I knew I would never see his like again. So, I drove up Interstate 95 to Pawtucket, Rhode Island that warm morning in June. Left Gotham behind and sped my way up through Connecticut, past Mystic Seaport, heading into the mystic of one Joseph Daniel Votto, that, like the famous Van Morrison song, was a metaphor for the journey through a life. It was eight years ago—2014 to be precise—a chance to see if that awful leg injury, the one that would eventually sideline the Reds’ first baseman for 100 games, was finally behind him as he rehabbed his way back to the big club.

It was not. Many things went wrong in 2014. But, I remember that lost year—one that should be enshrined on the Chinese calendar as The Year of the Left Distal Quad—the beginning of the end for a Reds odyssey that began with Jay Bruce and Clinchmas, and ended four years later with Votto missing 100 games, and the slow, inexorable realization that the Good Ship Redleg was a speedboat headed for the horizon where the setting sun, in the form of The Rebuild, awaited.

We were borne before the wind
Also, younger than the sun
‘Ere the bonnie boat was one
As we sailed into the mystic

Eight years on, I find myself driving again, this time down Interstate 71 to Louisville, where another rehab is in progress, another journey into the mystic. This time is different. The first trip was investigative journalism on my part. An eye test to verify the health of Joey MVP. I may not be a doctor, but I have played one on TV. Really.

No, this time I was there not for amateur forensic medical reasons. I was there for myself. At 38 years and 251 days old, the days remaining to see perhaps the Reds’ greatest hitter ever bestride the manicured turf of a professional baseball field are dwindling. How could I not go, and remind myself: I’m likely not seeing this ever again.

Four innings. A walk. An RBI single. One more walk later and he was done. A pinch runner appeared from the dugout to take his place, just as he did eight years ago in Pawtucket. And just like that he was gone into the rainy night. Into the mystic.

His 2017 season was a revelation. MVP worthy, were it not for one knuckleheaded sportswriter with a wayward vote. A reminder of the possible. A reminder that the greatness never dies all at once. It ebbs. Its days dwindle down slowly, like the September that augurs a summer’s end. And sometimes, when you least expect it, it roars back to life as if to say, “I’m not done yet,” as Jack Nicklaus did at age 46 in the 1986 Masters.

Votto’s 2019 and 2020 seasons suggested he just might be done. The bat looked rusty. The swing looked slow. But a funny thing happened on the way to the retirement home. The former MVP decided to tell baseball in 2021, “I’m not done.”

It was July 30th. The Reds are in town to play the Mets. Votto has hit home runs in 6 straight games. This madness cannot continue. But, I’m there at Citi Field because it’s the Joey Votto Traveling Medicine Show and I’m ready pay my money and drink the tonic. Mets fans are in full throat. The usual New York buffoonery ensues. They know what Votto has done. They are there to see the fall. They are pointing. They are barking, rabid, frothing at the mouth. Then, this happens:

I can’t help but pan my camera phone over the railing to the Met fan who has been gesticulating each time Votto comes to the plate. Now he’s left speechless for the first time, all the Big Apple bravado washed from his now waned visage. It’s beyond glorious.

Just as football’s grim reaper has had to take a seat and wait for Tom Brady to decide he’s done, so has baseball’s Father Time been forced to grab some bench and tip his cap to Votto. And wait.

When I look back at two of the best hitters I’ve ever seen wear a Reds uniform, one trait stands out. A sense of relentlessness and intensity. For Pete Rose, that trait set him apart from many of his peers. The same can be said of Votto. The difference is, where Rose’s relentless nature—his intensity—was outwardly visceral, Joey’s has been largely perceived as purely intellectual. It may be for that reason that Votto has been unappreciated by some who prefer the outward show, the overweening athlete. It doesn’t change the fact that Canada’s favorite baseball son is as driven as any to wear “CINCINNATI” across his chest.

Of all the words I have written about Joey Votto, these are my favorite, the ones that for me most clearly defines that focus, that relentless pursuit of perfection:

The Prince of Process goes about his business at the plate with an air of unhurried confidence, his at-bat routine practiced and precise. His stare between pitches is not a vacant thousand-yard stare, but rather the look of a man locked in to his calculation, the non-believers relegated to that undiscovered country where mere mortals fret and fust, out of sight and out of mind. A good man, he wants your appreciation, yearns for it even, truth be told. But nothing interrupts the work, the step-by-step mechanics of perfecting the always imperfect, and in doing so, rediscovering himself once more. He waits on his adversary. Stares into the approaching storm. He uncoils and commits to the pitch. Then, the process starts all over again.

While I hope to see more medicine show magic from Votto, I think in some strange way, I’m going to appreciate the nondescript, prosaic moments more. I want to watch the struggle of the great athlete fight the dying of the light. For in that struggle is where we see true greatness, the core of what made all that fortune and daring possible, when youth and exquisite physical skills seemingly hid all the work and made it all look so easy.

There’s a reason why people go out onto their lawn at 3AM to watch a comet streak across the night sky. Joseph Daniel Votto is the baseball fans’ comet. Their shooting star. So, we turn our gaze to home plate. We watch. We celebrate every last moment.

And together we will surely float
Into the mystic

12 Responses

  1. SOQ

    One of my all time favorite songs.
    Excellent article Richard

    • Pablo

      Ditto, one of my all-time favorite songs. A must play anytime it’s spotted in a jukebox.

  2. LDS

    Votto has certainly been one of the Reds greatest hitters. Personally, I’d rather see him retire than flail away unsuccessfully trying to prove something. Maybe he bounces back, maybe he doesn’t. He has nothing left to prove.

  3. Daytonnati

    “And I want to rock your gypsy soul
    Just like way back in the days of old
    And magnificently we will fold … into the mystic”

    • SOQ

      I have already told the kids that I want this played at my memorial service 🙂

      • Dave

        I told my wife the same thing. And we played it at our wedding.

  4. Gonzo Reds

    Great article. One of the reasons I picked the Blue Jays as my new favorite team after 50+ years (other than saying F U Phil I do have somewhere else to go!) is hopefully being able to stick it to all those obnoxious NY and Boston fans with a WS championship I’ll never see again in my lifetime with Cincy. So sure it was great seeing Votto making that Mets fan take his medicine.

    As for the song, one of my favorites. Drove 5 hours south to Miami area last month to see Van Morrison (clicking them off the bucket list) and the show I attended was the only one of the 4 FL shows where he did Into the Mystic. Was fantastic of course! Van wore a classy blue suit and classic blue trademark hat.

  5. Rednat

    thank you Richard. i went to the DRAGONS game Tuesday and Joey was like a rock star there. i bet he will continue to play even after his days as a red are over. maybe for a minor league club or pioneer league team. you can just tel he loves to play the game and loves the fan interaction

  6. Hotto4Votto

    Good stuff. One of my all time favorite Reds (obviously).