Over the holidays we’ll be re-visiting Sportsnet staff writers’ favourite pieces from 2017. Today: Gare Joyce explains why a piece on introverted Cincinnati Reds superstar Joey Votto tops his list.
I had no history with Joey Votto. I mean, I had a history of respecting him. A long-lapsed Red Sox fan, I worshipped at the altar of St. Splinter, Ted Williams, and I was hardly surprised to find that Votto was likewise inclined. After all, in the years since the Kid Bid the Hub Adieu, Votto might be the single major-leaguer who approximated Williams’s single-minded devotion, nay obsession, with hitting.
Of course obsessive athletes usually want to turn off the outside world to focus on their perspiring art and more than a few want to deny the existence of anything other than the game. That was the fear that I ran with Joey Votto, unfounded, as it turned out.
There is an anxiety that a writer feels when a story is falling through. I have been there more than a few times, driven through blizzards to get to games when my subject was scratched from the lineup at the last minute. (That has happened in my last two trips to Gatineau and I’m superstitious enough to make those my last two trips there on business.)
On a Sunday morning in May I thought my story on Joey Votto was falling through. I had driven overnight to Cincinnati through a thunderstorm that forced me to pull over onto the soft shoulder in the middle of nowhere — anything south of Toledo before you hit the Three Rivers constitutes the middle of nowhere.
The Reds’ media-relations director had assured me that Votto was pretty good for the media to deal with. Every other ballplayer had checked into the home team’s clubhouse and had dressed. Some had gone out to the field, though a drizzle forced them into the dugout. No Votto and but a single minute was left before the clubhouse was closed to the media, a point driven home to me by the media-relations guy who pointed to the clubhouse clock in case I had missed the point.
Votto walked in with just seconds to spare and I had to make my case. “Joey, I’m a reporter from Toronto, blah, blah, blah,” I said. Not particularly hopeful I could get five minutes with him. Twenty minutes later Votto was still talking, right through his stretching routine and by this time I had burns in the back of my head from the laser-like glare of the media-relations man who was being overruled by the franchise player.
I turned off my recorder and thanked Joey and he kept talking, just conversation, people that we knew, mutual interests. Distrustful of the media, Ted Williams was a black cloud and on this count Votto was the farthest thing from his inspiration. He was incredibly generous and had a bone-dry sense of humour. He’s an athlete I wish I could write about every day.
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.