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Boston is betting Mookie Betts will live up to his hype

Boston center fielder Mookie Betts is in a hurry to achieve, so it's only fitting he has made a big impression in a short time. His veteran Red Sox teammates rave about his professionalism and unquenchable thirst for baseball knowledge. Scouts love his fast hands and fervor for busting down the line on every ground ball. If he performs to expectations, Boston fans will warm to him because he's a 5-foot-9, 180-pound bundle of athleticism, baseball savvy and charisma.

All this comes as no surprise to Betts' family members, who are bullish on his future for reasons other than his bloodline.

Former major leaguer Terry Shumpert is the brother of Betts' mother, Diana Collins, and he has had a profound influence on each step of his nephew's journey. If the Boston fan base is afflicted with a case of Mookie-mania this season, Shumpert can proudly look back and say he was ahead of the curve.

Last summer, after the Red Sox summoned Betts from Triple-A Pawtucket in late June and inserted him in right field at Yankee Stadium, Shumpert received a call from a baseball writer looking for insights on his nephew's potential. He did nothing to downplay expectations.

"I told the guy, 'Mookie Betts is going to do what Yasiel Puig did for the Dodgers two years ago,''' Shumpert recalled. "You know how L.A. was on fire and everything was 'Puig, Puig, Puig'? I told him, 'Mookie could have the same kind of impact.' I know his competitiveness and what kind of person he is, so nothing he does surprises me.''

Shumpert's comparison never saw the light of day, perhaps because it seemed so outlandish to the reporter on the other end of the line. But the more the Red Sox and MLB personnel assess the situation, the more convinced they are Betts can meet or exceed the hype.

Boston is an American League East threat this season in part because of an upgraded lineup that includes Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, but the team's center fielder and leadoff hitter is generating the greatest buzz. Betts, 22, exhausted his rookie eligibility last year, when he logged an .812 OPS and a 2.1 WAR in 52 games. But he continues to check all the uber-prospect boxes.

Athletically gifted? Betts is a former Tennessee state high school bowling champion with two 300 games and an 800 series on his resume. He was a skilled point guard in high school and can execute a 360-degree dunk, despite his size. When the Red Sox stuck him in center field -- a position he had never played until his 2014 arrival at Double-A Portland -- he looked as if he had been there his whole life.

Chicago White Sox pitcher John Danks got a glimpse of Betts' big motor and all-around abilities when they worked out together five days a week in Nashville during the offseason.

"We would do conditioning, weightlifting, everything,'' Danks said during spring training. "I would be huffing and puffing and purging myself, and he just kept going. He's got speed. He can jump. That sucker is an athlete. That's the best way to describe him: He's as good an all-around athlete as I've ever seen.''

Attitude? The veterans on the Boston roster have embraced Betts as a young player worth nurturing because he strikes just the right balance of confidence and respectfulness. If they have a critique, it's that he asks too many questions.

"That's what makes the kid special -- his willingness to try and be better every day,'' right fielder Shane Victorino said. "I'll tease him and say, 'Mookie, shut up. You don't need to ask that. Quit trying to be perfect.' I tell him, 'Let who you are shine. If you go at it 100 percent every day, nobody is going to say anything.'''

The nickname, naturally, rounds out the package. Betts' given name is "Markus Lynn,'' but he received his moniker when his mom took a shine to former Atlanta Hawks point guard Mookie Blaylock. Betts prefers to keep his distance from former New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, the erstwhile Red Sox nemesis who hit that fateful grounder between Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

"Nothing against Mookie Wilson, but I'm glad it's the other one,'' Betts said. "I dodged a bullet there.''

Born to bowl

Betts grew up in Nashville, but most of his family was based 135 miles away in Paducah, Kentucky. He took part in enough family get-togethers to embrace the concept of playing hard or getting left behind.

One of Mookie's uncles, George Wilson, has been an NFL safety with the Bills and Titans since 2004. Another, Neal Clark, was a wide receiver at the University of Kentucky and currently works in the Vanderbilt athletic office.

Shumpert spent 14 years in the majors with Kansas City, Colorado, Boston and three other clubs, and his son, Nick, is a prep shortstop in Colorado who is expected to go in the first three rounds of MLB's first-year player draft in June. Nick's cousin, Chelsey Shumpert, is a 5-foot-3 dynamo who averaged 11.5 points per game this year as a point guard with the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga women's basketball team.

For as long as anyone can remember, the family gathered for Thanksgiving and Christmas reunions and paid homage to beloved matriarch Birdie Reeves -- known to one and all as "Mama Birdie'' -- until she died in November at age 102. Birdie had 33 grandchildren, 73 great-grandchildren and 55 great-great-grandchildren, and a holiday celebration invariably included a trip to church, a party at the local community center and a mass excursion to the local bowling alley for some spirited competition.

