It only took a fortnight. Two weeks. A handful of games. But here we were once again, standing room only at the abyss. Arguing. Pointing fingers. Like a tired married couple hurling accusations, we play the aggrieved party for all it’s worth. It’s all gone wrong somehow. And it’s somebody’s fault. Somebody’s got to pay. A losing record will do that.
The usual suspects are lined up like a perp walk on an episode of Law & Order. There’s the manager, who made the horrible mistake of bringing a crippled lineup minus Shin-Soo Choo north with him from Arizona and using Trevor Bell in a couple of games. Remember when we killed the front office for playing short with the 25 man roster? Not now. How dare a manager use his full complement of players to ease the strain on an already wounded team.
Then, there’s the GM, whose most recent unforgivable sins include not picking up a player (Grady Sizemore) who possessed compelling reasons for signing with another team—and not signing a journeyman infielder (Emilio Bonifacio) playing on his 7th team in 8 seasons and possessing a career OPS+ almost identical to feared slugger Zack Cozart.
And don’t forget that always suspicious-looking guy at the end of the lineup who we cannot identify by look, but is always suspect by the very nature of his position in the shadows of the dugout and the undecipherable job description—the hitting coach.
But, by far, there is one suspect who sticks out in the lineup the most with his high baseball profile and fat financial profile. He deceives us right out of the gate, with his All-American good looks—because he’s not even American, the liar. It’s all right there: the five o’clock shadow. Put a fedora on him and he could easily be one of the shady characters occupying a corner table at Rick’s in Casablanca. Yes, we’ve been feasting on Joey Votto again.
The Donner party goes to the ballpark.
Oh, for sure, the mob has quieted in the last week as Votto has begun to be Votto-MVP again, not merely hitting, but hitting for power, which is a holy grail of fan acceptance for some. But, you know the fire is not out, it’s merely smoldering, waiting for the kindling that is another 0 for 8 at the plate to burn high and hot again. Right now, credit goes to the move to the two slot, even though Billy the Kid is still not getting on base with any regularity, so Joey probably isn’t seeing anything different than he would batting third. And, of course, there are those who will never be happy because “why are we paying this guy all this money to bat second?”
It never should have been thus. Votto, a shy, somewhat reticent ballplayer who just wanted to practice his craft in quiet excellence and go home, broke out of his shell this off-season, starring in an epic series of getting-to-know-you radio conversations with Lance McAlister, designed to share with the fans his methods, his madness and maybe in the process win himself a little bonhomie from the homies in the peanut gallery.
He got all that and more. Some were gracious and understanding, but it was only when a handful of self-selected hitting savants, eager to share their expertise with the misinformed former MVP, did the real fun begin. What could have been a learning experience for a few select listeners turned into some draw-dropping exchanges.
One caller asked Votto if he had considered being less selective. And when the Reds’ first baseman said that no, he wasn’t considering changing his approach, the caller then insisted that yes—based on what he’d seen earlier that day in a Spring Training game—well , yeah, absolutely, he’d changed his approach, and congrats for being less selective and therefore more successful. When a dumbfounded Votto, stuttered momentarily and replied that “no, he really hadn’t changed anything at all,” you could fairly hear the disbelief in host McAlister’s voice as he cued up the next caller.
Another listener likened the signing of Joey Votto to the purchase of a muscle car, only to discover a Prius in the driveway the next morning.
Can we all just take our collective foot off the pedal and relax, people? Take a breath?
The following remark fried a fan base:
“I swung at too many pitches in the strike zone last year. I would like to swing less in the strike zone. And the reason why is so that I’m not just kind of good in a bunch of different areas. I want to be really good in very specific parts of the strike zone. So, instead of me practicing hitting singles you know up-and-in, low-and-away and MAYBE getting a double, I want to take swings that result in extra base hits or home runs every single time I swing. I want to know that I’m going to put a barrel on a ball, I want to know that when I face Clayton Kershaw in the 8th inning and he throws a ball in specific part of the strike zone that I’m going to put a barrel on it and give us a good chance of making contact and helping the team out. I think not wasting swings helps me be better and will help us play better as a team.”
It’s not the initial reaction to all this that’s surprising, but rather the unrelenting negativity in some quarters, the unwillingness to accept Votto for who he is, even as he clarified his remarks to make sure folks knew he wasn’t willing to settle for a walk if a walk was to the detriment of the team in a given situation.
It’s not just the fans.
I heard Marty Brennaman in Spring Training say he thought Joey would swing at more pitches this year. TV broadcasters the other night reacted with puzzlement as Votto took strikes with a 2-0 count and a 2-1 count.
If folks were loathe to accept Votto’s guidelines for becoming the great hitter he hopes to be, you’d think they might listen to hometown hero Pete Rose:
“Joey Votto is Joey Votto. And When he goes up to bat, I think he has one philosophy: I’m gonna try to hit the ball hard somewhere, and I’m gonna try and swing at strikes. You’re not going to change him from that. And you don’t want to change him from that. Just hope he has a better year with runners in scoring position and we get some guys on base in front of him because he’s an exciting hitter.”
We don’t listen to Votto. Or Rose. So, now what? When do we relax and let Joey be Joey?
Votto’s spellbinding interview with the MLB Network gives Reds fans another chance to listen, to know the ballplayer, what he’s been through and maybe where he’s going. He spoke of literally not being able to breathe at the thought of going on without his father, the man who first taught him to play the game, who understandably would have loved to have seen his son become the player and the man he is today.
When I went through a sudden and horrific divorce, it was my weekend role as a baseball coach to 10 year old boys that forced me to step outside of myself and momentarily forget the chaos that awaited me the moment I left the tiny ball fields of Prospect Park in Brooklyn and stepped back into my life. It was the simple act of having a catch with my son and daughter that allowed me to relax and breathe again.
So, it’s not surprising to me that the most moving part of the Votto interview with Sam Ryan was the moment he recounted one of his last conversations with his father. Addressing Joey Votto’s struggles at the plate, father Votto had some advice:
“You just gotta relax.”
Wonderful advice, Pops. Good advice for the son.
In fact, maybe it’s even perfect advice for the rest of us.