A steamy drizzle is falling on the Great American Ball Park, chasing the early arrivals among the Cincinnati Reds off the field, out of the dugout and into the clubhouse on a Sunday morning before a one o’clock game against the Colorado Rockies. Some of the Reds haven’t bothered to even venture outside. They sit at their stalls, texting, occasionally glancing up at one of the screens to see highlights from last night’s games. Billy Hamilton, the leadoff hitter, is busting Adam Duvall, who singled and stole a base in four at bats yesterday. “It was your Bobblehead Day,” Hamilton says. “You gotta hit a homer if it’s your Bobblehead Day. A steal doesn’t count.”
Clubhouse staff comes in and tells the players that the weather has cleared. One by one the players slowly file out. Among the last to head for the door, Hamilton passes just as Joey Votto enters, his face the distillation of beatific calm.
Votto’s known not for arriving late so much as not arriving any earlier than necessary. He’ll always allow himself the time he needs to be fully prepared to play, but it’s strictly enough, not a minute more. His thinking: Wasted time in the clubhouse expends unnecessary energy and can only serve as a distraction. Some ballplayers will tell you that they love to come to the ballpark, just to drink in the whole experience. The Greatest Canadian Ballplayer loves coming to the Great American Ball Park, because it’s where he hits the ball, fields the ball, throws the ball.
By the time he reaches his stall, Votto’s not getting ready to go to work, he’s already started. Nothing about his stall signifies that he is a star. It’s a single, while some big names in the big leagues (or even not so big names) occupy two. As equipment goes, Votto is a minimalist: just two pairs of shoes when his teammates can have eight or more; a couple of pairs of batting gloves, but that’s it. You might think that the framed photograph mounted on the wall beside his stall is the tip-off: an eight-by-10 of Votto at the plate, right foot raised, stepping into a pitch. This, however, is not a matter of vanity — photos of Reds past and present are hung throughout the clubhouse. When you talk to Votto, you later wonder if he has ever even noticed that photo.
Votto stretches on the floor, his usual routine. He might go out to the field on a nice day but today the grass is wet. It’s quieter here anyway. He works through the inventory of muscles that will need to be woken, warmed and lengthened. He has the same number of muscles as other major leaguers but only a couple might seem better assembled for the game. He is listed at six-foot-two, 220 pounds, and there isn’t much you could call superfluous — 97 per cent of him goes into his work at the plate and first base. So far that work has him bound for Cooperstown: He won the NL MVP in 2010 and in each of his past five seasons uninterrupted by injury he has finished in the top 10 of balloting for the award; on a ballclub that dates back to 1869, he’s the career leader in on-base percentage (.425) and OPS (.962). Those behind him have statues outside the ballpark.
Pre-game stretching isn’t the worst time to ask Votto what attracted him to baseball as a young man growing up in suburban Etobicoke, Ont., just west of Toronto. In fact, it might be the best time. He’s almost meditative. He looks at questions from all sides, measures every word like he does each breath. “What drew me to the game originally was that it was something I could do solo … an individual game,” he says. “I’m an introvert. To practice [baseball] you could just throw a ball against a wall. A rubber ball. That’s all it takes. Then it was a chance to spend time with my father. I’d play catch with him. He was my first coach when I was seven or eight years old.”
At age 33, Votto has been in pro ball almost half his life, so he’s capable of sounding nostalgic about his seasons in the minor leagues. Others would look at their apprenticeships as simple dues paying. “Those days were fantastic,” Votto says. “It was so exciting. It was liberating. I was starting the process of becoming an adult. A lot of things added up to a feeling of being independent. I had my own set of responsibilities, my own telephone. I had a job. I had a little bit of money … “
Pause here. To fully appreciate Votto’s gift for understatement, consider: The “little bit of money’ he had coming out of Richview Collegiate at age 18 was $600,000, his signing bonus after the Reds selected him in the second round of the 2002 draft. Then again 600k could look small to Votto after signing his current deal, which pays him $225-million over a 10-year stretch running through to 2024 when he will be 41. Over that span he will remain with the Reds unless he consents to a move elsewhere — he has a full no-trade clause.
