If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” the titular musician of Inside Llewyn Davis says in the movie’s first scene. And baseball is a folk song. In Cincinnati, where babies are hoisted on shoulders on Opening Day to watch the heroes of their fathers and grandfathers roll past in review, baseball was never new. And we’re discussing robo-umpires for a sport designed in an era when trundling from Missouri to Oregon in under five months was considered making good time: It never gets old. Folk song.

Folk songs need heroes. They tend to meet tragic ends, but they die trying. They’re working, they’re wielding knives, they’re mightily upset about lost love. Your average folk song is three minutes and thirty seconds of straight complaining, and that’s okay. It’s the long grind of life. It’s real. It’s baseball.

The Usual Chords

The best and rarest modern folk heroes don’t complain; it’s a boringly simple thing to do these days. The instrument is an iPhone, which takes zero minutes of practice to learn, and the sheet music is outrage.  What was once the same four frets are now Twitter hashtags and identical viral videos seeping out from every possible social media app from every possible sports entertainment outlet. And so when one of the future stars of every Opening Day Parade for the rest of his life decidedly keeps his mouth shut, both online as well as in the locker room, we become… suspicious. Why is this man, this Joey Votto, not contributing the usual media chords? Is it us? What did we do? Didn’t he love us enough to reach out and complain a little?

We pieced together what we could. Given his expansive vocabulary and penchant for complete sentences when Votto did speak, we suspected high intelligence; there was scattered evidence of a screwball sense of humor. He’d lay low for months and months and then show up on national television in a Mounties uniform. Nothing but highly guarded sentences would suddenly give way to fake-pumping foul balls into opposition crowds. He screamed at umpires, but rarely put his name in for general autograph sessions; he was among the first out of the dugout in a fight, then did his best to calm the waters. This is not a shy person.

But he is a… complicated person. To a fanbase whose knowledge of longterm greatness begins and ends with Pete Rose’s Sedamsville accent and every agonizing detail of his hamfisted life decisions, Joey Votto’s rhythm has long been one to which we’ve never been quite able to synch.

Spill the Tea

For an entire generation of Cincinnatians, Joey Votto was never new. But in his steadfast, relative reticence, he never gets old, either. He has been ours, and we his, for thirteen years now… but, truly, are we his? In an age in which, thanks to Snapchat, I currently know more about Derek Dietrich’s car than my own, I could not tell you more than maybe three non-baseball related facts about Votto. He’s been active in the MLB for over a decade and his “Personal Life” entry on Wikipedia totals exactly four sentences, one of which is concerned with who is agent is. That is his right. That’s how he wants it. We don’t have a claim on any of this information. It’s not in Votto’s contract to spill the tea on family weddings and who his favorite Avenger is.

But…why?

We’re always straining to see more of this person who shows up for hours and hours a shot, 162 times a year, in our living rooms. He’s the one the grandbabies will ask about. He’s the one whose jersey we can buy with confidence because he isn’t going anywhere. He is the one. And we can’t figure him out. Why so few soft-focus interviews? Why so relatively little fan interaction? Why, with the entire ballclub resting on the performance of his bat, has he refused to bend the knee to a splash-it-all Instagram culture? Who is this guy?

Joey Votto has been to the mountaintop of the playoffs, but was stopped short of the Series; he was two points away from becoming the league’s MVP in the same year his team finished last in the division. Objectively speaking, there is no professional success without bitter backwash for him. This is a man who will die trying. He will die trying with or without a ring.

Folk song.

Couple’s Therapy

The basis of folk music is repetition, simple melody, steadfast tone. It never gets old because it’s easy to grasp, simple to learn, highly predictable. But where Votto is concerned, we haven’t yet figured out what his spiritual engine is. Nor do we know how his song will end.  But perhaps that is the best part of listening to it, participating in it, trading his lyrics with our chorus. Thanks to a vanishingly rare 12 year contract, whatever the lingering notes are, we will hear them together, Votto and you and I.

And on an ordinary day in the first part of February, with the rain dripping into the Ohio mud and the temperature topping 32 degrees, Joey Votto, having sat down in front of a microphone with reporter Jim Day for 94 minutes, played a new chord.

