We have seen Joey Votto in both of these positions: A man fighting gravity and the very cells of his body. And a man battling back from injury. We will now see how he attacks both at once. But if you have been watching Joey Votto at all, there is zero mystery in how he will accomplish this.
Out for the season with a Beacon Orthopedics sling on his left arm, the closest to whining Votto came was to post a picture of himself leaving a Kroger’s, a Drumstick in his 38-year-old good hand.
“Today called for ice cream,” he typed.
The announcement came just days after Votto took part in what he defined as “an exceptional moment in my life.” He played in the Field of Dreams Game, emerging from the Iowa corn alongside Johnny Bench and Griffeys both Senior and Junior.
Miced for the third inning, Votto expounded on his desire to find a precise term for his feelings about the occasion.
“I actually Google-searched synonyms for special, and exceptional came up,” he explained, the Midwest sun low on his face. It was a moment so special for him that he was loathe to sully it by actually using the trite and overworked “special.”
“”It’s very much a full circle for me,” he said, speaking of how his late father would have loved the event.
The conversation was perhaps the closest Reds fans came to having a window on Votto’s everyday life on the job. While speaking about the daily catches he enjoyed with his dad, Votto also paused occasionally while watching the batter. His inflection jumped in non-conversational places as pop-ups cracked above the plate. He yelled “Runner!” when a steal was underway, and muttered things like “I gotta be ready over here. He’ll hit the ball this way” while in the midst of telling a story.
And, he said, that for all the top-notch amenities baseball offers its players at the MLB level, this game “will absolutely swallow you. It will gobble you up.”
How did he avoid becoming swallowed and gobbled through an increasingly well-trained two generations of players? Natural talent, of course, but see how he continually feeds that talent: He played catch daily with his father. He watched game film. He took batting practice. He didn’t fritter a moment. He was smashing balls against netting with rookies and squaring up in the cage in the downslide of winter. To become one of five Reds to bring home over a thousand RBIs, he did things like be ready, watch the batter, and yell “Runner!”
Wearing the thin stripes and stirrups of his early predecessors there on the Iowa soil, Votto was perhaps aware of the marked epoch he is still creating as a bearer of the Reds emblem, a measure against the past and still-rising standard for the future. We are, in this place, accustomed to eras of championships won by the efforts of many, not its inverse– a drought of postseasons that yet carry the singular stamp of just one player. We simply don’t know what to do with this man.
For decades, Cincinnatians have measured baseball success in terms of rings and bowling into catchers and flashy bullpens. Especially in a post-free agent era, we are wholly unused to the inning-by-inning gift of grinding, three up and three down, trudging to great heights on the simple rungs of taking grounders and eating vegetables. Joey Votto is extending his extraordinary Major League life by remaining centered on first-grade Little League basics. Every day, he puts on his pending-retired 19 and cycles back to whatever shiny vinyl number he wore on the neighborhood diamonds of Etobicoke. Watch the ball. Swing hard. Disgrace not your team.
Votto did not reach base in his the last four games before his surgery. That is the longest blank streak of his entire life. Last season, at the age of 37, he notched an NL Player of the Month designation. By mixing head-down dedication with a creative determination to maintain his fitness (lately, he took up breakdancing lessons) Votto has chiseled himself an indelible niche in the much-engraved history of baseball.
When asked in April which of his stellar stats he was most proud of–in at least one category he matches his hero, Ted Williams– he said, “I’m proud of how many games I’ve played.” He knows the value of the everyday, how a slow and steady drip of water can, in time, grind down an entire mountain.
So, yesterday, he posted photos of ugly punctures in his left shoulder, a long gash beneath the upper end of his tricep. And next to that was footage of his second day of rehab. He’s standing at a 45-degree angle, wearing a nondescript grey top, bracing himself on a table with his right arm. His left dangles towards the floor, at first glance useless– but if you watch long enough, you see Joey Votto, time and again, tracing a small circle in the air.