Oct 16, 2010 — Joey Votto: The reason Richview roots for red

Morgan Campbell

Sports Reporter

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is Richview Collegiate’s highest achieving alum — at the moment — but you wouldn’t know it by touring the school’s phys. ed. wing, where everyday objects double as Joey Votto monuments.

See the bent basketball rim in the boys’ gym?

That’s where Votto, a former point guard, would practice slam dunking.

The weight room across the hall? That’s where he pumped iron nearly every day after school.

And the phys. ed display case? It’s filling with Votto press clippings, tacked to a bulletin board alongside old photos of him.

Back then Votto retained a low profile outside Etobicoke. That’s over. Votto’s baseball career has made him an MVP candidate and brought him to Sunday’s third game of the NLDS.

Win or lose, postseason play has pushed Votto further into the spotlight, and the folks who mentored him here in Toronto can only beam as they watch him shine.

“I’ve never seen anybody like Joey and I never will,” says Richview baseball coach Stath Koumoutseas. “We’re just proud to watch him, it’s unbelievable.”

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto flips the ball to the pitcher covering first to retire St. Louis Cardinals' Skip Schumaker in the third inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri, Sunday, September 5, 2010. The Cardinals won 4-2. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

(Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

During Votto’s last year at Richview, Koumoutseas encouraged staff to snap as many photos as possible, convinced Votto would become their claim to fame.

“At the time people may have chuckled,” Koumoutseas says. “But look at him. Look at how successful he has been.”

The superstar in the making did have his name appear in the Star nine times throughout his high school career, including once in a preview to the 2002 high school baseball season. But even that story profiles a high school star set to play his way into that June’s major league baseball draft, an Etobicoke native with a strong throwing arm and even stronger bat.

His name? Christopher Emanuele, a farmhand who played in the Blue Jays’ system until the club released him in March.

For the folks closest to Votto, his exploits are legend. Listen to the chatter and you’ll hear that Votto is the greatest quarterback never to play a game.

His first two years at Richview, Votto starred on the school’s baseball and basketball teams while friends and coaches pestered him to take his rocket arm to the gridiron.

In Grade 11 he relented, spending a week as a quarterback with the junior football squad, slinging balls few receivers could handle. After a week of practice and countless jammed fingers among the receiving corps it became clear that Votto had the talent to take over as the team’s quarterback.

He just didn’t have the time.

“Cooler heads prevailed and we realized that baseball was probably his sport,” remembers former Richview fullback Tom Flaxman, now an assistant football coach at Acadia University. “(But) he would have been one hell of a quarterback if he had stuck it out.”

Flaxman, who also played basketball with Votto, remembers him as a sturdy point guard who could penetrate at will. Votto once dropped 37 points in a win over Richview’s bitter rival, Etobicoke Collegiate, and sealed a playoff win over heavily favoured West Humber by calmly sinking a series of free throws.

“He was just a clutch performer who never really wilted in the spotlight,” says Flaxman.

The defining Joey Votto moment for Etobicoke Rangers coach Steve Breitner is an afternoon in Milton.

Breitner coached the Rangers’ men’s team but once promoted a 17-year-old Votto as a substitute. Votto responded by ripping opponent’s pitching, one afternoon hitting a double and a homer against players five years older.

“We were talking about this guy, and when we got him out to play he just scorched the ball,” Breitner says.

And for Koumoutseas? It’s Votto’s last high school at-bat that sticks with him.

After playing the entire 2002 season with a wood bat, Votto succumbed to peer pressure in the last at-bat of his last high school game and came to the plate against Etobicoke Collegiate with two runners on and an aluminum bat in hand.

Koumoutseas says the home run he ripped to right field at Connorvale Park could still be in orbit.

“It’s without question the farthest ball I’ve ever seen hit in high school,” Koumoutseas.

But former Rangers coach Bob Smyth says no single Votto feat stands out to him.

Instead he remembers how Votto improved every season — incrementally at first, then exponentially in the winter of 2002 as is grew clear scouts had targeted him for the early rounds of the upcoming draft.

That winter Votto spent nearly every evening at the Rangers’ indoor facility near Lakeshore and Kipling, honing his swing, working on his glove, and learning from players like Braves draftee Peter Orr and John Suomi, then an Athletics’ prospect.

“I think that really tuned him in to what it takes to be a pro baseball player, and that fact that he could be one if he dedicated himself and worked really hard,” Smyth says.

In June 2002 Votto earned a $600,000 bonus as Cincinnati’s second-round pick, and rose steadily through the Reds’ system. In 2009 a bout of depression spurred by his father’s death sidelined him for four weeks. But since returning to the Reds’ lineup last June Votto, who spends his winters in Brampton with his mom and three younger brothers, has resumed his relentless climb to stardom.

Beyond his career highs in hits (177) and home runs (37), Votto made his first all-star team and first Sports Illustrated cover this summer.

Life-changing exposure, for sure. But Smyth is convinced Votto will deal with fame the same way he has other challenges — with confidence and persistence.

“As he gets more notoriety his time is not his own,” Smyth says. “It’s very difficult if you’ve never had to handle that. He’s learning how to handle that too.”

Copyright 2010 Toronto Star

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