It was a big ask. As player requests go, this one unquestionably pushed the limits. But in mid-June, Reds first baseman Joey Votto approached his bosses, asking to miss a team flight so he could attend Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Votto has been a die-hard Lakers fan for most of his 26 years, and a friend had scored tickets. The seats weren't great—"Tickets in the lower bowl were going for, like, 10 grand!" Votto says—but they were good enough. In a sort of postmodern version of Cannonball Run, Votto had mapped out a cross-country itinerary whereby he could get from Cincinnati to Los Angeles and then meet his team in Seattle without missing an at bat.
The Reds' executives, including manager Dusty Baker, considered the request and then consented. Yes, it was a reward of sorts for Votto's typically excellent performance this season. But they were also thrilled to see him doing something impulsive and fun.
So it was that on June 17 Votto closed out a home stand by going 2 for 4 with a home run in an afternoon win over the Dodgers. No sooner had he delivered a few postgame fist bumps to teammates in the infield, than he tore out of Great American Ball Park, bound for the Cincinnati airport. Taking advantage of the time difference, Votto landed at LAX as the NBA game started and jumped into a cab. With the locals glued to their televisions, traffic was uncommonly light. Votto arrived at Staples Center at the start of the second quarter and watched his team beat the Celtics and win the title. He then slept a few hours, woke up early and returned to the airport to catch an 8 a.m. flight to Seattle. In a blow to coaches everywhere who preach the virtues of a good night's rest, Votto went 2 for 4 that night against the Mariners. "It was just one of those experiences I'll always remember," he says.
Maybe the oddest part of the story: Votto says that between the time he left Cincinnati and the time he landed in Seattle, he went totally unrecognized. Or at least unaccosted. No "Hey, Joey, what's up?" No autographs. No iPhone paparazzi. As he sat—stood, mostly—in the Staples Center stands, he was just a nice-looking, thickly built guy in his 20s, cheering for the purple and gold. "Trust me," he says, "it's fine with me that way."
Votto's bat is threatening to sabotage that preference for privacy. In his third full season he is quietly establishing himself as a Pujolsian figure, a National League MVP candidate who through Sunday was leading the league in hitting (.323), on-base percentage (.422) and slugging (.592) and, with 29 home runs and 86 RBIs, was among the top three in each of the Triple Crown categories. Votto is a disciplined hitter, complementing brute power with patience at the plate. And he's a major reason that the Reds, who had a 3½-game lead in the NL Central at week's end, are about to snap a string of nine straight losing seasons and are challenging for a postseason spot. Votto would rather the focus be on the resurgence of the proud franchise he plays for, but his MVP-caliber performance also makes for a heartening comeback story. Last season he missed nearly a month while struggling with depression after the sudden death of his father, Joseph. To judge by his hitting—and, perhaps, that seat-of-the-pants plan to see the Lakers—Votto has put those emotional issues behind him.
"I'd be lying if I said I thought he'd be what he is now," says Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, who played with Votto in Cincinnati in 2008. "But the dude works so hard, he's so smart and professional, it's almost like, why wouldn't he be this good?"
Otherwise, though, Votto can be hard to notice. If you're tired of the sportscape's many cases of arrested development, indifference and look-at-me-itis, Votto is your elixir. As he often says, "Baseball is just my job." And he treats it as such, preparing meticulously, taking pride in his work, harboring ambition while avoiding office politics. "He's a good teammate, but he keeps to himself," says Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "He tells you only what he thinks you need to know. There's nothing wrong with that."
It's not that Votto is aloof. Far from it. Sitting in front of his conspicuously tidy locker in the Reds' clubhouse a few hours before a game, he holds forth on a range of subjects, the dinner-party guest you feel fortunate to be seated alongside. And for all his professional drive, he's not ruthless. "He's as polite as anyone I've ever met," says Baker.
But until Votto can figure out how popularity will benefit his job performance, he'll keep a low profile. "Attention goes both ways, it creates expectations and it also creates limits," he says. "When you buy into that, it's almost like you're not being fair to yourself ... and, to me anyway, it distracts from the job."
When this is recounted to Baker, he nods. "I'm telling you, if everyone were as dedicated as Joey, we'd have a much better game. He's intense but mellow. He's serious but has a great personality. He's Canadian, you know."
Growing up in the Toronto suburbs, Votto was 10 in the fall of 1993, when Joe Carter's walk-off home run gave the Blue Jays their second straight World Series title. Votto tells the story that his parents, Joseph and Wendy, left him home alone and ventured downtown that night to join the celebration. By then, baseball already enthralled him, its pacing and combination of team and individual a good match for his personality. If you needed proof Votto was a unique species, here was the rare (perhaps only?) natural athlete in Canada who didn't take to hockey. Votto never even got the hang of skating. Another story he tells: He went to a rink as a teenager for a first date with a new girlfriend. "When she saw what a disaster I was on the ice," he says, "she dumped me."
