Chris Betts

Chris Betts is a consummate baseball guy, saying he was “born into” the sport.

From tagging along with his college baseball playing dad, Harold, as a toddler to winning back-to-back Moore League Co-Player of the Year awards at Long Beach Wilson High, Betts, 18, has made America’s pastime his passion.

And now it’s his profession.

On Monday night, Betts was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays with the 52nd pick in the second round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Players Draft.

“It’s about time — it’s been 18 years of waiting,” Betts said after watching the draft at home with family and friends. “I’m excited and can’t wait to get started with Tampa Bay.”

Despite being named as the No. 28 prospect according to Major League Baseball Network, Betts slipped down the board with unexpected results ahead of him.

“I don’t even care now,” Betts added about waiting until the second round. “I haven’t slept in the last two months so I’m relieved. I start at the same place as everyone else.”

Wilson has produced 14 Major League Baseball players; the last first-round selection was Aaron Hicks in 2008 who was selected with the 14th overall pick by the Minnesota Twins.

A 2015 Perfect Game 1st Team All-American, Betts shot up on the MLB draft boards this year as his power potential grew exponentially. In the last 10 months he’s turned heads at showcases like the Under Armor Futures game at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the All-Star Game Junior Home Run Derby at Target Field in Minneapolis and the Area Code games at Blair Field here in Long Beach.

Betts also has participated in about a half dozen scouting showcases where players with the tools to play the game can really shine. But according to Betts, “That’s not real baseball.”

“It’s just batting practice with three rounds of six swings each for about 200 scouts,” he said. “It’s really for pitchers.”

Betts has done well for himself during the 28 home visits from MLB franchise representatives. The visiting scouts, who would stay anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, really want to get to know the players and their families before the draft.

“They were enamored by Chris and shocked by his knowledge of the game,” said his mother, Barbara. “They want to see if kids will be OK on the road and Chris has been on the road plenty.”

As part of the USA Baseball U-14, U-15 and U-17 teams, Betts traveled to Venezuela and the Dominican Republic for international competitions that changed his life. In a 2011 COPADE Pan Am 14-U game, Betts turned into a YouTube sensation when he tackled a Venezuelan player who tried to charge the mound.

“He left an American teenager and came home a young American,” Barbara recalls.

“It’s the only way you can really understand how lucky we are to live in the greatest country in the world,” Betts says of seeing the abject poverty overseas.

Born and raised in Long Beach, Betts spent the first years of his life watching his dad play at the University of Oklahoma and UNLV. It wasn’t until he was 12 that Betts looked like an elite player, but he wasn’t convinced until 11-year pro and Arizona Diamondbacks minor league coach Phil Nevin pulled Harold aside at a tournament in Colorado to praise his son.

“That’s when I stopped coaching his teams,” Harold says. “A scout asked me recently what we work on and the answer is, everything I struggled with, like going the other way and pitch sequence. I never tell him what to do, I ask him why he did things.”

Routinely, on drives home from California Baseball Academy games in San Clemente, the Betts boys would recount every at-bat from the day of games.

“My daughter Mandy knows more about baseball than any 14-year old because of those drives,” joked Barbara.

“I was playing 120-130 games a year in middle school because of all of the leagues I was in,” Betts said.

The whole family also learned a lot about how high-demand and technology has changed the draft process. Working with guidance from hired advisers at MVP Sports Group, Betts verbally committed to the University of Tennessee as a sophomore, shed 30 pounds this year and shut down his Twitter account.

“You have to have an adviser now,” Harold said. “It’s like trying to buy or sell a house. There’s so much that would be over your head. (Advisers) tell you what to worry about and what not to worry about.”

For example, Betts strained his forearm two months ago and immediately went to get an MRI and alerted local media that there was no structural damage. MVP Sports Group did the same with scouts. Betts played it safe in the second half of the season and stopped catching, but stayed in the lineup as a designated hitter.

Betts hit .473 as a senior and drove in 29 runs in 74 official at-bats while pitchers avoided him with 32 walks that padded a .642 on base percentage. In 113 games played over four years at Wilson, Betts hit .345 with 74 RBIs, 70 runs scored and 16 home runs while only striking out 32 times.

“I’ve been taught to play baseball the right way,” Betts said. “Most of the time I’m positive and keep to myself on the field to lead by example. But if you do something to disrespect the game, you’ll hear from me about it.”

MLB scouts have openly praised Betts for that attitude, his quiet confidence and maturity that has undoubtedly elevated his draft stock.

“Working out recently I was never thinking about being a Freshman All-American (at Tennessee),” Betts said. “I’ve only been thinking about playing Major League Baseball.”

JJ has covered Long Beach sports for more than a decade. He's written for multiple newspapers in Southern California, produced professional event videos and won numerous awards for his writing and community service.

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