The most unflappable young hitter in baseball struggled to suppress his nerves.
His heart raced and his legs wobbled far more than they ever did during any ninth-inning at-bat.
It was a few weeks after the Boston Red Sox crashed out of the 2017 Major League playoffs, and All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts had traded his baseball cleats for bowling shoes. The lifelong bowling fanatic was competing at the World Series of Bowling for the second time in three years.
In his fourth-to-last game of the qualifying round, Betts hit a hot streak. He racked up strike after strike until he was just three shy of a perfect 300.
Before the 10th frame, close friend and PBA Hall of Fame member Tommy Jones asked Betts if he’d ever bowled a 300 before. “Not in this environment,” Betts replied, gesturing at the TV cameras trained on him and the throng of other bowlers on tour who had gathered behind him to watch him take aim at a milestone.
Breathing deeply before each roll in order to calm his butterflies, Betts produced one strike, then another, then a third. He celebrated the final strike with a triumphant fist pump, a satisfied smile and a flurry of high-fives.
“It was pretty neat to see how nervous and excited he was,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I’m like, ‘Bro, you bat leadoff in the World Series. Millions of people watch you. That doesn’t bother you, but trying to bowl 300 had you spooked?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I was shaking pretty good out there.’ ”
If baseball is Betts’ obsession and competitive outlet for eight months of the year, then bowling is how he fills that void during the offseason. The Los Angeles Dodgers superstar approaches bowling with the same work ethic and attention to detail he does studying opposing pitchers or trying to perfect his swing.
Three or four times a week during the offseason, Betts will visit a Nashville bowling alley or a friend’s house to practice his footwork or test out how different bowling balls respond to certain oil patterns. He also regularly calls Jones or other friends in the bowling community to solicit their advice on how to generate more break, when to change balls and how to adjust to varying lane conditions.
When Betts participates in a PBA tournament, he looks more like he belongs on the same lanes as bowling legends Pete Weber and Walter Ray Williams than he does a baseball player moonlighting in a second sport. PBA commissioner Tom Clark insists Betts has the potential to be one of the top 75 bowlers in the world if he ever focuses on the sport year round once his baseball career is over.
“Chris Paul loves bowling, and he’s pretty good at it,” Clark told Yahoo Sports. “Nelly, Terrell Owens, Jerome Bettis, Chris Hardwick, they’re all good bowlers who could have success in a rec league. But Mookie is on a completely different level. If he had stuck with bowling out of high school, I have no doubt he would be on the PBA Tour.”
How Mookie Betts found bowling
Spend a few minutes around Mookie Betts’ mom and dad, and it quickly becomes obvious from whom he inherited his love for bowling. Willie Betts is a recreational bowler. Diana Collins may be even more obsessed with the sport than Mookie is.
An avid bowler since she was 8 years old, Collins now competes in Nashville-area leagues a few nights a week and serves as president of the Music City Senate of The National Bowling Association. Mookie first joined his mom at the bowling alley in his playpen as a baby. Only a couple years later, Mookie no longer was content just watching Collins anymore and began learning to roll the ball two-handed.
“He’s been bowling since he was 3 or 4, when he was strong enough to push the ball,” Collins told Yahoo Sports. “We started him off in bumper bowling. Eventually I got the lightest ball I could find and taught him how to put his fingers in it.”
In an era when kids often specialize in a single sport, Betts was an exception. He dabbled in a half dozen sports growing up, displaying exceptional arm strength, athleticism, hand-eye coordination and intelligence in whatever he tried.
Baseball? Betts was a dominant player at John Overton High School. He caught the attention of college coaches and pro scouts by hitting over .500 as a junior and senior, displaying sprinter’s speed on the base paths and making impossible plays in the field look effortless.
Basketball? That was Betts’ first love. The slick-passing 5-foot-9 point guard tallied 14 points, 9 assists and 3 steals per game as a high school senior and even wowed his teammates with a couple of in-game dunks.
Football? Yes, Betts excelled at that too. Friends say that he had the potential to become one of Tennessee’s top dual-threat quarterbacks had his mother not gotten worried about injuries and urged him to give up the sport entering high school.
Yet as gifted as Betts was at other sports, he always carved out time for bowling. He bowled in youth leagues as soon as he was old enough to participate, won his first tournament at age 8 and rapidly honed his technique to the point that he could consistently break 200.
The same year that Betts enrolled at John Overton High, the school appointed a teacher named Michael Fox as bowling coach even though he had no background in the sport. Betts and his teammates would approach Fox for in-game advice. “I think you should knock them all down,” Fox would respond with a sheepish chuckle.
Though his high school didn’t treat bowling as seriously as other sports, Betts approached it as though it was as important to him as basketball and baseball. He was named Tennessee’s boys bowler of the year as a high school junior even though he was splitting time between basketball and bowling during the winter and didn’t have the luxury to focus on just one sport.
