An inspiring gesture by Mookie Betts in the middle of the World Series was a fitting cap to a historic seven months for the Boston Red Sox outfielder.
Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
“I’m a realist,” said Red Sox rightfielder Mookie Betts after it was all done and he had proved himself as one of the best players in baseball. “I know it ain’t getting much better than that. When am I going to hit 30 home runs again? I don’t know if I ever will. When am I going to hit .320 again? I don’t know if I ever will. … Last year could arguably be the best year I have in my career.”
Betts said that in 2017. He was referring to ’16, when he hit .318 with 31 home runs and finished second in AL MVP voting. He may not have seen it then, but his future was bright: This year he hit .346 to lead the majors, launched 32 home runs and glided to his first MVP award. He added a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove, making him the second player in history—after the Phillies’ Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt, in 1980—to collect all three awards in the same season he won the World Series. He is surely the only baseball player to do all that within 12 months of twirling a perfect game in the World Series of Bowling. Naturally, he can also solve a Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes.
Betts’s teammates like to joke that he’s exhausting because he is so good at everything, but mostly they reap the benefits. This year he carried the best team in baseball to a decisive title. He and teammate-slash-mentor J.D. Martinez worked constantly to perfect their swings, and Betts took daily groundballs in the infield to refine his defense and hone his reaction time. The result was the most incredible year (10.9 WAR) since Barry Bonds’s 2002 (11.8).
Even away from the ballpark, he found time to inspire. Betts has long held and participated in charity bowling tournaments, but after Game 2 of the World Series, he kept his good works closer to home. David Ortiz had placed an order for Betts’s family and friends at one of the retired slugger’s favorite Dominican restaurants, and when the food arrived, the Bettses’ eyes widened: there were enough catering trays to fill the countertop in the Back Bay apartment where they ate. They were headed to Los Angeles the next day for Game 3, so rather than throw away the leftovers, they bundled up against the 37° night and took them to the nearby Boston Public Library, where dozens of homeless people were sleeping. Betts declined to comment on the story, but his best friend and fellow deliveryman, Cam Lewis, told SI of the media attention the story received, “We didn’t think it would be such a big thing. It was just the right thing to do.”
The deed was a cap to a historic seven months on the field. And the most frightening aspect of Betts’s season? He turned 26 in October. He’s at least a year away from his physiological peak. Despite what he may think, he seems only to be getting better.