Unassuming Votto earns ultimate respect with All-Star selection
Reds first baseman Joey Votto may be the best player you've never heard of
Votto keeps to himself, works hard and hits and fields like best in the game
After getting left off of NL All-Star team, Votto was voted in by the fans
The honor was great, everything he ever wanted. But man, the cameras. The notebooks, the microphones, the earpiece that kept popping out during that live shot he did for the MLB Network last Thursday. Joey Votto leaned into the shot, as if being a few inches closer to the camera would help him hear a guy in a studio many miles away. That was awful.
Understand: Joey Votto -- the best baseball player you'd never heard of until a week or two ago -- was truly grateful and genuinely humbled to be voted an All-Star by the fans. His teammates delighted him with their support, which included Vote Votto T-shirts and public service announcements between innings of the Reds TV broadcasts. He'd be lying if he said this was not a dream for him. It validated everything he'd done in eight years as a professional.
Being an All-Star, that is.
The rest? The rest was penance, the shin splints from running a marathon. Since last Sunday, Votto had been an object of national attention, and it was agony. Raw and uncensored. "It's not really the route I'd like to go, to get to the All-Star Game,'' Votto said last Thursday night. "It kind of became a popularity contest, which is not really up my alley.''
Maybe no other player could have led his league in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and not made its All-Star team. Maybe no one other than the rigorously private and shy first baseman, playing in what until this season has been a baseball backwater for a decade, could be snubbed after having an MVP-type first half for a first-place team.
But when you play in Cincinnati and you'd rather pour acid in your retinas than talk about yourself, this is how it works. "I strive to do as well as I can,'' Votto said. "To be lumped in with a bunch of outstanding players is really an honor.''
True story: A few weeks ago, Votto hit a two-out, last-of-the-ninth, three-run homer off Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge that tied the game 6-6. The Phillies beat the Reds in 10 innings, but Votto's dramatics set off a frenzy almost never heard at Great American Ball Park.
I saw Votto the next day. I told him that his homer made my neck hair stand and salute, a very rare occurrence 30 years into writing about sports.
"I'm glad I was able to do that for you,'' Votto said.
True Story II: Votto was in Dayton, Ohio, last June, playing for Cincinnati's Class A team, preparing to return to the Reds after a stay on the disabled list to deal with anxiety issues. This is a touchy, personal matter for anyone, let alone an insular guy like Votto. It's not as if he were rehabbing from elbow surgery.
I went to Dayton a few hours before the game and positioned myself in the home dugout, where I knew Votto would see me. I had no idea if he'd speak about the death of his father that prompted his illness, or the nights he spent in the hospital, healing. I didn't know if he'd talk to me at all. This was a time with Votto when "How are you?'' was a loaded question.
Soon enough, Votto arrived in the dugout "How can I help you?'' he asked.
Different guy. Not strange. Actually, just the opposite: Courteous to a fault, candid to a point (no criticism of anyone, player, manager, friend or foe, even off-the-record), the most earnest athlete I've ever covered. Votto is the kind of guy who'd save a drowning man, then thank the guy for making him a hero.
In researching this story, I asked several people close to the Reds if they had any Votto stories. Give me something that would illustrate who he is. No one had anything. Which is illustrative in itself.
Votto works hard -- and alone. He studies video as much as any Red. His offseason work on his defense was inspired by Albert Pujols' success playing the position. Pujols played third base and the outfield the first four years of his major league career. Two years ago, Votto's game in the field was shaky enough that when the Reds took University of Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso in the first round of the June amateur draft, they figured they'd have to find somewhere else to put Votto. Now, their wonders are about Alonso.
Asked about his work ethic, Votto said, "I pay attention to my game and the flaws I have (and) I do my best to fill in those holes. I'm very diligent and consistent in my work. I haven't given in since I signed in 2002. It's 2010. For eight years, I've stayed focused. That's probably the biggest element of my success.''
That's vintage Votto: Honest, earnest, measured. And not at all revealing.
It was an interesting night last Thursday, for two athletes who are fascinating for entirely different reasons. Over here, LeBron James, hosting a 60-minute, primetime, network-televised tribute to himself and his Decision. Over there, Joey Votto, thanking his teammates for wearing the T-shirts.
Here: James, who "created his own show dedicated to dumping his hometown,'' in the words of SI writer and Cleveland native Joe Posnanski.
There: Votto saying, "I was hoping somebody would give me the chance to say thank you.''
Here: James, bloodless, at best unaware and at worst immune to the hurt he'd just laid on Cleveland. If you're his fan, James said, you'll remain his fan. So utterly tone deaf.
There: Votto, thanking everyone but Abner Doubleday, including Charlie Manuel, whose Votto-omission caused all this in the first place. "I think what Charlie did was great,'' Votto allowed, and he meant it.
He is appreciated by his teammates, even as he is not well known by them. One Red described Votto as "not a people person.'' The appraisal was not a critique, just an observation. Votto is a Reds leader, but not the same way Scott Rolen is, and Rolen isn't exactly loquacious. Reds Hall of Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman says of Votto, "He's the one guy in my 37 years (broadcasting Reds games) that if his team loses and he goes 4-for-4, he is legitimately not happy. Other guys will give you lip service, but he means it.'' Brennaman calls Votto "the ultimate team player.''
You'd like to ask Votto about all this, and maybe someday, you will. The death of his father, the anxiety issues, the deep shyness, where the gold-standard work habits arose and why. All of it. Possibly, some day Votto will answer.
Last Thursday, he managed this, when someone asked him about overcoming the issues' he faced:
"I'm headed in the right direction in my life. That's more important than making the All-Star Game, or baseball in general.'' Baseball, Votto said, "doesn't necessarily dictate the happiness in my life.''
And that was it. What an honor that will be for Joey Votto. And what a burden.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
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