Hit play again, as Votto talks about his season with the Reds affiliate in Billings, Montana. “I loved it being in the Pioneer League. A lot of the cities there were beautiful. We were lucky enough to have a few off-days when we had a chance to take advantage of the outdoors … to go out on a river or lake, whatever city it was.”
At times like this, Joey Votto doesn’t sound like other ballplayers. Or in fact like a ballplayer at all.
He can be cryptic. When MLB.com’s Hal Bodley asked him if hitting .400 in the second half meant anything to him, he smiled and said: “It means the exact same thing to me as hitting .200 the first two months. It’s like, ‘Boy, that’s confusing and I’m glad it’s over with.’ I don’t expect to hit .400 and I don’t expect to hit .200.” It might sound strange, but then who can imagine Joey Votto’s vantage point, that of someone who hits .400 for half a season?
He can be self-deprecating. “I think I am boring,” he told Maclean’s a few years back. “That’s good. I strive for boring in all elements of my game.” It sounds contrived but, then again, this is someone who learned to love the game by throwing a ball against a wall, who got $600,000 and treated himself to his own phone.
Maybe it’s the strategy of an introvert keeping his distance from the media, from everybody. “Interesting” doesn’t add any value, not one more hit will drop in, not one more count will be worked for a walk, not one more ball will clear the fence. More than a few in the media have tagged Votto as the MLB’s unknown superstar but it might be that he’s the game’s unknowable superstar, by his nature, by his making or, probably, both.
Bob Smythe can unravel the enigma somewhat. It’s a safe guess that no one knows Votto on and off the diamond as well as Smythe, who coached Votto in the Etobicoke Rangers program. Smythe got to know not just the player but also his parents, Joseph Sr., a chef, and Wendy, a sommelier. Smythe and Votto go back 18 years. They talk on the phone regularly. Not just a check-in, a “hi, how are you?” Smythe says it’s not unusual for them to talk for more than two hours, not unusual for baseball to come up only in passing over the course of a conversation.
“I remember him coming to me at 15,” says Smythe who lives on Vancouver Island and scouts for MLB. “I coached 3,000 kids over the years. His talent wasn’t obvious at the start. The first year he did nothing spectacular — he had a sore arm, so that probably had something to do with it. That off-season he came to our practice facility five or six times a week … would have come more if I had let him. That’s when you really started to see it.”
The narrative that gets written, too much in Smythe’s estimation, is that Votto is a great hitter by dint of hard work and hard work alone. Smythe says it’s a component and not the starting point for Votto’s success. “Make no mistake about Joey having talent,” he says. “I had a lot of kids that worked hard — as hard as he did — and they didn’t get out of their hard work what Joey did. There are a lot of major leaguers as big and as strong as Joey and they can’t do what he has done. Just in the past two years he changed the way he swings a bat. He thinks the game well, and you have to, because if you’re a dummy you’re not going to survive in the game.”
In Votto’s draft year, Smythe was both coaching the Rangers and scouting for the Seattle Mariners. He had seen the entire front office of the Reds come out to Rangers games over the spring. “I knew they were hot for him, so I tried to talk [then Seattle GM] Pat Gillick into drafting him. Couldn’t convince him.”
When told that Votto had described himself as an introvert, Smythe concurs. “Joey is an introvert, although I only found that out later on,” he says. “He doesn’t like attracting attention to himself. He likes his privacy.”
The one time that the private Votto attracted more attention to himself than he would have wanted was back in the late summer of 2008 when his father, Joey Sr., died suddenly at the age of 52. “It was an awful time for Joey and his family,” Smythe says. “He was so close to his father. When he went back to baseball, it wasn’t [a way that] he could get away from feelings he had. In some ways, I know that the game brought back memories of his father — his dad loved the game and everything that Joey had accomplished.”
