Sept. 3, 2010: Local boy Joey Votto makes good — very good


A year clear of the depression that sidetracked him last season, Etobicoke’s Joey Votto is back to doing what he does best — ripping National League pitching for the first-place Cincinnati Reds

Sept. 3, 2010

Morgan Campbell

Sports Reporter

CINCINNATI—So how does a Triple Crown threat, MVP candidate and Sports Illustrated cover boy remain as anonymous as Joey Votto does outside Cincinnati?

Partly by playing in Cincinnati, where the first-place Reds rank below the Bengals, the Ohio State Buckeyes and high school football on many sports fans’ list of priorities.

Before last Monday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Reds printed 15,000 replicas of Votto’s SI cover to distribute fans at Great American Ballpark.

That night, only 14,589 showed up.

Still, Votto, who entered Friday night’s game against St. Louis ranked first in the National League in RBIs (97) and second in batting average (.325), says more fans recognize him in Cincinnati than in Toronto, where he was born and raised and where he still spends his off-seasons.

And he doesn’t mind it.

“It’s a great thing,” Votto says. “It might happen a little bit more now that I’ve been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but I don’t feel like anywhere but Cincinnati will I have that consistent attention.”

But that relative invisibility could disappear quickly.

With a month remaining in the regular season, Votto ranks third in the NL with 32 home runs, and with a strong September could become the major leagues’ first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and the first in the senior circuit since Joe Medwick in 1937. And with the mid-market Reds leading their division, a post-season appearance would put Votto and his hot bat on a national stage.

So even if the 26-year-old first baseman doesn’t seek the spotlight, eventually he won’t be able to avoid it — especially if he keeps raising his game.

“Definitely next year people will know him,” says Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. “He’s always been good, but now he’s brought his game to a different level. To be at the level he’s at, he’s going to get recognized.”

*     *     *     *

Votto’s approach to notoriety hasn’t changed since his teenage years in Toronto.

While other top prospects played on teams that travelled to far-flung tournaments chasing competition and exposure, Votto played locally for the Etobicoke Rangers. He spent his summers working out at Connorvale Park in Etobicoke, playing for the Rangers and performing for pro scouts when they came to town.

He figured he wouldn’t need to join a travelling team because as long as he kept improving pro scouts would find him.

And they did — the Reds selected Votto in the second round of the 2002 draft.

“I was good,” he says with a shrug. “Talent generally shines through. … I was a talented enough player to be picked as high as I was, and to garner the ($600,000) signing bonus they gave me and the attention I deserved.”

That statement isn’t so much a boast as a point of fact, and Votto seems not to want superstar treatment in the Reds’ clubhouse, either.

While most major league stars and veterans occupy two lockers, Votto still uses just one, and keeps little in it beyond his uniform, his glove and some spare bats.

Votto says the number of interview requests he receives has swelled since his all-star appearance in July, but people around him say his ego has remained the same.

“He’s very humble,” says Joe Morgan, a Reds Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst. “All the players appreciate the fact that he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated but doesn’t walk around telling you that.”

*     *     *     *

During Tuesday batting practice, Votto targets a different part of the outfield each time he steps into the cage. One time he’ll rocket balls to the gaps, and the next time he’ll launch longballs into the centre-field bleachers.

With his final set of swings he laces line drives heavy with backspin that travel like a tennis player’s second serve, zooming over the second baseman and veering downward in front of the right fielder.

Votto ranks sixth in the National League with 149 base hits (through Thursday), numbers he says don’t come by luck.

Instead they come by rote, by the relentless repetition of a skill until it becomes a reflex triggered by the right situation and a hittable pitch.

“There’s a reason why you hit a ball solid. There’s a reason why the ball finds the gap,” Votto says. “It’s from practice and honing your skills and figuring out a way to have success.”

Votto’s offensive stats reflect his single-minded focus on the process of hitting. His numbers don’t come from windfall hot streaks, but from steady deposits. He has never hit above .344 in any month this season, but has never batted below .275.

His statistical improvements accrue like interest. After slugging .567 last season, Votto enters this weekend at .603. Last season Votto walked 70 times in 131 games, but after 124 games this year he already has 76.

“When he gets locked in, he can stay locked in for as long as anybody I’ve seen,” says Reds manager Dusty Baker. “Usually guys stay locked in for two or three days. This guy can stay locked in for a month.”

Votto batted .357 over the first 38 games of the 2009 season, his batting stroke smooth and his focus unshakeable — until it shattered.

The death of his father, Joseph, in August 2008 triggered a clinical depression that Votto tried to play through before it finally forced him from the Reds lineup in late May 2009.

Votto’s absence wore on Baker and his Reds teammates, who were unsure if their words of encouragement would help him or deepen his depression. But Votto says he needed the time to regroup so he could return to the lineup.

“I realized with the time off that this was what I want to do and I enjoy it,” said Votto, whose 21-game absence ended in Toronto on June 23 last year.

“Everything that happened was pretty much necessary. It was a process and it took a while but it worked out for the best.”

Over the next two months, Votto struggled to regain his hitting rhythm and his batting average dropped 61 points to .296 on Sept. 14.

But starting that day he went 32-for-79 (.405) over the season’s final 18 games and hasn’t stopped hitting since.

Reds third baseman Scott Rolen says there’s more to Votto’s game than the statistics reveal, such as his dedication to defence and his efforts to improve his baserunning. And when you post impressive numbers as the best player on a first-place team with few stars, Rolen says your stats say even more.

“Those are big, big numbers, and they’re real. Big at-bats, competitive at-bats, every day,” Rolen says. “I make a distinction between a hitter and a player, and Joey Votto is a player.”

Copyright ©2010 Toronto Star

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