Betts missed the first half of the bowling season as a high school senior with a shoulder injury. In his first match back, he bowled a 700 series, averaging slightly more than 233 in three successive games.
“His first game was like a 270,” Fox told Yahoo Sports. “I’m like, ‘Goodness, gracious dude.’ It was silly watching him sometimes. He was just a freak athlete.”
Betts is the real deal
The commissioner of the PBA remembers the first time he heard about Betts’ bowling prowess.
In May 2015, someone sent Tom Clark a video of the promising Red Sox rookie telling NESN that he had bowled 300 twice before and that he hoped to someday snag a spot in Chris Paul’s annual celebrity bowling event.
Right away, Clark was skeptical yet intrigued. The sport of bowling desperately needed a jolt of star power to help it capture the attention of the average sports fan, but Clark had been duped before by athletes from other sports overstating their bowling ability.
“Chad OchoCinco kept telling me how great he was,” Clark recalled with a laugh. “Let’s just say he wasn’t.”
When Clark scoured social media for videos of Betts bowling, he quickly realized the young outfielder was different. Conversations with Nashville-area pro bowlers confirmed Clark’s suspicion that Betts was good enough not only to participate in celebrity pro-ams but also to produce a respectable showing in regular PBA events.
Betts’ first appearance at the Chris Paul event only made Clark more eager to partner with him. Clark discovered that Betts was more than an accomplished bowler and fierce competitor. He was the ideal celebrity ambassador for the sport, a bowling fan who geeked out over the chance to hang out alongside top professionals and seek their advice.
“Whenever I give a commissioner’s exemption, the natural feeling is I’m taking away a spot from someone who needs it,,” Clark said. “But with Mookie, I don’t usually get much pushback. He fits right in, he brings attention and he’s part of our game. Believe me, if he’s interested in competing in our events or doing something for charity, we’re on board. When he’s available, I make a spot available for him.”
As Betts has played in more regional and national tournaments during the past five years, he has become good friends with many professional bowlers. He’d leave tickets for them anytime they came to Boston when he played for the Red Sox. They would have a few beers together after a game or go golfing the following morning.
Among the bowlers closest to Betts is Jones, who jokes that he has boxes of Red Sox gear to sell now that his friend has joined the Dodgers. Jones will call Betts to bust his chops after he endures a rare hitless night. Betts will jab right back by reminding Jones of that memorable game at the 2017 World Series of Bowling when he scored a perfect 300 and Jones managed just a meager 165.
“Most of the celebrities we meet are down to earth, but they’re down to earth in our environment,” Jones said. “When we see them out and about, we say hi but that’s kind of the extent of it. It’s completely different with Mookie. We’ve become normal friends. We only want to talk baseball and he only wants to talk bowling.”
Mookie Betts, regular guy
There has been only one downside to Betts blossoming into one of Major League Baseball’s top hitters and best known players over the past few years.
Yes, he boasts an American League MVP award, a World Series ring and a lucrative 12-year, $365 million contract, but it’s harder now for Betts to stay anonymous when he bowls in public than it was five years ago.
At a tournament in Louisville last year, Betts retreated to a secluded spot behind the ball return machine to avoid the throngs of gawkers and autograph seekers that had gathered at his lane. Betts turned to friend Sean Doyle and said incredulously, “Man, these people are looking at me like I’m a piece of meat.”
“The first couple years he was with the Red Sox, he could go to a tournament and people would leave him alone,” Doyle told Yahoo Sports. “The last couple years, the celebrity factor has taken over, which he really doesn’t enjoy. Not that he doesn’t want to be friendly to people, but he’s there to bowl. He wants to be just a regular guy.”
One of the few places that Betts still has the normalcy he craves is among his friends and family in the Nashville area. Bowling is one of the ways Betts stays connected with them, one of the activities they can all do together.
Last January, on the day the Tennessee Titans upset the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC playoffs, Betts rented four lanes at a luxury bowling venue in the Nashville suburbs. A few dozen of his friends and family gathered there to watch the game together and do some bowling.
“We had a ball that night,” Doyle said. “But when it was bowling time, people weren’t throwing it between their legs or anything. We were all betting $5 or making teams or bowling doubles. It was relaxing for him, but it was competitive.”
Baseball will always be Betts’ top priority because that’s the sport that pays the bills, but his friends and family are split on whether he would prefer a bowling career if the salaries were comparable.
His mom says no. She actually thinks he would have chosen basketball over both of them if he were tall enough to interest NBA scouts.
Jones isn’t so sure. Why else would Betts buy his own machine to properly oil a bowling lane? Or spend 45 minutes peppering Jones with questions about choosing the right bowling ball? Or celebrate his lone victory in the Chris Paul celebrity event like he had just won another World Series title?
“He genuinely loves bowling,” Jones said. “I think if he had his choice and money was equal, he would probably want to bowl.”
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