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He may be the quiet one on the team, but the Reds first baseman knows how to get the job done. And talk, actually. Here’s what the self-effacing phenom had to say when we caught up with him just before the All-Star break.
Can you be the MVP and not an all-star? That’s the question everyone in baseball asked when Reds first baseman Joey Votto didn’t make the initial National League line-up for the 2010 MLB All-Star Game, despite leading the league in both home runs and the crucial hitting stat of on-base-percentage plus slugging (OPS)—for a first-place team, no less. But what else is new? Votto’s whole career deserves the adverb quietly. “I try to keep my mouth shut and just do my job,” he says.
A high school catcher from Ontario, Votto was selected by the Reds in the second round of the 2002 amateur draft, after first-round pitching stud Chris Gruler (whose shoulder problems put him out of baseball by 2006). He finished second in the 2008 National League Rookie of the Year race, but his first season was not as memorably dramatic as the overlapping debuts of Reds teammates Edinson Volquez and Jay Bruce. And, yes, he plays the same position as three-time National League Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols, as well as the 2006 recipient, Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies. As a third-year player who has yet to qualify for arbitration or free agency, Votto makes a “mere” $525,000. Howard, who was chosen by his manager Charlie Manuel ahead of Votto for the All-Star squad, rakes in $19 million.
But statistically inclined fans and bloggers have know that Votto is as good or better than his Phillies counterpart, as well as other well-known first base sluggers like Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder and San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez. When Votto went on the disabled list last June for stress-related issues he eventually revealed to be anxiety and depression stemming from his father’s death in August of 2008, the Reds began to trend below .500, and never recoverd. Votto, however, turned in a another year of—that’s right—quiet excellence, hitting .322 with 25 home runs and a .981 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), third-best in the National League behind Pujols and Fielder. A career .310 hitter, all Votto does is play well. He is the key offensive linchpin of a young and generally homegrown core that hopes to give this city what it never got out of the Casey/Dunn/Ken Griffey Jr. years: that is to say, a playoff appearance, never mind a championship. And when you sit Votto down alone for 40 minutes, as Cincinnati Magazine was able to do recently, you find a 26-year-old man who is awfully thoughtful and well-spoken for someone who doesn’t like to talk or call attention to himself.
Do you think growing up as a Canadian baseball player is like growing up a California hockey player?
Probably pretty similar. I’ve played with some guys who have been hockey players in California and they’ve said it was difficult to have other people, or classmates, relate to it. It’s kind of the same thing with baseball [in Canada]. People weren’t wild about it but I really liked playing. And Toronto, especially when I was younger, was a very good baseball city.
What did you know about the Reds when you were drafted?
I followed the team in 1990 when they beat Oakland, and then 2002 when they drafted me. In between, I didn’t know anything. The only other thing that maybe stood out is when they signed Ken Griffey Jr.
What about in terms of baseball history. Did you know about the Big Red Machine?
No. I really liked Ted Williams; I read a lot about him. But I didn’t know anything about the Big Red Machine. But you come here, you learn about them and have newfound respect for the organization in general. I was more of an individual player when I was younger, in that I really liked Ted Williams, I really liked Joe DiMaggio, I really liked Mickey Mantle. Then, transitioning into an older player, you realize this whole thing is going to happen within a team concept. I can’t believe what the Big Red Machine did. I can’t believe how dominant they were, and how many great players there were. They were essentially the perfect team.
Of course you got to be a teammate of Ken Griffey Jr.’s for a while. What did you take away from that?
Well, I was a rookie, and I just tried to keep my mouth shut, so I really didn’t get much out of him. I was just lucky to play with him. I got to sit there and watch a guy that I grew up… I don’t want to use the word idolizing, but I really thought he was a pretty bad-ass player. To play his video game and then play with him was a pretty awesome experience. He always treated all his teammates very fairly, and treated everyone the same. He was a jokester.
You got to the majors around the same time the Reds got new ownership. Did you notice any difference?
I had three different general managers while I was in the minor leagues, but when you’re riding a bus in Billings, or hopping on a 5 a.m. flight headed to Scranton, it doesn’t matter at all. You’ve got to perform—you’ve got to do your job and you control your own destiny. I just knew that I was unhappy down there and I was frustrated with, you know, my progression. I wish it had happened quicker, but looking back now, it happened perfectly. I was completely prepared to come to the major leagues when I was called up. One hundred percent in every way, shape, and form.
You’re a .300 hitter, but your OPS is even more impressive to statistics-minded fans and bloggers. How much are players conscious of that stat?
I would say they’d be lying to you if they said they weren’t, because it proves efficiency. Batting average only means so much—it means that you’re getting hits at this certain rate. Whereas on-base percentage proves you’re getting on at this rate, and slugging percentage shows how many total bases you are getting per number of at-bats. Now, I think it’s a good idea not to be aware of it during the season, because statistics fluctuate up and down. You can have a good month or you can have a bad month. Skyrockets or plummets.
Did you and Jay Bruce ride each other a little bit during your rookie season?
