When Mookie Betts takes the field for the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night in the first game of the 2018 World Series, the 26-year-old outfielder will do so as one of the world's best baseball players.
The Red Sox phenom is a three-time All-Star who many experts believe will be voted this season's American League MVP after he put together a historic season that helped lead his team to its current World Series matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
At this point, any MLB team would love to have Betts on the roster. But two decades ago, the Tennessee-born Betts had trouble finding any Little League baseball team that would take him. In fact, if it wasn't for some quick thinking and motherly devotion from Betts' mom, Diana Collins, his baseball career might have ended before it ever began.
"Mookie was very small-framed, a very underweight small kid," Collins tells CNBC Make It about her son, who is still considered relatively small for a professional athlete, standing at just 5 feet 9 inches.
When he was 5, according to The Tennessean, Collins had trouble securing him a spot on one of the local Little League teams. Collins took Betts to a Little League sign-up event where they lived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, only to have the first coach she talked to tell her that her son was too small for his team.
"He said, 'No, I don't really think [so]. I really need some bigger kids. I've got enough small kids and I'm trying to balance my team out,'" Collins says the coach told her.
She tried introducing Betts to the league's other coaches, but they were also holding open roster spots only for larger kids who might prove more athletic on the baseball field.
"I said, 'Give him a chance, because he really can play,'" Collins says she argued, but to no avail.
Collins had been playing catch with Betts in their backyard for a few years already. She knew he could catch a baseball as well as other kids his age, but she wanted him to learn more about the game through actual competition.
"Mookie was getting kind of discouraged," Collins tells CNBC Make It. "You know how kids are when they see somebody say 'No.'"
She told him not to worry, and that they'd find him a team. "He said, 'Nobody wants to have me.'"
"I'm like, 'Oh no, you're going to play,'" Collins says she told Betts before realizing that he wasn't the only child without a team. "I looked over and all of these other kids had the same [discouraged] look … other parents were kind of panicking that nobody wanted to play [their kids]."
Thinking quickly, Collins approached one of the Little League officials and asked if they could add more teams to the league, because there seemed to be enough kids without a team to field their own. She was told that was fine, but she'd need to line up a coach. Collins volunteered herself and that's how she became the first baseball coach of a future MLB All-Star.
"It's kind of a little sad story, but we just gathered up everybody that nobody wanted and we just formed our own team," Collins says. "It didn't matter, I wanted my kid to play ball."
Unfortunately, despite the fact that Betts would one day grow up to be a professional baseball player, their first Little League team did not get a fairy tale ending of its own. In fact, Collins says, the team was not very good at all.
They finished in last place in the league, and Collins thinks they only won a couple of games. However, she remembers one of the few wins, in particular, because it came at the expense of the first coach who told her Betts was too small to play on his team.
Collins remembers telling her 5-year-old son that it was an important game and to be sure that he caught the ball and got the opposing team out whenever he could. And, on at least one play in that game, Betts picked up a ball that had been hit to the outfield fence and was fast enough to run all the way back to the infield to tag out the runner. The team's season may have been a disappointment, but Betts had proved his mother's intuition correct by displaying innate athletic ability and a drive to win.
Collins is a former high school softball player and an avid bowler, who always encouraged Betts to pursue his athletic interests. While Collins was only Betts' full-time coach for one season before another coach took over the team the following year, she and Betts' father, Willie Betts, spent years ferrying their son around Tennessee for baseball practices and games. In high school, Betts became a standout athlete excelling at baseball, basketball and bowling — the latter being a sport that Collins taught her son at 3 years old.
"Bowling was something he and I saw we could do together," Collins tells CNBC Make It, noting that Betts thinks the game is "slow" compared to baseball. But Betts still bowls regularly — and, he's really good, too. Betts, who won his first bowling tournament competing in an event with his mother at age 8, now occasionally competes in professional tournaments. He even bowled a perfect 300-point game at a Professional Bowling Association competition in 2017.
"Every parent dreams of their kid being special in any sport," Collins says. As it turned out, Betts ended up loving, and excelling at, multiple sports. "I just kept him active and I wanted it to be his decision as to what he wanted to play."
As a high school senior, Betts learned that he'd been drafted by the Red Sox in the fifth round of the 2011 MLB Draft. Betts had to decide between honoring a commitment to play baseball at the nearby University of Tennessee or sign with the Red Sox and begin his professional career right out of high school.
"His dad and I both told him, 'We'll support you whatever your decision is,'" Collins says. "With anything, you have to give a kid their options and let it be their decision. And, that's what we did. We didn't want to make the decision for him."
Betts decided to sign with Boston for a $750,000 signing bonus. The fact that the 18-year-old Betts was immediately starting his professional career — he started playing minor league baseball for the Red Sox in Florida in the summer of 2011 — was "kind of scary" for Collins, because it meant her son would have to grow up fast, she told MassLive.com in 2015.
But, Betts acclimated well to the minor leagues and he was soon a top prospect in the Red Sox organization who would make his MLB debut in 2014. Now in his fifth season in the majors, Betts has been an All-Star in each of the past three seasons and he's earned a salary of $10.5 million in 2018.
Now, he stands on the cusp of the biggest stage of his career with the World Series set to get underway on Tuesday night at Boston's iconic Fenway Park.
This moment is "a dream come true" for her son, says Collins, who retired from her job with the Tennessee Department of Transportation in August after more than two decades and now has more time to attend Betts' games. She plans to attend World Series games in both Boston and Los Angeles, she says. "Oh, absolutely. Who misses that?"
"I'm ecstatic about it," she says. "Who would have thought, at 26 years old, this boy would be in the World Series? I never would have thought that."
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