Joey Votto: baseball’s anonymous superstar

He won the National League’s MVP and led the Cincinnati Reds to the playoffs. Still, he’s working even harder on his game.

Joey Votto: baseball’s anonymous superstarThere’s an etiquette about batting practice in the big leagues. It’s fine to goof around outside the cage, talking to teammates, opponents, or the various hangers-on, as you wait your turn. But once you’re standing at the plate, it’s all business—take your hacks and make way for the next guy.

Then there’s Joey Votto. It’s not that the Toronto-born first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds violates the convention—far from it. He just makes it seem like an extra commandment. The preceding hitter has barely cleared the box before the 27-year-old is in his crouch, bat at the ready. He slashes the first pitch down the left-field line, then works his way right across the diamond—tock, tock, tock. The next five balls get launched into or over the high netting that tops the outfield walls at the Reds’ spring training complex in Goodyear, Ariz.—three in a row to right, then two to left. It’s all so workaday that Votto doesn’t even bother to watch them go, he’s already waiting for the next pitch. Focused is a term that hardly does him justice.

So when the reigning National League MVP, coming off a season where he hit .324, smashed 37 homers, and batted in 113 runs and led the Reds to their first playoff berth in 15 years, proclaims that he can get better still, who’s to argue? “I want to be great at what I do. I take a lot of pride in it,” says Votto. “And I try not to sell myself short in my work and preparation.” Between awards ceremonies this past winter (Votto also collected the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s top athlete, and the Hank Aaron Award as the NL’s top hitter), he worked out five hours a day, six times a week at his Florida home. The guy who had the best on-base percentage in baseball, and went an entire season without an infield pop-out, talks about how he hopes to be a more efficient hitter, stronger defensively, and a better teammate. He speaks earnestly about proving himself all over again, and how he really measures himself against the man who finished a distant second in the league’s MVP voting, Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals, “the best player in baseball.”

If Votto has a dream, it’s to be numbingly consistent. “I think I am boring. That’s good. I strive for boring in all elements of my game.” And if the intensely private slugger has got an ambition, it’s to somehow remain baseball’s anonymous superstar. “One of the advantages of playing in a smaller market is that I can go back to Toronto, or all across the States and never be recognized,” he says. “I get to go out to dinner, walk my dog, or go to the mall and nobody knows who I am.”

Last season, his third full year in the majors, Joey Votto earned US$525,000. His new contract will pay him a total of $38 million through 2013. Out front of the Reds’ training complex, dozens of luxury vehicles—Escalades, Land Rovers, even a red Ferrari with Florida plates—are being loaded onto car transporters bound for Ohio. Votto stammers a bit when asked if one of them is his, then deftly sidesteps the question. “I don’t think materialistic things are my priority,” he says. Nine years after he got drafted out of high school, Votto says he’s still spending his $600,000 signing bonus.

The bat was a gift from his parents on his eighth birthday. While they worked cooking and serving at the family restaurant—the one they all lived above on Oakville’s lakeshore—Joey spent time out back using it to smack balls off the brick wall. That’s his first baseball memory. His late father Joe, a chef by trade, taught him to play, with daily games of catch on breaks from the kitchen. The next summer, his little league debut, the restaurant sponsored his team. Joey pitched in the championship game.

By the time he entered high school, the business had failed, the family were living in even more modest circumstances in nearby Etobicoke, and the game had become more than a pastime. “Baseball was comfortable for me. It felt right. It was kind of an escape,” says Votto. “Something I could put all my energy into, both positive and negative.”

Bob Smyth, then the owner of a local baseball academy, started coaching him when he was 15. The hulking Votto—now six foot three, 230 lb.—was already bigger and stronger than most kids his age, but what really set him apart was his desire. “If you told him to work on something, he’d go and do it,” Smyth says from his home on Vancouver Island, where he’s now a part-time scout for Major League Baseball. Blessed with power to both fields, he became a maniac for off-field training, spending nights and weekends during the long Canadian winters in the batting cage, working on pitch recognition and covering every inch of the plate.

It was the raw strength that impressed John Castleberry, then a scout with the Reds. Dispatched to Toronto to check out a kid who had caught some eyes at a youth prospect game with his bat speed and aggressiveness, he found what he was sure was a major leaguer in waiting. “I saw him in the cage hitting, and he was literally ripping the net off it,” says Castleberry, now with the San Francisco Giants. “I just went, oh my God!” Worried that other teams would clue in, the Reds kept things quiet, waiting until just days before the 2002 draft to fly in their scouting director for a first-hand look. In the end, they made Votto their second-round pick, 44th overall, beating the Yankees, the only other club with any interest, to the punch.

Votto took the call on his mother’s cellphone during drama class at Etobicoke’s Richview Collegiate. He was relieved it was the Reds—he had gone to school to get away from the pestering Yankees scout who was camped out at the house with his mom and dad. “It was hard for people to understand, especially my parents. But it wasn’t fun, it was stressful.” When the deal was finally worked out around the dining room table at 2 a.m., Joey was asleep on the couch. Castleberry, who in 20 years of scouting has seen just seven of his prospects make it to “The Show,” remembers having to wake him up to sign the papers.

