BOSTON — It started with a speech, and a pot.
“The speech,” we all know about by now. Mookie Betts, in his first spring with the Dodgers after the deal that surprised the baseball world, including Betts himself, had a request upon his arrival at camp. He asked manager Dave Roberts if he could address the team. The move stunned plenty in his new organization, as did his message: Betts said the Dodgers needed to play with more urgency and take more pride in their work. That, of course, before even spending a day working with them.
The words were impactful. What followed made that impact actionable. Betts quickly conferred with Justin Turner, then the club’s longest-tenured position player who had long been entrenched as the clubhouse voice, and established a system. Betts would take the outfielders, and Turner the infielders, and they would set up a pot. If you commit an error in early work, practice, a game, whatever, you throw $20 in as a fine.
“Everything we’re doing with a sense of purpose,” former first-base coach George Lombard recalled, “that was the difference.”
It became a point of emphasis that spring, and into the abbreviated 2020 regular season that culminated with a World Series victory to snap a 32-year title drought. Whenever an error or misplay was made, everyone would chime in. The $20 went into the pot. And the mistake wouldn’t happen again.
A warm reception at Fenway Park for Mookie Betts. pic.twitter.com/q7l4TGlOAL
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) August 25, 2023
“Not only did it make everyone, I think, pay a little more attention to their work, but it also lightened everything up because everyone was locked in and everyone bought into it,” Turner recalled recently.
“He set that tone early,” Roberts said.
Betts and Turner represented voices and a crossroads for the franchise over their three seasons together in Los Angeles.
Friday night represented another crossroads. Betts arrived at Fenway Park for the first time since the Red Sox dealt him away in a stunner four years ago, sitting with a grin as he addressed the media and embraced the place he thought he’d never leave. Turner had a reunion of his own as this was his first time facing the Dodgers since the club let him walk this winter. He inked a free-agent deal with the Red Sox.
Even four years in the making, Friday night snuck up on Betts. He and his wife, Brianna, circled the date when Major League Baseball unveiled its schedule last fall, but it wasn’t until the 30 to 40 family and friends who made the trek to Boston this weekend started FaceTiming him from their old haunts and spots that things really hit.
The years between visits allowed the wound to heal rather than fester. Emotion was replaced with anticipation. He looked comfortable, downright giddy at points, to be back in Boston, to say hello to the few old faces remaining on the other side. That group included manager Alex Cora, Rafael Devers and Chris Sale along with longstanding members of the organization who brought him up from the time he was just a teen. Betts said he is eager to visit some of his favorite places, maybe even sneak in a round of candlepin bowling, too. Boston, he said, was “a special chapter in my life.”
He took his first at-bat amidst a roar of “Mook” that emanated from the sellout crowd of 35,653 at Fenway Park. He stepped out of the batter’s box to acknowledge the cheers and tip his cap.
There was no awkwardness about a departure that shocked him, no bitterness. Los Angeles has changed him, he says, and helped him grow.
“I can look back and say that (Boston) was a very, very dope chapter in my life,” Betts said. “But the chapter I’m in right now, I’m enjoying so much. I love this so much. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
He has grown into his voice and established himself as a presence. When Freddie Freeman arrived last spring in his own shocker rather than return to the Braves, he said it was Betts’ presence that made him feel welcome. Days into his arrival, Betts approached him at the batting cage at the Dodgers’ spring complex and told him to come to him with anything he needed.
That, Freeman said, showed all he needed to know about his new teammate.
“Leaders lead,” Freeman said.
For years, Turner was also a powerful presence in the Dodgers clubhouse. Teammates and staff members would point to the influence of the club’s longtime third baseman, who originally arrived in Los Angeles in a minor-league deal in 2014 and blossomed into so much more than that. A late-career bloom made him a multi-time All-Star and a postseason hero. Many people expected Turner to still be a Dodger right now.
“All things considered, absolutely (I’m surprised),” Roberts said of seeing Turner in the other dugout on Friday. “I don’t think that anyone saw it ending that way. But that’s the way it played out.”
Turner wears a new number (No. 2) in addition to a new uniform these days. He’s established himself as the preeminent voice in a Boston clubhouse that remains in postseason contention, so much so that Cora heaped praise on him Friday afternoon for how rapidly he’s taken a foothold. “He’s so consistent at what he does,” Cora said. “Forget the baseball part of it, but as a person what he brings to the equation on a daily basis to his teammates.”
That was something Los Angeles knew well. And even after the Dodgers declined his $16 million club option, Turner still wasn’t expecting to wind up anywhere else.
“I’ll just leave it at that,” Turner said Friday.
He still wasn’t willing to go into detail as to what happened. Earlier this winter, Turner appeared on the local Los Angeles radio station AM 570 and alluded to luxury tax concerns playing a factor in his lingering free agency.
“Well, looking back on it now, I don’t think they’re anywhere close to the tax line,” Turner said. “It just seems like it was part of the plan. I don’t know.”
The Dodgers are indeed going to blow past the first luxury tax threshold, though their plans were impacted some by MLB’s decision to reduce Trevor Bauer’s suspension and put the Dodgers on the hook for the majority of the money he’s owed this season — a decision that came a week after the dust settled with Turner.
“They still didn’t come after me,” Turner said.
Los Angeles instead came to a one-year, $10 million agreement in December with longtime Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez — a deal in which Martinez said he took less money for a chance to contend. Days later, Turner signed a deal with the Red Sox that guaranteed him at least $15 million. The two have delivered remarkably similar production, including an identical 125 OPS+ at the plate entering the day, though Turner’s value in the field and extra 100 at-bats give him the WAR lead.
For as much as Turner downplayed a chance to play his old club, he can take satisfaction in this: He has provided Boston with everything his old club knew he would.
“Any time you play against your old team you want to do good against them and show them that you think they made a mistake,” Turner said. “I’m not really a goal guy. I don’t really set out numbers. I just want to be worth my contract or my value or outperform my contract. That way I can live with myself. … I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that (this year).”
— The Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey and Chad Jennings contributed to this report.
(Photo of Mookie Betts and Justin Turner: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)