It was a big ask. As player requests go, this one unquestionably pushed the limits. But in mid-June, Reds first baseman Joey Votto approached his bosses, asking to miss a team flight so he could attend Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Votto has been a die-hard Lakers fan for most of his 26 years, and a friend had scored tickets. The seats weren't great—"Tickets in the lower bowl were going for, like, 10 grand!" Votto says—but they were good enough. In a sort of postmodern version of Cannonball Run, Votto had mapped out a cross-country itinerary whereby he could get from Cincinnati to Los Angeles and then meet his team in Seattle without missing an at bat.
The Reds' executives, including manager Dusty Baker, considered the request and then consented. Yes, it was a reward of sorts for Votto's typically excellent performance this season. But they were also thrilled to see him doing something impulsive and fun.
So it was that on June 17 Votto closed out a home stand by going 2 for 4 with a home run in an afternoon win over the Dodgers. No sooner had he delivered a few postgame fist bumps to teammates in the infield, than he tore out of Great American Ball Park, bound for the Cincinnati airport. Taking advantage of the time difference, Votto landed at LAX as the NBA game started and jumped into a cab. With the locals glued to their televisions, traffic was uncommonly light. Votto arrived at Staples Center at the start of the second quarter and watched his team beat the Celtics and win the title. He then slept a few hours, woke up early and returned to the airport to catch an 8 a.m. flight to Seattle. In a blow to coaches everywhere who preach the virtues of a good night's rest, Votto went 2 for 4 that night against the Mariners. "It was just one of those experiences I'll always remember," he says.
Maybe the oddest part of the story: Votto says that between the time he left Cincinnati and the time he landed in Seattle, he went totally unrecognized. Or at least unaccosted. No "Hey, Joey, what's up?" No autographs. No iPhone paparazzi. As he sat—stood, mostly—in the Staples Center stands, he was just a nice-looking, thickly built guy in his 20s, cheering for the purple and gold. "Trust me," he says, "it's fine with me that way."
Votto's bat is threatening to sabotage that preference for privacy. In his third full season he is quietly establishing himself as a Pujolsian figure, a National League MVP candidate who through Sunday was leading the league in hitting (.323), on-base percentage (.422) and slugging (.592) and, with 29 home runs and 86 RBIs, was among the top three in each of the Triple Crown categories. Votto is a disciplined hitter, complementing brute power with patience at the plate. And he's a major reason that the Reds, who had a 3½-game lead in the NL Central at week's end, are about to snap a string of nine straight losing seasons and are challenging for a postseason spot. Votto would rather the focus be on the resurgence of the proud franchise he plays for, but his MVP-caliber performance also makes for a heartening comeback story. Last season he missed nearly a month while struggling with depression after the sudden death of his father, Joseph. To judge by his hitting—and, perhaps, that seat-of-the-pants plan to see the Lakers—Votto has put those emotional issues behind him.
"I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be what he is now," says Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, who played with Votto in Cincinnati in 2008. "But the dude works so hard, he's so smart and professional, it's almost like, why wouldn't he be this good?"
Otherwise, though, Votto can be hard to notice. If you're tired of the sportscape's many cases of arrested development, indifference and look-at-me-itis, Votto is your elixir. As he often says, "Baseball is just my job." And he treats it as such, preparing meticulously, taking pride in his work, harboring ambition while avoiding office politics. "He's a good teammate, but he keeps to himself," says Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "He tells you only what he thinks you need to know. There's nothing wrong with that."
It's not that Votto is aloof. Far from it. Sitting in front of his conspicuously tidy locker in the Reds' clubhouse a few hours before a game, he holds forth on a range of subjects, the dinner-party guest you feel fortunate to be seated alongside. And for all his professional drive, he's not ruthless. "He's as polite as anyone I've ever met," says Baker.
But until Votto can figure out how popularity will benefit his job performance, he'll keep a low profile. "Attention goes both ways, it creates expectations and it also creates limits," he says. "When you buy into that, it's almost like you're not being fair to yourself ... and, to me anyway, it distracts from the job."
When this is recounted to Baker, he nods. "I'm telling you, if everyone were as dedicated as Joey, we'd have a much better game. He's intense but mellow. He's serious but has a great personality. He's Canadian, you know."