Growing up in the Toronto suburbs, Votto was 10 in the fall of 1993, when Joe Carter's walk-off home run gave the Blue Jays their second straight World Series title. Votto tells the story that his parents, Joseph and Wendy, left him home alone and ventured downtown that night to join the celebration. By then, baseball already enthralled him, its pacing and combination of team and individual a good match for his personality. If you needed proof Votto was a unique species, here was the rare (perhaps only?) natural athlete in Canada who didn't take to hockey. Votto never even got the hang of skating. Another story he tells: He went to a rink as a teenager for a first date with a new girlfriend. "When she saw what a disaster I was on the ice," he says, "she dumped me."
Joseph and Wendy owned a restaurant, and when it went bust, the family struggled. Eventually Joseph got a job as a chef at a Toronto yacht club. Wendy became a sommelier. "Seeing them dig themselves out and get back on their feet and overcome, that's a pretty good example," says Joey. "That's a lot like baseball, a lot like life."
Votto was a second-round pick by the Reds in the 2002 draft, part of an early-century Canadian baseball boomlet that also produced sluggers Justin Morneau and Jason Bay. An intense, sweet-hitting lefty, Votto gypsied around the minors, disappointed he wasn't being promoted faster—but unwilling to express that view publicly. "I just made it a point to get ready for the big leagues because I knew that's where I belonged," he says. "You run the bases properly, you have a good two-strike approach, you compose yourself. So many situations can turn complicated if you can't slow things down."
Finally called up by the Reds in late 2007, six days shy of his 24th birthday, Votto arrived not with a sense of awe, but a sense of, "I'm not going back down." In 2008, his first full season, he hit 24 home runs—most by a Reds rookie since Frank Robinson in 1956—and finished second to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Beyond that, he impressed teammates with his comportment, everything from his early arrival at the ballpark to his diet heavy on brown rice. Says Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, "You know how they say, Do things the right way? It's like he does the right things naturally."
Then, tragedy. In August 2008 Votto's father died suddenly of undisclosed causes at age 52. Votto and his three younger brothers, Tyler, now a college student in Toronto, and twins Ryan and Paul, now 11, grieved together, but differently. Votto says that the deep sadness, coupled with the responsibility that came with being thrust into the role of father figure to his brothers, was "totally overwhelming." He made it through spring training and the 2009 World Baseball Classic (he batted .556), but as the season got rolling he began suffering full-on panic attacks. "The very first night I was alone was when I went to the hospital," said Votto, who sought treatment during a series in San Diego and also while home in Cincinnati. "I couldn't take it. It got to the point where I thought I was going to die." He went on the disabled list in late May—stated reason: stress-related issues—and spent time "working through some things."
When he returned to the lineup on June 23 he resumed his torrid hitting, batting .322 for the season. But his perspective was altered. "My attitude changed. I needed to do a better job of reflecting and balancing, making my free time really mine," he says. "Not to disrespect the game or disrespect the fans, but baseball doesn't own my life. I'm not going to allow it to. . . . I hope I said it right. Grieving is a tough process, and I'm still working through it."
When he played, no longer was every at bat a personal referendum. He was more interested in relishing the competition. "Santana's pitching? That makes my day. Halladay? Carpenter? Wainwright? Lincecum? I can't wait. When Strasburg got called up, I wanted to face him," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to say it, I want to beat the best in the world, that's what I prepare for."
Votto's indifference to image can bite him sometimes. Despite leading the National League in home runs, slugging and on-base percentage in the first half this year, he was nearly left off the All-Star team. Votto was passed over in the selection of starters and reserves in favor of three higher-profile first basemen, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez. Irate, the Reds launched a campaign for him in the fan vote for the last roster spot, outfitting every team employee with a VOTE VOTTO T-shirt. Votto appreciated the support but—giving new zest to the phrase Cincinnati red—was embarrassed by the attention. "It kind of became a popularity contest," he told reporters. "It's not really the route I'd like to go to get to the All-Star Game."
Thanks in small part to ballot stuffing by Baker's 11-year-old son, Darren, Votto was a late addition. He went 0 for 2; he also caused a minor stir when he declined to congratulate Chicago outfielder Marlon Byrd for a nice defensive play because Byrd plays for a division rival. "I don't like the Cubs," Votto told a reporter. Votto says that he was ribbing the reporter, who he knew was from Chicago. Still, that Votto had to explain the joke says plenty about his reputation for intensity.
Votto's earnestness and clean living play well in measured and reserved southern Ohio. Men relate to him. (Hell, even his bristly crewcut conforms with the local hairstyle of choice.) Women walk around with FUTURE MRS. VOTTO T-shirts. And Votto is happy playing in a small city/big town, where hassles are few and he can stroll to the ballpark from his apartment and walk his dog along the Ohio River. "You can get your city fix on the road," he says.