No, not at all. My father had passed away, so I had a little bigger fish to fry at the time. But my rookie year was a good time; Jay played really well. It was kind of cool to see all the attention he got. I didn’t feel any jealousy at all, because I was confident enough to know that I was gonna perform well too, and we need a lot of guys together to be a winning team. I mean, I played with him in the minor leagues and this guy was the best player I’ve ever seen.
Have you been around long enough now that you get to haze the current rookies?
No, you gotta be considered a veteran to do that. There’s a few phases in baseball. There’s the zero-to-three phase, when you’re still a semi-rookie; and then three-to-six, where you’re just kind of establishing yourself; and then six-to-10, where you’re going from semi-veteran to veteran. Ten and beyond, you’re pretty much a lock. I’m still in that I-try-to-keep-my-mouth-shut-and-just-do-my-job phase. That works out fine for me, because that’s kind of my personality.
As a first baseman and a slugger, how do you like being in the same divison as Albert Pujols?
It’s a privilege. Like I said before, I really liked Ted Williams. I like the great players. So I get a chance to watch probably—I’m not gonna put a number on it—one of the greatest players of all time. I get to play against him and occasionally even get to talk to him. It’s great. Just because it will be just about impossible to ever get a starting spot on an All-Star team [he laughs] doesn’t necessarily irritate me or anything like that.
Was it a little disappointing not to stay on track for that game last year, or could you not even worry about it?
No, you know, when I was on the DL I knew that I was potentially missing out on going to the All-Star Game, but I had so many more important things to deal with. In hindsight, you think to yourself, God, that would have been cool.
Do you feel like your Dad’s still watching you play?
I don’t want to talk about that.
You said everything you wanted to last season?
Yeah. First of all, I don’t owe anybody anything, but I don’t think I need to explain myself anymore either. It is in the past. It’s a complicated situation that I did my best to explain. And it’s not an “It’s over now” situation. It’s just life. I go through stuff just like everybody else. It’s not gonna end just because I have a good game the following day, it’s not gonna end just because I answered a question, it’s not gonna end just because I’m back on the field. Playing poorly, playing well, winning, losing—it just doesn’t work that way, and I think that everybody that has ever been through anything can relate to that. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s just how life works. I would say it’s probably a bad thing if I didn’t go through anything, you know?
You flew out to Los Angeles after a day game in June to see Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Did you experience their championship as a fan, or were you thinking about your own sport?
It was a lot of fun for both of those reasons. Because I could semi-use it professionally, in the motivational sense—watching them enjoy the experience of being champions and being inspired by that. And then obviously as a fan, and a true supporter of the team, we got what we wanted. We beat up on Boston. I can’t stand the Celtics.
How did you come to follow the Lakers?
When I was younger, my parents tried to shrink down my television time during the week, so it’s not like I could watch a lot of Toronto Raptors games. But on the weekends, when I was allowed to watch television, NBA on NBC would always seem to have the Lakers. I just fell in love with their yellow jerseys, and the way they played, and “Showtime.” You know, everyone’s gonna hate me for saying this but I really like Kobe Bryant. I don’t care. I don’t care about any of the Kobe haters. He’s my MVP. He’s our guy.
Sounds like you’ve been with him from the start.
I’ve been around for a while. I watched him airball threes when he was like 18 years old and thinking, God, I still love you man!
Do you wish you lived in a major league city that had an NBA team?
Yeah, maybe. It’d be kind of cool to be able to watch a game after a Sunday day game or something like that, a Thursday day game. I’ve only got really one team that I support. I’m not a Dodger, so I wouldn’t want to cheer for really any other [basketball] team. Arizona’s got the Phoenix Suns, so I get to go watch a few games during spring training.
I hear you and some of your teammates are into the FIFA soccer video game—do you mostly play online, or when you’re all together?
I play online and then occasionally guys come over. Chris Dickerson likes to play, and I’ve had Paul Janish and Jay Bruce over. We’re so busy during the year that it doesn’t happen enough. In the off-season I’ll play with my buddies online because we’re all in different cities. To be honest with you, I just use it to chat with friends. It gives me a chance to communicate with people I haven’t spent a lot of time with in the off-season.
What do you do in the off-season?
[I live in Toronto and Florida.] I’ve got family. I like spending time with them. I have a dog. I like to spend time with him. Play video games. During the ball season you have so little time to really take up many hobbies or fool around too much, I just kind of stick to the regular stuff. I like to read.
Any favorite books?
I went on this website, I’m not sure which one, and they had a list of the top 100, like, men’s must-read books. I checked out about five of them: Dracula, The Great Gatsby, The Alchemist, and a few others. I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov. But I don’t really have a favorite.
In the context of the average working fellow, you’re wealthy, but in the context of baseball you are actually quite underpaid, because of the nature of the game’s service time rules.
Yeah. That’s just the way baseball’s pay structure works. I don’t really want to go too far on this one but I thinkit’s not a bad thing to learn how to earn your keep, and that’s what I’m doing. And that’s what we all do.
You live in an affordable city anyway.
I’ll tell you what. You play in some of those big cities, I don’t know how the Yankees kids and the Chicago Cubs younger players get by. Holy cow! Spending nearly all their salary just living.
