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Joey Votto grew up in Toronto, bats left, was an MVP once, gets on base a lot, swings often enough for some people, himself most of all, and not enough for others, a tiresome debate in which he has little interest in participating, and in a season that has triggered a rebuild in Cincinnati is again healthy and one of the better hitters in the game.
He also can be a little hard to get to know, but that's not his fault – he's working. He also seems quiet by nature. Or, perhaps, he is more thoughtful than most, which leads to much less blurting of inanities. So in a world in which we generally know more than we need to – or want to – about our fellow beings, Votto is somewhat mysterious.
"Ha-ha," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "You need to tell him that. He'll laugh."
He did smile a little.
Not long ago, when Price was a retired pitcher and employed as pitching coach for the Reds, Votto would prepare for an at-bat by asking Price – the pitcher/pitching coach – for hitting pointers. It was a running thing between them.
"I'd relate to him the importance of knuckle alignment," Price said. "Then I'd tell him, 'And you're Joey Votto! Jack the Ripper! Go rip their hearts out!' "
Amused again, Votto would go hit 37 home runs or bat .337 or lead the league in doubles.
"There was nobody in baseball he thought could get him out," Price said. "I don't think that's necessarily changed."
Votto sat down, rolled a chair in front of his and patted the seat. Reporters don't often sit in a clubhouse, because it's not our clubhouse. But he offered.
He'd trimmed his hair to about the length of his day-old beard, achieving full-head consistency. He stood a bat on the floor and rested his hands on the knob. Votto will be 32 in a month. He was drafted 13 years ago, reached the big leagues five years after that and is a .310 hitter – with a .419 on-base percentage and 183 home runs – since, over more than a thousand games. The Reds have been good and bad and parts in between. Whatever's next will include Votto, who is under contract for another nine years at more than $20 million per.
So I asked about his place here, in Cincinnati, at this transitional time, at this point in his career.
"I'm putting my faith…," he started and stopped.
"My No. 1 priority is doing my job to the point my employer is satisfied, the fans are satisfied and I am satisfied with my performance," he said. "To me, I'm not necessarily concerned – I can't be – with the organization's decisions and the direction one way or the other."
He said he is honored to play in Cincinnati and grateful to the Reds for having him.
"I do not like losing," he said. "That I can say."
Same time, he added, a game's outcome, for better or worse, would not dictate the commitment to the next game, just as one season – this season, for one – does not necessarily mean more of the same. It's how a man builds a career, piling good decisions atop batting cage reps atop, maybe, hitting tips from the pitching coach.
In that way, Albert Pujols likes to say that his job is to show up at seven o'clock every night prepared to play the game. Sometimes the hits fall. Sometimes the team wins. What he can manage to the last detail is the 21 hours around that.
"That's the language I speak," Votto said.
As Price said, "He is extremely committed to excellence. I don't think he's comfortable thinking he's played his best years."
The Reds will change.
Not two weeks ago, they traded away Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake amid rumors Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce could've been had, too. Rookie pitchers have started 15 consecutive games for the Reds, and rookie John Lamb, acquired from Kansas City in the Cueto deal, will make 16 on Friday, and rookie David Holmberg will make 17 on Saturday, and we could keep going because the Reds have only rookie starters.
Votto will stay. Their past, in that way, remains their future. It's good by him. Besides, change can be for the best, as it has been for the game since he arrived only eight years back.
"The game is smarter," he said. "I think the game is a better product. I think it's a cleaner game. I think that it's tougher. It's a lot tougher."
Steady over his legs again after missing two-thirds of last season, Votto on Thursday night played in his 111th game. The Reds have played 113. He's batting .304. His on-base percentage is .434. He has 20 home runs. He'd just gone two weeks in which he batted .206, yet reached base in nearly half his plate appearances. The game goes this way and that, the Reds do too, and a healthy, sturdy Votto produces.
It may not be enough to save the Reds today. We'll see what it brings tomorrow. Votto will be here.
He stood and offered his hand. It was time for a hitters' meeting. There were another four or five at-bats out there, waiting on him, a game to play, at this point merely for the at-bats and the game. That, and the knuckle alignment.
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