Mom was my first coach: Mothers had major league influence on Mookie Betts, Zion Williamson, Quinn Hughes

Zion Williamson: '[My mom's the] hardest coach I ever had' (0:37)

Zion Williamson: '[My mom's the] hardest coach I ever had.' (0:37)

Mookie Betts is one of the best players in all of baseball, but the Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder's baseball career began as a simple mom-and-popup operation in Nashville, Tennessee.

Betts' mom, Diana Benedict, coached his first organized baseball team. Sporting a green Ninja Turtle glove and suspenders because the team didn't have a uniform small enough for him, little Mookie came up big and made Mom proud.

"I remember catching my first fly ball," Betts said. "After I caught it, I looked to my mom, raised the ball up and said, 'Mommy! Mommy! I caught it!'"

Betts, who won the AL MVP and a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2018, is one of several current sports luminaries whose athletic roots trace back to the family matriarch. 2019 top draft pick Zion Williamson, reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and NHL Rookie of the Year front-runner Quinn Hughes also have something in common with Betts besides exceptional athleticism and uncommon drive: Their first -- and often toughest and most influential -- coach was Mom.

Sharonda Sampson taught Zion to shoot. Ellen Weinberg-Hughes taught Quinn (and his younger brother, 2019 No. 1 NHL draft pick Jack Hughes) to skate. Jackson's mom, Felicia Jones, put on pads and served as Lamar's first tackling dummy.

Ellen, a three-sport athlete at the University of New Hampshire (in soccer, lacrosse and hockey) who went on to play for Team USA at the IIHF World Women's Hockey Championship in 1992 before embarking on a career in sports broadcasting, notes that her three sons -- Luke, 16, is a top 2021 NHL draft prospect -- are part of a wave of enlightened Gen Z athletes.

"My boys and their peers are byproducts of the Title IX generation," Ellen said. "They are used to seeing and being around women who are athletic. When Quinn had a youth hockey teammate who was a girl, it was no big deal to him."

And they're accustomed to seeing highly accomplished women -- especially their moms -- as authority figures, on and off the court. Sampson, who ran track at Livingston College, coached Zion's AAU basketball teams until he reached high school.

"[My mom's the] hardest coach I ever had, to this day," Williamson told ESPN's Rachel Nichols last year. "A good game, in her book, is almost impossible. When I was younger, I used to think I had a good game. ... But I grew to never be satisfied. I felt like I could do better. I got that from my mom."

The Hughes brothers learned hockey from both parents. Their dad, Jim Hughes, played at Providence College and had a long coaching career that included stints with the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs. But all three sons credit Mom with teaching them to skate, laying the foundation for the superlative skill that would propel two (and possibly three) of them to become first-round draft picks.

"I had three young kids, and my husband was often on the road," Ellen said. "So I took them skating because it was something that I enjoyed doing. I always chose activities that I enjoyed. It wasn't about pushing them into anything. It was simply about having fun together."

As the boys grew up, free skates gave way to structured practices and far-flung tournaments. But even as she shuttled her sons from one rink -- and state -- to another, Ellen never completely hung up her skates. When the family joined Jim for the 2013 NHL Draft in Newark, she took the boys on a jaunt into New York City.

"The three of us rollerbladed all through Central Park," said Ellen. "We had the greatest day. We skated through the zoo, saw the street performers. Then we took our rollerblades off, put them in our bags and went to see their first Broadway show (Annie). Skating through New York was a fun, cool moment that we could all experience together because I had played hockey too."

Although Williamson and the Hughes brothers learned early on that mother often knows best on the court, or ice, female coaches are still relatively rare across youth sports. According to the Aspen Institute's 2019 Project Play report, only 27% of the more than 6.5 million adults who coach youth teams up to age 14 are women.

Betts' father, Willie, ran track and played basketball growing up. But Mookie learned baseball from Benedict, a three-sport athlete who'd grown up playing baseball on the diamond that her grandfather had built on the family farm in Paducah, Kentucky. So it was a no-brainer that she would coach her son, whom she'd named Markus Lynn Betts because she liked that his initials would be an ode to her favorite sport.

But she still had to prove her sports bona fides to opposing coaches and fellow parents, at least at first.

"When we had our first team meeting, some of the parents asked, 'Who's gonna help you?'" Benedict said. "But after I started having some skill sessions, they realized that I knew what I was talking about."

She taught her son perhaps too well. Betts almost cleaned his mom's clock with a comebacker up the middle in coach pitch. "It was a rocket. I ducked, and it just missed me," Benedict said. "Mookie said, 'Oh, Mama. I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to hit it so hard, Mama!'"

Benedict high-fived him, then made a call to the bullpen. "I keep coaching the team but let one of the other coaches pitch from that point on," she said. "I didn't want Mookie to change his swing because he was afraid of hitting me."

Toronto Blue Jays reliever Anthony Bass' mom, Linda, was his first coach-pitch manager in Trenton, Michigan. She was part June Cleaver, part Earl Weaver.

"He steps up there for the first time, and he's just ready to pound that ball," Linda said. "As a mother, you just want to go over and hug him. But he was so professional. He took baseball so seriously, even at that age. I had to make sure I got a strike in there for him."

Mom grooved a pitch right down the middle, and Anthony pounced on it.

"I was trying to take her head off [with line drives]," Anthony joked. "My favorite memory of her coaching was hitting a home run off her when I was 7. When I crossed home plate, she was smiling from ear to ear."

Some rituals from those shared days in the dugout or on the sideline endure, even once Mom hangs up her clipboard and retires from coaching.

"If Anthony did well when I was coaching him, he and his teammates got to go to the Dairy Queen and get sprinkles on their ice cream," Linda Bass said. "Even now, if Anthony has a good night, we tell him, 'Honey, if we were there, we'd take you to the Dairy Queen and get sprinkles.'"

Benedict now takes a more hands-off approach with Betts, who is 27 and a parent himself. "Very seldom do I try to coach Mookie now," Benedict said. "I usually just try to provide support. But sometimes I see something on the field and just can't help myself."

Ellen Weinberg-Hughes also does more cheering than coaching these days. Last October, her sons faced off in an NHL game for the first time, as Jack's New Jersey Devils hosted Quinn's Vancouver Canucks. "I offer advice only when they ask," she said. "They're getting plenty of coaching. Now they need me to be Mom."

But Mom can still wheel. With all three sons homebound because of the pandemic, and turning to street hockey to stay sharp, Ellen felt the itch to join them.

"I put on the roller blades again this week, " Ellen said. "Even though I'm 51 and have a bad hip, I can still hold my own. I went out there and joined them. Having their mom skate with them is normal for my boys; they don't know differently."