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.