If I remember right, I started doing Coffee and Votto on Twitter in the summer of 2016. It wasn’t something I meant to do. It happened because I was looking for ways to comfort myself after what had been an awful year. I’d roll out of bed, make breakfast for the kids, make coffee, and sit down at my desk to wake up and see what new statistical marvel I could find in Joey Votto’s numbers. It was soothing at a time when I needed something that soothed. Votto was unstoppable and, at least for me, he was also incredibly likable. Just what I needed.
I carried on with it, and it still runs from time to time. I need to do one again now that the season is over. Over the years, talking about baseball, the Cincinnati Reds, and specifically Joey Votto brought a lot of important people into my life. Including my wife. I never pushed it on the kids, but they both latched onto it anyway. And Votto was at the center of that. He was a little goofy. And he was smart. He was easy to talk about to my kids. And now, my youngest is obsessed with baseball, while my oldest enjoys a baseball game in a way that most of the other theater kids don’t really get.
My wife said to me, as we were preparing to go up for what might be his final home game, that she didn’t know how to be an adult baseball fan without Votto. I’m not sure I do either. I just started my 17th year as an English teacher and he just finished his 17th season as a major league player. His debut came a few weeks after I got my first job. It feels like several lifetimes ago.
But why Joey Votto? Why does he matter to some of us more than any other great player? I think it’s that, while baseball can be a place that pushes a lot of people away, he has been the type of player who welcomes everyone in. You can see how different Votto has always been in some of the early career comments and scouting reports I read while getting ready to write this. Of course, we all know the bit about him not having the tools, but there’s also stuff that syncs up with what he wrote recently about being bullied down in A-ball. He was different. He didn’t seem to fit in with the other guys according to some evaluators. It’s the kind of thing a lot of people have heard about themselves before, but not necessarily a lot of elite athletes. In sports, being like everyone else is often given much more importance than being a decent person. Fitting in matters a lot. He didn’t always fit in.
Joey Votto is different. Different in ways that matter. He is a nerd. He memorized Ted Williams’ book and has read books without pictures (to borrow from Bull Durham). And he is willing to listen and learn. I love baseball. I wanted to share it with my kids, but I’m also not the kind of person who can just look away or pretend that the off the field actions of (pick whoever you can think of from the laundry list) don’t matter. It does matter. And so, someone like Votto matters a lot.
Joey Votto is different. He is a Hall of Fame baseball player who has shown himself willing to listen and improve. It matters that he wore a Black Lives Matter shirt on the field. It matters more that he listened to Amir Garrett about what was going on. It matters that he briefly changed his walk up music to “Ohio” after Charlottesville (go read the lyrics if you don’t know the song). It matters.
On one level, sports are sports, and I get that. I know I’ve cheered for guys who were or ended up as less than stellar characters. As an adult, I can deal with that cognitive dissonance. Here is a beautiful game that is often played by abominable people. It’s the way of the world. But I’m an adult with kids. And it mattered that based on everything I’ve ever seen, Joey Votto tried hard to be a decent person. It helped doubly that he was a funny, self-effacing nerd. It helped triply that I can’t recall ever seeing anything bad about the guys he seems to get closest to on the various incarnations of the Reds. Whether it’s been Jay Bruce or Eugenio Suarez or Tyler Stephenson. He’s been a kind of guide to who the decent guys are.
Joey Votto has shown us recently that he knows what it is to be bullied. He’s shown us over and over that trying to be a decent person matters to him. And he’s shown us that if you are smart enough you can do things no one else thinks you can do. For years, he seemed to solve the puzzle of baseball. He didn’t make outs. He finished first in on base percentage in a way that only inner-circle guys ever had. Some less astute commentators wanted to know why he didn’t just hit more homers. And the answer was that he understood how baseball worked, probably better than they did.
In the end, I’m reminded of the famous dart scene from Ted Lasso – a show Joey Votto loves. “Be curious, not judgmental.” Walt Whitman didn’t write that (whoops, show!), but that doesn’t matter. Votto matters because he has been curious. He asks questions. He’s open minded. And he learns. So many of those who derided his approach were people who stopped learning about baseball years ago. So much of the criticism he’s seen directed at him has come from people unwilling to question themselves or what they know.
Whether he ever plays another game or not, Joey Votto is going to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame not because the gods reached down and gifted him with all the physical tools, but because he worked hard and thought hard and asked questions. Because he was curious and diligent.
Whether he ever plays another game or not, he was a superstar who worked at being decent and made it easier for a dad to show his kids about baseball. He put the title from a poem on his jersey once. Votto put “Who” on it another time. He plays chess and he reads books and he tries to do the right thing. He’s curious, not judgmental.