While some of his peers collect wine for a hobby, Colorado Rockies starter Chad Bettis is partial to nursing a glass of single-malt Scotch whiskey in his free time. He has about 70 bottles of Speysides, Islays and Highlands in his collection, and when he isn’t pitching, preparing for his next start or recovering from his latest outing, he’s happy to sit for a spell and discuss the ins and outs of his favorite hobby.
Did you know, for example, that it’s advisable to tip the Scotch on its side every now and then so the cork doesn’t dry out and break off into the bottle? That’s one thing he has learned through experience.
“Just the process it took to get where it’s at, that means a lot to me,” Bettis said. “I like the way it opens up on your palate and the aromas you smell from it. It’s kind of homey. I’m kind of just at home with it.”
Bettis, 29, is equally at home standing on a mound and throwing a baseball. Like the finest samples in his archive, he has a classic sense of timelessness about him.
In an age of gas blowers who light up radar guns in increments of 96-100 mph, Bettis is easily distinguishable. He wears his socks high in the manner of the old-time hurlers, and he relies on a four-pitch mix, an economical approach and the time-honored philosophy of pitching to contact. His average 90.0 mph fastball velocity ranks 76th among 91 qualifying starters, and his 5.51 strikeouts per nine innings are 86th on that list.
Pressed for a historical comparison to Bettis, Rockies manager Bud Black settles on a stoic and durable New York Yankees favorite.
“He’s Mel Stottlemyre in the ’60s,” Black said. “He could have thrown in any decade.
“Of 150 starters out there, there aren’t many of them like Chad. He’s a classic throwback to generations, which I’ve come to appreciate and respect. So much in this day and age, we talk about velocity. We talk about strikeouts. We talk about stuff. His stuff is good — don’t get me wrong. But there are different degrees of what stuff means. There’s enough velocity. There’s movement. There’s change of speeds. There’s up, there’s in, there’s down, and there’s away. Chad pitches, which is great.”
Bettis’ success this season is heartening for a number of reasons. He’s a former second-round draft pick out of Texas Tech who threw in the mid-90s upon arrival in professional ball and has gradually had to reinvent himself to compensate for diminished velocity. He is also an inspiration to baseball fans who like their sports heroes on the resilient side.
When Bettis takes the mound Thursday night against the San Francisco Giants, it will mark the anniversary of the first day of the rest of his life. On May 16, 2017, he underwent the last of several treatments for testicular cancer. He received his initial diagnosis in November 2016, had surgery to remove one of his testicles and endured three bouts of chemotherapy the following spring and summer, once the disease spread to his lymph nodes.
After Bettis was declared cancer-free and came off the disabled list in August, he crafted one of the best stories of the 2017 season. He threw seven shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves at Coors Field, of all places, and walked off the mound to handshakes, hugs and a standing ovation from the home crowd.
In December, Bettis became the 29th winner of the Tony Conigliaro Award, which is given annually to the big leaguer who has overcome an obstacle and adversity “through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage that were trademarks of Tony C.”
Overcoming an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage…
– Testicular Cancer Society (@TCSociety) December 10, 2017
People close to Bettis see a deft balance of competitiveness and humanity in his daily interactions. He’s a soft-spoken teammate and friend who transforms into something much more intense every fifth day. During his cancer treatments, he displayed a stoicism and grace that raised the spirits of everyone around him.
“I visited him and sat with him during one of his chemo sessions,” said Matt Sosnick, Bettis’ agent. “He had the port in his chest when I walked in. I was pretty melancholy, and he was laughing and telling jokes while he was getting chemo. I said, ‘How do you feel?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to beat the s— out of this, and I’m going to come back and dominate.’
“He has the unique mix of being an unbelievably strong personality, like a bulldog, and a totally gentle people person. He was thrilled when he found out he was having a girl. He talks about how much he loves his wife all the time. He has this life-tough, totally serious, Alpha male personality as a pitcher. But when you deal with him the rest of the time, he’s a different person. He’s able to take how driven and type A he is and totally turn that off when he’s dealing with people he loves.”
“I visited him and sat with him during one of his chemo sessions. He had the port in his chest when I walked in. I was pretty melancholy, and he was laughing and telling jokes while he was getting chemo.I said, ‘How do you feel?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to beat the s— out of this, and I’m going to come back and dominate.'”
Agent Matt Sosnick on a conversation with Chad Bettis during one of the Rockies pitcher’s chemo sessions
Bettis received emotional and moral support from the baseball community during his ordeal. He developed a long-distance friendship with Pirates starter Jameson Taillon, who went through a similar medical odyssey a year ago, and received a pep talk from Phillies broadcaster and former big leaguer John Kruk, a fellow testicular cancer survivor.
“He reached out immediately and was really supportive,” Bettis said of Kruk. “He told me, ‘Anything I can help or do, I’m there.’ I think there’s a real band of brotherhood there. It’s a pretty tight-knit group.”
Since his return to the Colorado rotation, Bettis has used his platform to raise awareness of testicular cancer and offer guidance to others. He recently received a Twitter message from a Washington Nationals fan whose 16-year-old brother was stricken with the disease. Bettis spent 30 minutes on a conference call with the teen and his father and walked them through the details of what to expect in the coming months.
Bettis has gained additional perspective through his responsibilities as a family man. His wife, Kristina, gave birth to a daughter, Everleigh, nine days before his first chemotherapy treatment, and Kristina handled the parental heavy lifting at a time when he wasn’t able to contribute much. After a recent road start, he received a text from Kristina with a video of Everleigh pointing and gabbing at the TV screen in recognition of her daddy.
Rockies fans have been cheering, too. Bettis logged a 2.05 ERA in his first seven starts before it spiked to 3.12 with a recent rough outing against the Brewers. But he still ranks fifth among National League starters with 1.8 wins above replacement and second to San Francisco’s Johnny Cueto with a 1.35 road ERA.
Between starts, Bettis usually finds time to chat with his father, Cody, a computer software entrepreneur who passed his affinity for Scotch whiskey to his son. During their conversations, they typically spend more time discussing the merits of assorted Ardbegs and Glenlivets than the challenges of facing the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Giants.
Bettis has a few favorites in his collection. He cherishes a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova that Kristina gave him as a gift, and he’s especially proud of a bottle of 26-year-old Balmoral. But nothing will ever eclipse the 27-year-old Port Ellen that his father sent him and Kristina as a wedding present in 2016.
“We always talked about what we thought it would taste like, and he said he would save it for a special occasion,” Bettis said. “When Kristina and I got married, he sent me the box. I said, ‘There’s no way the bottle is inside it.’ Then I opened the box, and the Port Ellen is in there, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?’
“He told us, ‘Open it on your wedding night. It’s yours after that.’ I was like, ‘Do we have to open it, or can I just keep it?’ And he said, ‘You need to open it and celebrate.’ It was awesome.”
Unlike a bottle of fine wine, which must be consumed quickly once opened, a great bottle of Scotch can last months. But the connoisseur in Bettis has taught him that taste is in the eye of the beholder.
“What’s cool is it could be expensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to taste great,” he said. “Once you find your palate, you can navigate through what you really like and what you don’t. I’m a pretty firm believer that you have to drink the bad Scotches to really enjoy the good ones.”
It’s a fitting analogy for a ballplayer whose professional journey has taken him through some trying times on the way to a very good place. As luck would have it, the Rockies have an off-day in the schedule Wednesday, and Kristina will be with her husband in San Francisco. They have plenty of reasons to celebrate.