Others in that draft class—including fellow Canadians Adam Lowen and Jeff Francis, the fourth and ninth picks respectively—made it to the majors far before he did. Votto had to climb every rung of the ladder, starting in the Gulf Coast League, then to the Billings Mustangs in the Pioneer. In Dayton, Ohio, with the Single-A Dragons, he used to cut the lawn for the family that billeted him. In Double-A Chattanooga he distinguished himself as the kid who would show up in a sport coat for a six-hour bus ride. The coaches at every level raved about his work ethic. “That’s because they can’t talk about how good a natural athlete I was,” Votto says wryly. He never made one of those “Top 100 Prospects” lists until 2007, the season he was finally called up. In his first game with the Reds, just a couple of days before his 24th birthday that September, he went 3-for-3 with a homer against the NY Mets.

In 2008, Votto batted .297, hit 24 homers, and was the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year. But any sense of accomplishment was dulled by his father’s sudden death that August, at age 52, of undisclosed causes. Votto took a week’s bereavement leave, and then returned to finish the season. All that winter, he struggled with not only the loss, but the responsibility he felt toward his family—especially his twin brothers, Ryan and Paul, just eight at the time.

He started off 2009 at a torrid pace, batting .357 and collecting 33 RBIs over the first 38 games. But there were unexplained dizzy spells that caused him to miss a dozen games. On three occasions that spring, Votto became so overwhelmed during play that he had to be walked off the field by Reds manager Dusty Baker. Twice he ended up at the emergency room in the throes of full-blown panic attacks. “It got to the point where I thought I was going to die,” Votto later told reporters. Doctors diagnosed him as suffering from anxiety and depression. He left the team for three weeks to seek treatment.

Votto’s only ever really talked about it once, when he rejoined the team just in time for a series against the Blue Jays that June. Sitting in a dugout at the Rogers Centre, he opened up about his grief, sadness and fears. “We’re supposed to be known as being mentally tough and be able to withstand any type of adversity. But this is, pardon my French, real-life s–t. I just couldn’t take it,” he said.

As Joey Votto’s fame grows, the euphemisms are piling up, references to his “business-like demeanour,” or as Sports Illustrated artfully put it in a cover story last August, his “indifference to image.” The process of obtaining an interview with the Reds slugger involves multiple warnings about the many things he will not talk about. Maybe it’s a persona designed to make his questioners as uneasy as the pitchers he lines up against. But when you finally sit down in front of his locker, he’s thoughtful, unfailingly polite, and more than willing to poke fun at himself. Those who work with Votto speak admiringly of his habit of sending cards and gifts to team staff and those who supported him on his way up. It’s something he says he learned from his parents. “I always remember how they treated the people in the restaurant—the dishwashers, the people who took out the trash.”

Sitting in his office, belt undone and using a trash can as a spittoon, Dusty Baker—as touchy and feely a manager as exists in baseball—acknowledges Votto’s intense nature. Is he maybe a little too serious? “What do I do, tell him a joke every day?” asks Baker. “Sometimes you just leave people alone.” Truth be told, baseball is filled with far more difficult personalities. “Joey’s just Joey,” says Baker. “He still likes to have a good time. You just gotta read it before you laugh at him.”

Chippy about the way he was underestimated as a player, Votto has become warier still of those who would pigeonhole him as a person. “I don’t like it when people put limits on me.”

The coolest thing that happened after the MVP award was receiving a text message from Wayne Gretzky, which eventually resulted in a couple of nice conversations. Votto wasn’t aware that another Richview Collegiate alumnus—Stephen Harper—tweeted his congrats until a reporter brings it up. The 27-year-old likes to spend his downtime reading, and barbecuing. He named his dog Maris, after Roger, the Yankees outfielder who was the first to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run record in 1961. “I thought it was kind of unfair that Roger got treated like s–t, while everyone wanted Mickey Mantle to do it,” he says. But ask him if he personally identifies with the guy who excelled playing in the shadows, and the window slams down. “No.”

There’s a girlfriend, but it’s one of his representatives that mentions her in passing, not him. He’d rather you didn’t talk to his mother, now the head sommelier at a fancy Italian eatery in Toronto. (To her despair, Votto says he doesn’t “get” wine.) During the season, he keeps up with his young brothers by joining them in online video games. He’s happy that they don’t seem that impressed with his awards. “I think they’re just kind of meh about it, which is cool.”

He’s been taking correspondence courses, studying education for the past three years, although he’s initially reluctant to even put that on the record. Someday he’d like to return to school and get a degree. After all he’s been through, it’s natural to wonder if Joey Votto intends to somehow put it to use aiding others suffering from grief and depression. The answer is yes, someday. But even then it will all be on his undisclosed terms. “There are so many different ways to help,” he says. “A lot of people take pride in doing things privately.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.