Crashing pins, pinball machines, trash talk and laughter were part of the family soundtrack. The kids bowled with the kids, and the adults bowled with the adults, but Mookie raised such a fuss that the men finally welcomed him to their domain just to keep him quiet. Naturally, he smoked them all, and he wasn't afraid to let them know he was good.

"Mookie could talk noise with the best of them,'' Shumpert said.

Shumpert first became convinced Betts had a bright future eight years ago. His younger daughter, Tierra, was roughly the same age as Mookie and also played a variety of sports. During one family gathering, the cousins faced off in a game of one-on-one hoops, and Mookie didn't respond particularly well when Tierra schooled him in the opener of a best-of-three.

"My sister called me right then, and I remember telling her, 'Your son is in the middle of the court talking about how he can't see, and he feels like his chest is about to blow up, and he's spitting up blood. His little girl cousin just beat him one-on-one, and I think he's lost his mind,''' Shumpert said with a laugh. "That's how ultra-competitive Mookie was.''

Mookie rallied to win the next two games, and Shumpert followed by taking him to a local field for batting practice. When Mookie displayed a smooth swing, stroking one line drive after another, Shumpert decided his 14-year-old nephew was the real thing.

The Red Sox reached the same conclusion in 2011, when they drafted Betts in the fifth round and spent $750,000 to dissuade him from accepting a baseball scholarship to the University of Tennessee. Four years and multiple stops later, Shumpert remains a valuable sounding board and source of guidance for Betts. He has told his nephew, for example, that it helps to be confident, but he might want to stay as inconspicuous as possible until he gets established. A certain amount of deference is in order when the Boston clubhouse is home to a former American League MVP (Dustin Pedroia) and a potential Hall of Fame DH (David Ortiz).

Betts was fortunate enough to hang around big-league parks in Atlanta, Cincinnati and a few other cities while Shumpert was playing for the Rockies, so he knows how to carry himself around professionals. The genetic disposition to compete is a gift. When asked if there's a sport he's not proficient at, Betts thinks for a moment before coming up dry.

"God blessed me with the ability to learn new things and kind of catch on to them,'' he said. "I don't know my worst sport, but there's something out there.''

Driven to succeed

The crowded outfield mix in Boston might be a recipe for discord with the wrong mix of personalities, but the Red Sox have made it work to this point. Victorino created a stir recently when he said the Red Sox should try to trade for Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels, and a narrative developed on Boston sports talk radio that he was trying to push Betts out the door to enhance his own job security.

Victorino quickly disputed that notion and said his relationship with Betts is so solid they joked about the faux controversy the following day. They've formed enough of a rapport to have a running banter at the park.

"We'll be standing at the batting cage, and a guy will hit a line drive or a home run, and I'll say, 'That reminds me of Mookie Betts,''' Victorino said. "And Mookie will be like, 'No, no, no, I'm not on that level.' He's a very humble kid, and that's what I appreciate. I pull for him because I know he feels that way in his heart. He has the potential to be an All-Star every year, but he doesn't look at it that way.''

Victorino has gladly assumed the role of defensive mentor to Betts, and he constantly dispenses tips to his young outfield mate. On Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies' Odubel Herrera went up 2-0 in the count, and Betts cast a glance toward right field for guidance. Victorino gave him a subtle wave, and Betts slid over a few steps toward right, just in case the left-handed hitting Herrera tried to pull the ball.

The other facets of Betts' game are already advanced. He has a plus throwing arm, a polished approach at the plate and the speed to steal 30 or more bases. Betts hit 26 homers in 1,116 minor-league at-bats, but talent evaluators see 20-plus homers in his future as he gains strength and experience.

"If you watch him in batting practice, man, he has quick, strong hands,'' one AL scout said. "He whistles that bat through. You'd be amazed at the power he's got. He should hit 15 to 20, easy.''

One of Betts' biggest challenges is weaning himself off his favorite avocation. He brings two bowling balls with him on the road, but Shumpert has told him he might want to pick his spots so he can stay fresh for the sport earning him his livelihood.

Given his reputation, Betts is going to have trouble finding anyone to challenge him. Word of his bowling acumen spread during a Red Sox charity event last year. Victorino recently received rave reviews from a Fenway Park parking attendant who goes by the name "Paulie'' and squared off against Betts during spring training in Fort Myers, Florida.

"Paulie is an avid bowler,'' Victorino said. "And he told me, 'Mookie is legit. He's on a different level.'''

Can Betts reach the same level of dominance at his day job?

While teammates compare him to a young Andrew McCutchen and his uncle opts for Puig, Betts himself is grounded enough to watch, listen, learn and carve out his own niche.

At heart, all Mookie Betts wants to do is play baseball. He'll save the trash talk for the lanes.