Every sport has at least one. In football, it’s Warren Moon. In figure skating, it’s Michelle Kwan. In baseball, it’s Ken Griffey, Jr. And, soon enough, Joseph Daniel Votto.

When a generation-defining athlete defines the sport for a decade or more, but fails to add its biggest prize to the mantlepiece, guess what the main topic of conversation of that athlete’s career is, forever and ever, amen.

But for Tara Lipinski in one Olympics and a hand down on the ice in another, Michelle Kwan would have held sway over US women’s figure skating forever and ever, amen. As it is, she is widely respected in the sport, and certainly the most decorated American female, but no Dorothy Hamill. One won the Olympics, you see, and at a time when everyone was really paying attention. When you mention Michelle Kwan, there’s that void on the tremendous resume, for all her five World Championships and nine American National Championship titles and everything else more and better than Dorothy Hamill: No gold medal.

This, then, is how we will likely assess Joey Votto in the decades to come, as he retires for good and drives the kindergarteners to school and shows up at RedsFest with his stomach no longer flat. He will enter the Reds Hall of Fame, surely, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame, probably. And he will do so with two bare hands.

“This is a man who will die trying,” I wrote in 2020, three weeks before the whole world was sent home. “He will die trying with or without a ring.”

Now we know: It is without.

You have to wonder about the thoughts and emotions of Votto, who came semi-close to smelling the night air of October a couple of times, as he watched Joe Burrow sweep in here and throw his football and smoke his cigar and in twenty-four months get his trip to the big dance. If Joe Burrow’s Bengals career were measured in child development years, he’d be a toddler, pacifier and blankie, still not old enough for preschool. Joey Votto, on the other hand, has been with the Reds long enough to be a junior in high school. He’s got his temps and started getting college brochures last month.

Year after year, the sun rose and the moon set over Great American Ball Park, which was all of four seasons old in his rookie year, Votto watched teammates come and, mostly, go. There was no fan send-off in the November chill. There was not a time he ever saw the entire skyline lit up red. In the precious few months in which he will still wear the uniform, he never will.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. This man honors his talent better than just about anyone I’ve ever seen; if everybody concentrated on their own abilities the way Votto does his, we’d have full employment and a hiking trail to Mars. This man has no wife, no children, no hobbies. He–wisely–does not Tweet, or pet donkeys in the off-season, or dance for reality television. He reads on the team bus, and he plays baseball. That’s it. I’m pretty sure he had a dog once. For fifteen years he’s been doing this. And, in return, the Cincinnati Reds have given him: Brandon Williamson.

There are two ways of making a championship team. You’re the Big Red Machine, or you’re the 1990 Where’d-You-Come-From-There-You-Go-Wondergang. There is no in-between. (Well, there’s the Astros, but if you got your trophy being Tonya Harding, you gotta live with that for the rest of your life, too.) When I was a news broadcaster for WNDU–a gig I lost when the station’s CD player broke, sending the lot of us right off the air–I listened to the sports guy tick off the names of all the Marlins streaming out of Miami in 1997 and said, “Wow, they’re just dismantling that team!”

He leaned into the mic. “That’s how dynasties are built.”

What Joe Burrow helped the Bengals do cannot be done by Joey Votto. A championship baseball team requires a Murderer’s Row, a Paul O’Neill and a Jose Rijo. Or a precise alchemy of just-good-enough players, a balance so precise that one man moving one locker down upsets the entire libation.

This is why sports are so hard, playoff runs so dear. Sometimes what seems to be the missing piece is just an almost-fits nub pounded into an almost-fits gap, too much cheese on the pizza when you used to think there was no such thing. Ask the guy who designed the 2000 Reds “Welcome Home, Jr. See You In the Series” ads about this sometime.

