Imagine for a moment that Cincinnati had a young, fun baseball team. Now imagine further that they were on, let’s say, an eight-game winning streak. I know I’m stretching the bounds of credulity here, but stick with me: What if that winning streak came on the road, finishing with a sweep of the defending World Series champs on their home turf in Houston?
Let’s take it a step further. What if that fun, young team added a future Hall of Famer who, just 18 months ago (the last time he was fully healthy), was one of the best hitters in the league? That sounds like a fun story to me!
About a month ago, this would have been just silly talk, after the Reds lost 100 games last year and with management declining to improve the big league club in the off-season. But thanks largely to the earlier-than expected arrival of some exciting kids (specifically Matt McLain, Andrew Abbott, and Elly De La Cruz) Cincinnati came into Monday night’s tilt with the Rockies at Great American Ball Park in second place in the NL Central, two games over .500 and just a half-game out of first place.
And all that was before Joey Votto returned to the lineup! Over the weekend, he teased his return, first with a video of him driving a bus and then with him dressed like a boss and emerging into the Cincinnati dugout. The dude has turned into a social media superstar, and I’m here for it.
But can he still play? That was the debate among Reds fans over the weekend. Votto has always had his detractors in Cincinnati—remember when a certain segment of the fan base (along with some broadcasters) insisted that he walked too often?—but the response to his imminent return had some fans calling for him to retire. A number of these fans dropped into my Twitter timeline, claiming that the Reds didn’t have room for him in the lineup and predicting that Votto would disrupt the team’s “vibe,” whatever that means.
Others in the media sphere were getting the same feedback. Radio broadcaster Lance McAlister reluctantly deleted a Facebook post about Votto, saying he “wasn’t comfortable with the reaction in the comment section. Some of the things being said about him were embarrassing. Not just mean, but personal. I’m not sure what has happened with some fans and Votto.” Soon thereafter, his colleague Mo Egger responded to the “vibes” complaint by asking: “In 15 years of watching Joey Votto, what has led anyone to believe he would ‘disrupt the vibe?’ ”
Yes, Votto is 39 years old, and Father Time is undefeated. Yes, he’s coming off shoulder surgery designed to repair tears in his rotator cuff and biceps last year. But we’re talking about a franchise legend here. Votto is ranked in the top five in Reds history in home runs (second to Johnny Bench), on-base percentage (second to Joe Morgan), doubles (second to Pete Rose), and hits. He’s first in franchise history (obviously) in walks. And as Votto made clear to me when I last interviewed him, he isn’t finished in his mind.
If his season debut against Colorado on Monday night is any indication, Votto certainly isn’t finished. The doubters already look very, very silly.
When Votto first came to the plate in the bottom of the second inning, the crowd of 20,344 gave him a standing ovation. He was clearly moved, tipping his helmet to the crowd. Then he stepped into the batter’s box and hit a sharp line drive directly at the center fielder. It was an out, but Votto’s exit velocity on the swing was 104 mph. For those of you who aren’t stat nerds, that’s a good number.
In his second at-bat, in the bottom of the fifth, Votto drilled a home run over the right field fence that extended Cincinnati’s lead to 3-1. Applause rained down upon him, and he reveled in it, skipping around third base and excitedly accepting the viking helmet and cape upon returning to the dugout. But the best was yet to come.
By the time Votto batted again, in the sixth inning, the Reds were losing 4-3. With one out, Jonathan India reached on an error by former Red Mike Moustakas (the second highest-paid player on the current Reds team!), followed by an infield single from De La Cruz, also hit to Moustakas at third. Spencer Steer walked, loading the bases and bringing up Votto. Chants of “Joey! Joey!” reverberated around the stadium.
Votto has been a Red since 2007, and I can’t remember the last time I heard that particular chant at GABP. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it. If I’m being honest, I was proud of Reds fans at that moment. After the internet nonsense of the previous few days, this crowd fully appreciated what Votto has meant to this club and what he still represents.
Votto proceeded to smack a 108.7 mph single up the middle, scoring two runs and giving the Redlegs a 5-4 lead that they would not relinquish. The Reds won, Votto gave a fun interview on the field, then another one on SportsCenter. It was probably the most exciting night to be a Reds fan since 2012. Even more exciting than The Ricky Karcher Game, if you can believe it.
On Monday, when it became evident that Votto was finally returning to the active roster, my friend Steve Mancuso wrote this:
I understand skepticism about Votto’s return. Father Time records the final out for every player. With the steep challenges Joey Votto faces, the wheels could fall off … the bus. But as any long-time observer of his career will assure you, Votto can surprise. The last thing I’d ever do, before he even swings the bat once for the Reds this year, is, well … throw him under the bus.
My advice? Treat the next 3+ months of the 2023 season as a long, warm farewell.
He may never be JoeyMVP again, but maybe Joey Votto can give us and his young teammates one final glorious ride on his Party Bus.
I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the season. I do know that Cincinnati’s win on Monday, combined with Milwaukee’s loss, means that the Reds today are alone in first place in the NL Central. They’ve won nine games in a row, the longest winning streak for the club since 2012, the last time the Reds were legitimate contenders.
Just a week and a half ago, on June 9, the Reds were six games under .500 and five games out of first. But now they’re the first team in the entire history of Major League Baseball to go from that far under .500 and that far back in the standings to being alone in first place in fewer than 10 games.
Maybe this particular moment in Cincinnati baseball history is exciting only because the last decade has been rough for Reds fans. Whatever. Enjoy it for as long as it lasts, I say. Votto is back, he’s surrounded by a bunch of talented kids, and they’re in first place in mid-June. This is literally the best case scenario for the 2023 Reds. What a time to be alive.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.