coming to your living rooms for the next week or so. I hope that fans enjoy it and the sport absorbs it. Because Betts might be the best athlete in the sport. But Major League Baseball has never had as many gifted athletes as we see now (check out when the Dodgers play three center fielders across, for example, with Betts, Cody Bellinger and AJ Pollock). We just don’t know it because the ball is in play less than ever before so we don’t get to see athletes be athletic enough.

Betts is a reminder of what the sport could be, electric on both sides of the ball. We get this from the Rays defense as well and everything their quick-twitchy emerging star Randy Arozarena does on a field.

After so much doubt, especially early in this abbreviated season that we would get to the end, MLB had two terrific league championship series and now an intriguing World Series. I hope it continues to be a showcase for what the game could be in skill and enthusiasm. I hope it encourages the warring players and owners to find common ground to keep working at ways to get the ball in play more and to play faster pitch-to-pitch plus within the actual game action and to recruit the best athletes to this sport.

The symbol of what could be is on display right now in Mookie Betts. He may not be the best player ever, but he’s pretty darn a-Mays-ing.