But Joey Votto will experience neither of these glories, as either the David juggernaut or the Goliath upstart. (Well, unless the whole nine gets desperate and goes full trash can. At this point, not one single person inside or out of Cincinnati would blame them.) He will not see a rare free-agency dynasty, nor a Burrow-like early career box check. He will retire, celebrated, feted, paraded, applauded, and until the end of time doomed to “Greatest Baseball Players Who Never Saw a World Series” listicles. It did not have to be this way.

There are far worse things in life than being a next-gen Ken Griffey Jr. And Joey Votto will have to settle for that, if not feel satisfied by it, forever and ever, amen.

31 Responses

  1. LDS

    Hey now, the Reds are getting “better in a weird way”. I’m sure they’ll win the World Series this year. Have faith. When I was in college, “a while ago”, I was a couple of rooms away from a guy that claimed to have dated Hamill when he’d been younger (his evidence was pretty compelling). Alas, he dumped her for spending too much time practicing. To say that the rest of us in the dorm had a great deal of fun during the 1976 Olympics, well you know how teenaged boys are.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That is quite the story! And it looks like her practice paid off 🙂

  2. Rut

    Dan Marino and Charles Barkley agree with the assessment, but also say that things can be pretty good in life with no Ring.

    Votto has the intellect to do some TV work after he retires, but I just do not see the interest from him to keep himself in the public eye. Probably part of why he is so smart, no reason to mess with it!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Exactly! I see Votto as being content as a human being knowing he left it ALL out there, but as a competitor, it has to be difficult.

      • Gonzo Reds

        He’s now known as Jedi Votto (you’d only know this if you’ve seen this year’s bobble-head releases). Just like “Sir” or other honorific address we should all give him the respect he deserves by using the title going forward. (I mean we have to find the few crumbs of fun we have been left by Bumbling Bob, there aren’t going to be many.)

  3. Bred

    I feel badly for all the players that were never drenched in the glory of the final victory, but why is that? Is it because we live vicariously through them? Or are we truly being altruistic in wishing others the success we ourselves were denied by not winning the genetic lottery? It is probably a mix of both. They may have not reached the top of the mountain, but to paraphrase the Hamilton song at least they were in the room where it happens. That in and of itself is a blessed life.

    • LWBlogger2

      I think it’s a little of both. Growing up, if we were pretty good at sports, we may have won our share of accolades and we may even have won a championship of some kind. When we see someone from our team or even a favored athlete on another team win a championship at the highest level of the game, we can almost feel their elation. We do empathize and put ourselves in their places. Thanks for giving me some food for thought here and on a psychological level no less.

  4. Joey Red

    There was lots of promise when Votto began his career. And there was some success in the early by this team. I’m sure he felt like there would be a World Series in his future. Not to be unfortunately. Also the name I use here isn’t for Votto. I was born in November of 1961. The Reds were in the WS against the Yankees that season. Unfortunate the Reds lost in 5 games. My dad went to two of the games at Crosley. The Reds had a pitcher named Joey Jay and that’s who I’m named after. My mom drew the line at Jay being my middle name.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Since dynasties are almost impossible to build, you’d think that in the generation cycle of a team, you’d hit, minimum, the NLCS at least once in 15 years. But that’s only if teams give into a cycle of loss/downsizing, which the Reds seem to be in. Eternally.

  5. Scott C

    Joey is a great human being, as he has demonstrated over and over, and he gives his all on the field, which is one (not all but one) reason this recent sell off of the Reds is so frustrating, truthfully they were 1 or 2 players away from really competing this year. And I don’t care what Bell says, they are not getting better in either a weird way or a non weird way.
    Great thoughtful piece Mary Beth.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Many thanks for reading and the very kind words 🙂

      • Daytonnati

        The Athletic did a profile of Joey last year using one of those oral history formats with former teammates and opponents telling stories. Unfortunately, it is behind the paywall, but for me, it was worth the year’s subscription. We all think we know him, and he is all of that we hope and want him to be … but he is even more. Very, very funny article.

        MB, I think you completely nailed the feelings that most Joey devotees possess. He is one of my all-time favorite pro athletes.

