Advertisement

Life without Joey Votto: Why young Cincinnati Reds say they're ready to win without mentor

GOODYEAR, Arizona — The night the Cincinnati Reds were officially eliminated from playoff contention last year on the second-to-last day of the season in St. Louis, manager David Bell gave a quick keep-your-heads up message to a team that shocked the baseball world by even getting that close.

But heads still hung, the bitterness so strong, the end of a heart-throbbing ride so sudden.

Reds spring training news 'Not a foregone conclusion' Hunter Greene is Cincinnati Reds Opening Day starter

Reds spring training Frankie Montas How Frankie Montas' MLB experience shapes what he brings to the Reds

Reds spring training Jeimer Candelario Jeimer Candelario is excited about his fit with the Reds

“Everybody was upset,” catcher Tyler Stephenson said.

Joey Votto during a game last September, with Jonathan India (left) and 2023 rookies Noelvi Marte and Elly De La Cruz.
Joey Votto during a game last September, with Jonathan India (left) and 2023 rookies Noelvi Marte and Elly De La Cruz.

And then one player got up from his seat at the far end of the clubhouse and had something more to say.

“You guys are very close to baseball heaven,” Joey Votto said. “You’ve got something very special, and this is only the beginning.”

The speech went on for several minutes. Those who were there don’t remember every word he said, but those specific words stood out within the larger message.

“It was crazy being in that room,” Reds outfielder Will Benson said. “It sent chills.”

Less than 24 hours later, Votto took off his Cincinnati Reds uniform for the last time.

The Reds young players were impacted by Joey Votto's words after they were eliminated from the playoffs in the second-to-last game of the season. “It sent chills.” outfielder Wil Benson said of Votto's speach.
The Reds young players were impacted by Joey Votto's words after they were eliminated from the playoffs in the second-to-last game of the season. “It sent chills.” outfielder Wil Benson said of Votto's speach.

Fast-forward to Monday, and almost everybody who was in that room that night is back in Arizona for spring training, preparing for the organization’s first season without Votto since Jeimer Candelario and Harry Potter were kids.

But if the Joey Votto Era has passed, the influence of a franchise icon and clubhouse anchor who invested so much time and experience in this young Reds core certainly has not.

In fact, his parting words that night in St. Louis still seemed to resonate as position players got ready to join pitchers and catchers for Monday’s first official full-squad workouts.

Reds spring training news Cincinnati Reds on 'tinfoil hats' and the Great Uniform Scandal of 2024 | Press Box Wag

Reds spring training television The Reds release their spring training schedule

Reds spring training Josh Harrison Why Josh Harrison thinks he can beat non-roster odds to go home again with Cincinnati Reds

“It was intense,” fourth-year veteran Jonathan India said. “You could tell there was some doubt in his voice, like he wasn’t going to be here. He was trying to prepare us for taking it upon ourselves to be great and to lead ourselves.

“It stuck with me.”

So now what? What does this Joey-less life without Votto look like for the Cincinnati Reds?

For one thing, "It’s tough not seeing him out there. it’s weird,” India said.

"It’s tough not seeing him out there, it’s weird,” Jonathan India said of what spring training's been like without Joey Votto, shown here last March.
"It’s tough not seeing him out there, it’s weird,” Jonathan India said of what spring training's been like without Joey Votto, shown here last March.

Beyond that, Reds management tried to account for the loss of the person and the behind-the-scenes veteran influence when they set out this winter to make up last year’s scant difference between making the playoffs and ultimately falling short — without taking two steps back in the process after choosing to decline Votto’s 2024 contract option.

All of which came with one big caveat:

“You’ll never replace Joey Votto,” manager David Bell said.

That said, an intentional, common thread runs through every free agent the Reds added over the winter, from infielder Candelario and reliever Emilio Pagán to the two local guys they signed in pitcher Brent Suter and utility man Josh Harrison.

“It’s so important to have veteran guys who care about helping young players, especially in our situation,” general manager Brad Meador said, specifically acknowledging the experience and mentoring void left by Votto’s departure.

“It definitely was a huge part of what we considered with every one of these guys that we brought in,” Meador said. “We had such a good clubhouse last year that we wanted to make sure the guys we brought in were only going to improve it and help move this forward with the young players.”

First impressions of the new guys all seem to suggest they got what they wanted on that front.

But whether the Reds improve, backslide or tread water in 2024 is a lot more likely to be decided by the guys who were in that room that night in St. Louis last season.

Which means Joey Votto still might have a say — if only in the way those teammates hold and channel what he had to say that night.

“It was very powerful,” said catcher Luke Maile, who was a junior at Covington Catholic when Votto debuted for the Reds in 2007 and said he was struck by the magnitude of Votto’s speech as a potential final act of a long, decorated career.

“Cincinnati Reds baseball has been Joey Votto dating back to the mid-2000s,” Maile said. “It’s noticeable. His presence. The way he spoke so passionately for as old as he was and as long as he was doing it was infectious. As a young player, whether you know it or not, they felt that. I know they felt that.

“So we’re going to have to create that passion, that same way of chasing excellence the way he did, even though not many guys have quite the credentials to do that.”

Credentials? No. With Votto gone, there’s exactly one All-Star selection represented on the 40-man roster (Alexis Diaz last year) and two more among the non-roster guys (both belonging to Harrison).

Of the 62 players in camp, 10 have playoff experience — none with World Series experience — and only four among those 10 who were in that room to hear Votto that night in St. Louis.

What most of them do have is the stinging memory of how close they were when their hopes ended that night — and the resonance of the speech that lifted their heads.

“We’re hungry,” said Benson, who took it so hard he said he couldn’t watch the postseason on TV. “What happened last year, it left a taste in everyone’s mouth.”

Maybe that’s more powerful than anything one more season of Votto might have provided.

“I think as much as you could possibly hope for, we’re positioned with the guys that we have,” Bell said.

They’ll find out soon.

“Having your own experience is the best teacher,” said Spencer Steer, voted the team MVP by the BBWAA as a rookie last year. “You can have older guys helping you out, showing you the ropes, trying to lead the way. But failure is your biggest teacher, and failing at this level and having success at this level on your own is what really helps you grow.”

And with that, a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in 34 years — or even a playoff series in 29 — takes its next big step in its search of its “baseball heaven” without Votto pointing the way.

Ready or not.

“It was ready last year,” India said. “We came up short just because of injuries. But it was ready last year. This team is way more prepared (to compete) than most teams in this league.

“Everyone uses the excuse that we’re young. I don’t think that’s an excuse anymore for us.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Why Cincinnati Reds like their chances to win even without Joey Votto