Joseph and Wendy owned a restaurant, and when it went bust, the family struggled. Eventually Joseph got a job as a chef at a Toronto yacht club. Wendy became a sommelier. "Seeing them dig themselves out and get back on their feet and overcome, that's a pretty good example," says Joey. "That's a lot like baseball, a lot like life."
Votto was a second-round pick by the Reds in the 2002 draft, part of an early-century Canadian baseball boomlet that also produced sluggers Justin Morneau and Jason Bay. An intense, sweet-hitting lefty, Votto gypsied around the minors, disappointed he wasn't being promoted faster—but unwilling to express that view publicly. "I just made it a point to get ready for the big leagues because I knew that's where I belonged," he says. "You run the bases properly, you have a good two-strike approach, you compose yourself. So many situations can turn complicated if you can't slow things down."
Finally called up by the Reds in late 2007, six days shy of his 24th birthday, Votto arrived not with a sense of awe, but a sense of, "I'm not going back down." In 2008, his first full season, he hit 24 home runs—most by a Reds rookie since Frank Robinson in 1956—and finished second to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Beyond that, he impressed teammates with his comportment, everything from his early arrival at the ballpark to his diet heavy on brown rice. Says Reds third baseman Scott Rolen, "You know how they say, Do things the right way? It's like he does the right things naturally."
Then, tragedy. In August 2008 Votto's father died suddenly of undisclosed causes at age 52. Votto and his three younger brothers, Tyler, now a college student in Toronto, and twins Ryan and Paul, now 11, grieved together, but differently. Votto says that the deep sadness, coupled with the responsibility that came with being thrust into the role of father figure to his brothers, was "totally overwhelming." He made it through spring training and the 2009 World Baseball Classic (he batted .556), but as the season got rolling he began suffering full-on panic attacks. "The very first night I was alone was when I went to the hospital," said Votto, who sought treatment during a series in San Diego and also while home in Cincinnati. "I couldn't take it. It got to the point where I thought I was going to die." He went on the disabled list in late May—stated reason: stress-related issues—and spent time "working through some things."
When he returned to the lineup on June 23 he resumed his torrid hitting, batting .322 for the season. But his perspective was altered. "My attitude changed. I needed to do a better job of reflecting and balancing, making my free time really mine," he says. "Not to disrespect the game or disrespect the fans, but baseball doesn't own my life. I'm not going to allow it to. . . . I hope I said it right. Grieving is a tough process, and I'm still working through it."
When he played, no longer was every at bat a personal referendum. He was more interested in relishing the competition. "Santana's pitching? That makes my day. Halladay? Carpenter? Wainwright? Lincecum? I can't wait. When Strasburg got called up, I wanted to face him," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to say it, I want to beat the best in the world, that's what I prepare for."
Votto's indifference to image can bite him sometimes. Despite leading the National League in home runs, slugging and on-base percentage in the first half this year, he was nearly left off the All-Star team. Votto was passed over in the selection of starters and reserves in favor of three higher-profile first basemen, Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez. Irate, the Reds launched a campaign for him in the fan vote for the last roster spot, outfitting every team employee with a VOTE VOTTO T-shirt. Votto appreciated the support but—giving new zest to the phrase Cincinnati red—was embarrassed by the attention. "It kind of became a popularity contest," he told reporters. "It's not really the route I'd like to go to get to the All-Star Game."
Thanks in small part to ballot stuffing by Baker's 11-year-old son, Darren, Votto was a late addition. He went 0 for 2; he also caused a minor stir when he declined to congratulate Chicago outfielder Marlon Byrd for a nice defensive play because Byrd plays for a division rival. "I don't like the Cubs," Votto told a reporter. Votto says that he was ribbing the reporter, who he knew was from Chicago. Still, that Votto had to explain the joke says plenty about his reputation for intensity.
Votto's earnestness and clean living play well in measured and reserved southern Ohio. Men relate to him. (Hell, even his bristly crewcut conforms with the local hairstyle of choice.) Women walk around with FUTURE MRS. VOTTO T-shirts. And Votto is happy playing in a small city/big town, where hassles are few and he can stroll to the ballpark from his apartment and walk his dog along the Ohio River. "You can get your city fix on the road," he says.
Whether Votto is locked up for a long-term stay in Cincinnati will be a drama for the off-season. He's eligible for arbitration and is looking to improve (dramatically) on his current $525,000 salary. The situation will be familiar to Reds G.M. Walt Jocketty, who held that position with the Cardinals in 2003 when another young, ascendant first baseman was in a similar position. St. Louis lavished $100 million upon Albert Pujols over seven years. Pujols's agent? Dan Lozano ... who also represents Votto. Parallels aside, both Votto and the Reds are content to wait until the off-season to talk business—though Baker allows that his first baseman has reason to ask for the moon. "Joey's the man of the household," Baker says. "He has a mom and three younger brothers. Especially in these times, you can set up everyone for life."
For now, though, there's competition to address. A winning season. A possible post-season appearance. A possible Triple Crown. A possible MVP award. Not that Votto wants to discuss his highlights. He's fine yakking about the Lakers or his dog or Canadian culture. But baseball? He'll let his body of work speak for itself.