Votto took MLB’s standard seven days for bereavement leave and then returned to the Reds, finishing the season as runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year Award. Though you saw no evidence of it on the field, the son’s grief for his father’s death went well beyond the manageable. The following season the Reds placed Votto on the disabled list — effectively, it was stress leave. It came as a surprise because there had seemingly been no impact on his performance: When he was put on the DL, Votto was hitting .357 with eight home runs and 33 RBI in 38 games.
Later Votto talked candidly about having panic attacks that landed him in hospital, about being diagnosed as depressed. He went public because he thought that his story might help someone enduring anxiety and clinical depression. “Joey is smart enough and honest with himself enough to have known to get help,” Smythe says. “And he was strong enough to open up about it.”
When it’s put to Smythe that he fits the profile of a surrogate father, he doesn’t push back hard. “Maybe I am,” he says. “Joey has a good read of people. He’s a loyal friend. He has picked out some pretty good influences. I told him to watch Scott Rolen when he came to the Reds, because you’ll learn how to be a pro from him. Joey has a circle of people he’s comfortable with and I’m in there. He’s important to me.”
You could probably round up few introverts in the major leagues, fewer who’d admit to it. It’s hard to find many among the greatest hitters in the history of the game. Votto’s baseball hero is Ted Williams — he has a dog-eared copy of Williams’s The Science of Hitting — but in personality Votto couldn’t be farther from the hot-blooded, confrontational “Splendid Splinter.” But it’s not Williams’s personality that drew Votto in, not his exploits as a pilot in war or as a fisherman, just his love and understanding of the physics of swinging a bat at a ball.
Votto shares that love and from season to season at the plate, he has been not so much consistent as relentless. His slash line so far this season (.299/.422/.591) hews close to his career numbers (.312/.425/.538). He’s in line to have his best statistical season since his MVP campaign in 2010 (.324/.424/.600). No matter what Billy Hamilton says, Votto won’t swing for the fences on his Bobblehead Day — things like promotions or fireworks or video highlights or awards are meaningless to him. He’s a contact hitter with power. He wants good at-bats, good swings at the right pitches. That’s it, that’s all.
When asked his goals this season and for seasons beyond, only one number comes up: 162. “I want to play every day,” he says, twisting from one side to another on the floor in front of his stall. “I look back on the seasons when I played every day, I’m proudest of those seasons. It takes some luck … a lot of luck.”
With the Reds coming to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays in the last three days of May, the question will be asked once again: Will Joey Votto ever play for the Blue Jays? It’s hard to imagine a scenario with him playing every day at the Rogers Centre — hard, but not impossible. The Reds have been in a rebuilding mode for several seasons of Votto’s prime. “I want to play for a winner, a consistent winner, get a World Series or two,” says Votto, who has played in only nine post-season games across his career.
If Votto were to ever waive his no-trade clause, you’d suppose it would have to be for a team that had a chance to win. Sentiment wouldn’t figure in the decision. Sentiment might in fact work against the Jays if the Reds ever wanted to go down that road. Votto has talked before about how he likes playing in Cincinnati because it allows him his privacy when he comes back to Toronto to spend time with his mother and younger twin brothers. That would be utterly out the window if he were to play for his hometown team. He has grown and matured — he has his own phone and will in time have a nine-figure net worth. And yet he holds on to some things that he doesn’t want to change, some things that are woven into his fabric.
“I was always fine being on my own, comfortable in my own company. I’m more naturally introverted. I have a great time with my teammates and I get along with just about everybody. But I’m more inclined to do things solo. In the off-season when it’s time to play catch, I do exactly what I did when I was eight years old. I go to the playground and find a wall and a ball and I’ll start throwing, first close, then stretching it out. I get everything I need out of that. I do it every night. I could do other things, maybe, but I get everything I need out of that.”
Joey Votto looks at the digital clock on the wall. He is minutes away from taking his cuts in BP. “What I’ve learned over the years is to focus and limit the distractions,” he says, and with that he heads out of the clubhouse to the field at the Great American Ball Park. If he was striving to be boring, private and focused, his slash line was .312, .425 and .962.
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