  6. scotly50

    Why are a persons accomplishments, in any endeavor, have to be leveraged ? Why cannot an achievement stand alone? We seem to have to label, categorize, or compare everything. Why can’t we just celebrate an achievement as it stands without the “but”?

    There are far more athletes never to make the professional ranks of their chosen sport than actually achieve it. All who make it are outstanding athletes. Frankie Crosetti has eight World series rings. So is he one of the five best Baseball players of all-time because of his teams achievements? Out of the top 45 players all-time with the most World Series rings, only two are not associated with the New York Yankees. All the best player were Yankees?

    I am not criticizing the article or point of view. It represents the prevailing mindset of fans in this country.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’m so glad you left this comment, because I agree! Baseball has always been thirsty for stats and I think that 1) the rise of SB and 2) the insatiable rise of the Internet has reinforced categorization rather than holistic viewing. I’m a big fan of trying to achieve a “whole person” picture, because it emphasizes the million and one factors that go into the formation, expression, and understanding of each human soul.

      But that doesn’t make for very clickable listicles.

  7. MK

    And yet his success has created part of this problem for him. Had the Reds allowed him to walk instead of a long-term no trade contract contract which has limited the teams financial payroll for the rest of the team. The Cardinals were smart enough to let Pujols, a much more likely Hall of Fame candidate, walk and spread out the resources allowing them to be constantly competitive. Certainly not Joe’s fault but a factor in the teams competitive prospects and his ability to get to the big dance.

    • jazzmanbbfan

      The Cardinals offered Pujols a boatload of $$$. The Angels just decided to go absolutely crazy with their offer. So, I wouldn’t say the Cardinals were smart enough to let him go but that the Angels were foolish enough to offer even more.

      • LWBlogger2

        Exactly what happened. The Cardinals did indeed offer Sir Albert “stupid money”. They really wanted to keep him. The Angels just offered him “even more stupid” money.

        The “Joey’s salary hamstrung the team by consuming too much of the payroll” narrative is as tired as the same narrative that used to get hung on Ken Griffey Jr. Poor management in areas well outside of payroll as well as a good amount of poor luck has been much more a culprit in the lack of success of our favorite baseball time.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s one of the things that strikes me about Votto. He is intently focused on controlling what he can (swing, stance, etc) but what Bob does with Bob’s cash is utterly beyond anything he is able to do, for all his talent and hard work.

      • greenmtred

        I think that’s a great point, Mary Beth, and may, along with the other insightful comments here, get to the heart of what makes Joey so good. I can’t speak to how he views the situation, but for me, the lack of a championship does not dim his luster.

  8. Joe Shaw

    Let’s all sell NFTs of Votto’s head Photoshopped onto well-known works of artistic genius. The $$ we will make should be more than enough for us to purchase controlling ownership in the team, sign all the free agents, and get Votto the ring he deserves.

    This idea makes sense. #Votto2024 #OnBase4USA

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Hold on a sec, Imma create a Robinhood account (that’s… NFTs, right?)

  9. SOQ

    I bet, upon retirement, he becomes a competitive Chess player

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      And, unlike the Reds this year, I would pay to see that.

      • LWBlogger2

        Stop it Mary Beth! You about made me shoot soda out of my nose from laughing at that comment!

  10. Mark Moore

    Another great article, MBE, if not completely sobering for a Reds fan. Joey is so deserving of his shot, yet that window appears to be little more than a crack and it’s probably stuck shut anyway. Not sure what would pry it open anymore.

    When I followed the NFL, I was a Phish Phan and loved Marino. He got his shot, but it didn’t happen. The Warren Moon name drop is a great one. You cannot deny he is the all-time pro football passing leader and he did that over a career that mastered two very different leagues. Yet no ring there either.

    Keep us in check as we enter this season. It’s almost April and that means hope and possibilities at the very least. And we’ll always pull for Joseph Daniel Votto. Always.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I think what’s really upsetting here is there seem to be an attempt at building a team, and then… not. Sigh.