What part of Cincinnati do you live in?
Downtown. I like it. Eventually I’m gonna get myself some space. I’d like to have a yard, and you can’t get that downtown. But it’s been everything I could ask for and more. Cincinnati’s made by the people. The people are friendly, enjoyable, and they’re not smothering. They just enjoy the team, enjoy the players. They’re very supportive. But they’re also…[he smiles] they’ll let you know.
When they’re enjoying it?
You want people to let you know. I feel like they’ve been very patient with us considering the stretch we’ve gone through.
Obviously, you start every season with the highest possible goals, but has there been a moment where it felt like this year might be different?
Yeah. We’ve had a lot of really good wins, but it was when we lost to Atlanta—when they came back down six runs and beat us with seven in the bottom of the ninth [on May 20]. At the time I didn’t think it was a good thing. But with some reflection I thought it was a great thing, because we got beat pretty badly late in a game that we thought we had handled, and then we were able to come back and do some winning after that. That showed a lot of resilience on our end.
Dusty Baker is always said to be a player’s manager. Is that fair?
Yes, without question. He is a player’s manager.
And what’s the plus to that approach?
Well, first of all, you’re assured of never getting blown up in the newspaper. So you wake up in the morning, and if you do happen to read the newspaper, or check the Internet, you know that he’s not going to throw you under the bus. That does two things: That gives you peace of mind to know that you don’t have to look over your shoulder every time you make a mistake, and the other thing is you want to play for the guy. You want to play for him because he’s got your back. He gives you more reasons beyond just doing your job to dig a little deeper, get a little more out of yourself. Because you play 162 games. There’s gonna be a lull here and there.
Who would you say is maybe the toughest pitcher you have faced so far?
Tim Lincecum. C.C. Sabathia. I’ve got a lot of hits off of Cliff Lee but he’s really, really tough.
Anybody in your own clubhouse where you think, Glad I’m not facing that?
It would be a lot of fun to face Mike Leake because he’s such a different type of successful pitcher. He’s not the traditional hard throwing righthander, or one of those guys who has really good breaking stuff. A lot of his success comes off of guile, and for him to be doing that at 22 years old….
Who knows where things will be when this comes out, but at the halfway point it was looking like a real dogfight for first in the NL Central…
We’ve got a guy like Edinson Volquez, who’s going to come in and take a spot, and then we’ve got [Aroldis] Chapman, who could potentially come up sometime this year. And even if he doesn’t come up this year, we’re still competing for first place.
I think the front office has earned the respect of the Cincinnati fans, especially the front office we have right now, to make the right decision and send us in the right direction. A lot of people complained about that pick up of Scott [Rolen] last year, but he’s been fantastic since. We’re talking about a guy who’s got a track record as good as just about anybody. He’s in our starting lineup and luckily he’s hitting behind me now. It’s really nice having him on the team—not only in the clubhouse but also, obviously, on the field. Because in the end, that’s what he’s getting paid for.
And then you get a guy like Orlando [Cabrera]. People complained about that. He’s been outstanding. People don’t realize: you [have to] ignore the numbers sometimes. Orlando has done more for this team than anybody you can even quantify on paper. He has—having him has changed the atmosphere and the attitude in the clubhouse, and that doesn’t get enough credit in our game. Not at all. Statistics can only explain so much. But when Orlando makes a decision, on the field, on the bench, in the clubhouse, that can affect the game more than people realize. You can only get on base so much and drive in so many runs and create so many runs on the field, but if you do certain little things that help us win a ballgame, that’s as valuable as anything, and that’s what Orlando offers.
Having Ryan Hanigan and Ramon [Hernandez] playing well together, that’s really important. Brandon [Phillips] is having a fantastic year, an All-Star type year, and I really hope he ends up getting to go to the All-Star game. And then Jonny Gomes; Jonny’s playing like an All-Star also. Over the course of a major league season, all 25 players are important, but you have to give credit for the three most important players on our team right now—Jonny Gomes, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen—to the front office. Those are people that a lot of people doubted and thought were poor decisions, and they’ve really proven to be the real carrying force to our team.
Dan O’Brien and Wayne Krivsky, they did a really god job with our drafts. We have a lot of really solid players, and some guys in our starting lineup that they picked. You have to give them credit for that. You know, it’s a shame that it didn’t work out for them but we’re very happy with having Walt [Jocketty] here, and all the players enjoy him and like playing for him.
I understand you and Cabrera have hit it off?
We get along pretty good. He’s the guy that gives me [crap] all the time.
Everything, everything. Like I said: I’m playing that zero-to-three role.
What’s been the best game of the year for you personally so far.
Best game of the year? June 17—when I made that Lakers game. We got a win against the Dodgers. Defensively I played really well. And I made the flight.
Did you need a quick game to get there?
Yes! Had it been 15 minutes longer I might not have made the flight.
So I guess you owe Bronson Arroyo, who not only pitched well but teamed up with you for a couple of double plays, a little bit for that?
Yeah. That’s between us.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue.