“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” the titular musician of Inside Llewyn Davis says in the movie’s first scene. And baseball is a folk song. In Cincinnati, where babies are hoisted on shoulders on Opening Day to watch the heroes of their fathers and grandfathers roll past in review, baseball was never new. And we’re discussing robo-umpires for a sport designed in an era when trundling from Missouri to Oregon in under five months was considered making good time: It never gets old. Folk song.
Folk songs need heroes. They tend to meet tragic ends, but they die trying. They’re working, they’re wielding knives, they’re mightily upset about lost love. Your average folk song is three minutes and thirty seconds of straight complaining, and that’s okay. It’s the long grind of life. It’s real. It’s baseball.
The Usual Chords
The best and rarest modern folk heroes don’t complain; it’s a boringly simple thing to do these days. The instrument is an iPhone, which takes zero minutes of practice to learn, and the sheet music is outrage. What was once the same four frets are now Twitter hashtags and identical viral videos seeping out from every possible social media app from every possible sports entertainment outlet. And so when one of the future stars of every Opening Day Parade for the rest of his life decidedly keeps his mouth shut, both online as well as in the locker room, we become… suspicious. Why is this man, this Joey Votto, not contributing the usual media chords? Is it us? What did we do? Didn’t he love us enough to reach out and complain a little?
We pieced together what we could. Given his expansive vocabulary and penchant for complete sentences when Votto did speak, we suspected high intelligence; there was scattered evidence of a screwball sense of humor. He’d lay low for months and months and then show up on national television in a Mounties uniform. Nothing but highly guarded sentences would suddenly give way to fake-pumping foul balls into opposition crowds. He screamed at umpires, but rarely put his name in for general autograph sessions; he was among the first out of the dugout in a fight, then did his best to calm the waters. This is not a shy person.
But he is a… complicated person. To a fanbase whose knowledge of longterm greatness begins and ends with Pete Rose’s Sedamsville accent and every agonizing detail of his hamfisted life decisions, Joey Votto’s rhythm has long been one to which we’ve never been quite able to synch.
Spill the Tea
For an entire generation of Cincinnatians, Joey Votto was never new. But in his steadfast, relative reticence, he never gets old, either. He has been ours, and we his, for thirteen years now… but, truly, are we his? In an age in which, thanks to Snapchat, I currently know more about Derek Dietrich’s car than my own, I could not tell you more than maybe three non-baseball related facts about Votto. He’s been active in the MLB for over a decade and his “Personal Life” entry on Wikipedia totals exactly four sentences, one of which is concerned with who is agent is. That is his right. That’s how he wants it. We don’t have a claim on any of this information. It’s not in Votto’s contract to spill the tea on family weddings and who his favorite Avenger is.
We’re always straining to see more of this person who shows up for hours and hours a shot, 162 times a year, in our living rooms. He’s the one the grandbabies will ask about. He’s the one whose jersey we can buy with confidence because he isn’t going anywhere. He is the one. And we can’t figure him out. Why so few soft-focus interviews? Why so relatively little fan interaction? Why, with the entire ballclub resting on the performance of his bat, has he refused to bend the knee to a splash-it-all Instagram culture? Who is this guy?
Joey Votto has been to the mountaintop of the playoffs, but was stopped short of the Series; he was two points away from becoming the league’s MVP in the same year his team finished last in the division. Objectively speaking, there is no professional success without bitter backwash for him. This is a man who will die trying. He will die trying with or without a ring.
The basis of folk music is repetition, simple melody, steadfast tone. It never gets old because it’s easy to grasp, simple to learn, highly predictable. But where Votto is concerned, we haven’t yet figured out what his spiritual engine is. Nor do we know how his song will end. But perhaps that is the best part of listening to it, participating in it, trading his lyrics with our chorus. Thanks to a vanishingly rare 12 year contract, whatever the lingering notes are, we will hear them together, Votto and you and I.
And on an ordinary day in the first part of February, with the rain dripping into the Ohio mud and the temperature topping 32 degrees, Joey Votto, having sat down in front of a microphone with reporter Jim Day for 94 minutes, played a new chord.
The fact it was major news that Votto spoke with a recorder running for the length of an entire Pixar film should tell you how desperately Reds fans have had to fill in the blanks lo these many years. What unfolded over the next hour and a half was couple’s therapy, with Day standing in for the fandom, and occasionally, the media. It was the interview Reds fans and Votto appreciators have been wishing he would give for a decade.
Get you someone who looks at you the way I look at air molecules in the middle distance while Joey Votto is talking to Jim Day for ninety minutes, because there was no scrolling on my phone while this sucker was unspooling.
We fans had to be patient, because, as it happens, Joey Votto is patient. For example, Votto was relatively silent for so long because that is how rookies in an AOL message board era were expected to conduct themselves. And it stuck.
“There was a lot of us (reporters) that didn’t even know how to approach you.” Day said.
“I was really scared of messing up,” Votto responded.
The mighty Joey Votto… was scared. And trying to navigate the swirling currents of fan expectations and MLB culture.
“When I first came into the league there was an atmosphere of deference…” Votto explained. “And so I stayed quiet. That carried into my interactions with the media.” He was piloting the politics of where to sit on the bus and in the clubhouse, when to speak and to whom, what to wear. All of it. He was young and he was frightened. He wanted to learn. Listen. Shut up and take it in, prove himself and then speak.
And now? He has time for your questions, just not your stupid ones, media: “Don’t ask stupid f—g questions. Then I won’t be scary,” he said.
Then there was this:
JOEY VOTTO: “I love crossing paths with the Reds fans.”
REDS FANS EVERYWHERE: what
This absolutely was a shocking statement. If I’m rolling through Kroger’s (Votto pronounces it properly as such, in the local patois, with an apostrophe s) and I see Joey Votto, I’m not going to approach Joey Votto, largely because I’d be terrified that Joey Votto would… not be a mean person, necessarily, but… less than… thrilled by interpersonal human interaction. Because I love him, I shall present him the gift of leaving him alone, there amongst the frozen pot pies. And unless I’m standing on a stage, I bend this way as well. So when Votto elaborated that he missed the winning season energy of fans leaping out of their chairs in coffee shops to high-five him (“The city turns into a college town when we’re doing well… I miss that. I miss that a good deal.”) I was left wondering who this was, what year we were in, and whether or not the cold meds I was on were overkicked.
The recurring theme of the interview was Votto’s earnest desire to do baseball, not merely play it. It is a deadly serious matter to him. He returned to this over and over again, using the phrases “work day” and “do my job.” He doesn’t want “distractions,” which includes stupid questions. He blocks out every single thing and person but what will contribute to his performance as a ballplayer. The word “lonely” appeared often.
Votto is heavily aware of his own abilities and his responsibility to develop them, yet his humility is striking. This rare creature, this Canadian teetering on the edge of Kentucky with us, showed up to spring training early in this, his fourteenth season, determined to not “soften” as he felt he did last season. But when Day asked what advice he might give to a younger Votto, he gave a variety of funny answers, and then a very heartfelt one: “I thought I did it right,” he said. “I gave everything.”
Over the course of the interview, Joey Votto used the following SAT words: Ambiguous, per se, plausible deniability, compartmentalizing, inauthentic. He compared the craft of comedy to the art of baseball. He received a text from Jay Bruce at one point. He said he likes umpires.
He talked and talked. He talked longer than Sean Casey. There was discussion of Kobe Bryant, sign stealing, the “totally unmanageable” panic attacks he suffered early in his career, and his thoughts on objects on the field (he really, really does not like objects on the field.) We learned more about Joey Votto in an hour and a half than we have collectively gleaned in every year since the second Bush administration. Twice, the timed lights in the studio went out because the two men had been sitting for so long.
Day tried to end the interview at least three times, but Votto, having burst out of the starting gate, was loathe to go back in the barn. “What else do you want to talk about?” he asked, popping questions to his interviewer about his outlook on the season. What did Day think this team’s ceiling was? The floor? What podcasts did he listen to?
As they wound down at last, Votto laughed at the thought that anyone would possibly soldier through the length of it all. But, as Day correctly predicted, the interview immediately became the top download on his channel. By far. By light years. The popularity of the Votto episode towers over members of the 1990 team, Reds in Cooperstown, and the final pre-game appearance of Marty Brennaman. If it were an election, Joey Votto would be dictator for life.
All I Know
Now I don’t understand what made Joey Votto sit across from Jim Day and spill his guts about insecurities and crossword puzzles and fear and getting dumped (THERE IS A WOMAN ON THIS PLANET WHO DUMPED JOEY. FREAKING. VOTTO.) I have no idea if it will ever happen again, or if this marks a new, autograph-spewing epoch in The Legend of Joey Votto. We’ll learn those answers together.
No matter what else happens from here on out, no matter how the song ends, what I will pack away with me is that he said this: “All I know is Cincinnati. All I know is this uniform. My joy comes from wearing this uniform.”
Joey Votto’s contract lasts for another four years. He may retire before then if he feels himself in decline. When the lights go out for the last time because we are all sitting so very still, we will never see the likes of him again.
That’s a folk song.