The fact it was major news that Votto spoke with a recorder running for the length of an entire Pixar film should tell you how desperately Reds fans have had to fill in the blanks lo these many years. What unfolded over the next hour and a half was couple’s therapy, with Day standing in for the fandom, and occasionally, the media. It was the interview Reds fans and Votto appreciators have been wishing he would give for a decade.

Get you someone who looks at you the way I look at air molecules in the middle distance while Joey Votto is talking to Jim Day for ninety minutes, because there was no scrolling on my phone while this sucker was unspooling.

We fans had to be patient, because, as it happens, Joey Votto is patient. For example, Votto was relatively silent for so long because that is how rookies in an AOL message board era were expected to conduct themselves. And it stuck.

“There was a lot of us (reporters) that didn’t even know how to approach you.” Day said.

“I was really scared of messing up,” Votto responded.

The mighty Joey Votto… was scared. And trying to navigate the swirling currents of fan expectations and MLB culture.

“When I first came into the league there was an atmosphere of deference…” Votto explained. “And so I stayed quiet. That carried into my interactions with the media.” He was piloting the politics of where to sit on the bus and in the clubhouse, when to speak and to whom, what to wear. All of it. He was young and he was frightened. He wanted to learn. Listen. Shut up and take it in, prove himself and then speak.

And now? He has time for your questions, just not your stupid ones, media: “Don’t ask stupid f—g questions. Then I won’t be scary,” he said.

Work Day

Then there was this:

JOEY VOTTO: “I love crossing paths with the Reds fans.”

REDS FANS EVERYWHERE:  what

This absolutely was a shocking statement. If I’m rolling through Kroger’s (Votto pronounces it properly as such, in the local patois, with an apostrophe s) and I see Joey Votto, I’m not going to approach Joey Votto, largely because I’d be terrified that Joey Votto would… not be a mean person, necessarily, but… less than… thrilled by interpersonal human interaction. Because I love him, I shall present him the gift of leaving him alone, there amongst the frozen pot pies. And unless I’m standing on a stage, I bend this way as well. So when Votto elaborated that he missed the winning season energy of fans leaping out of their chairs in coffee shops to high-five him (“The city turns into a college town when we’re doing well… I miss that. I miss that a good deal.”) I was left wondering who this was, what year we were in, and whether or not the cold meds I was on were overkicked.

The recurring theme of the interview was Votto’s earnest desire to do baseball, not merely play it. It is a deadly serious matter to him. He returned to this over and over again, using the phrases “work day” and “do my job.” He doesn’t want “distractions,” which includes stupid questions. He blocks out every single thing and person but what will contribute to his performance as a ballplayer. The word “lonely” appeared often.

Votto is heavily aware of his own abilities and his responsibility to develop them, yet his humility is striking. This rare creature, this Canadian teetering on the edge of Kentucky with us, showed up to spring training early in this, his fourteenth season, determined to not “soften” as he felt he did last season. But when Day asked what advice he might give to a younger Votto, he gave a variety of funny answers, and then a very heartfelt one: “I thought I did it right,” he said. “I gave everything.”

Lights Out

Over the course of the interview, Joey Votto used the following SAT words: Ambiguous, per se, plausible deniability, compartmentalizing, inauthentic. He compared the craft of comedy to the art of baseball. He received a text from Jay Bruce at one point. He said he likes umpires.

He talked and talked. He talked longer than Sean Casey. There was discussion of Kobe Bryant, sign stealing, the “totally unmanageable” panic attacks he suffered early in his career, and his thoughts on objects on the field (he really, really does not like objects on the field.) We learned more about Joey Votto in an hour and a half than we have collectively gleaned in every year since the second Bush administration. Twice, the timed lights in the studio went out because the two men had been sitting for so long.

Day tried to end the interview at least three times, but Votto, having burst out of the starting gate, was loathe to go back in the barn. “What else do you want to talk about?” he asked, popping questions to his interviewer about his outlook on the season. What did Day think this team’s ceiling was? The floor? What podcasts did he listen to?

As they wound down at last, Votto laughed at the thought that anyone would possibly soldier through the length of it all. But, as Day correctly predicted, the interview immediately became the top download on his channel. By far. By light years. The popularity of the Votto episode towers over members of the 1990 team, Reds in Cooperstown, and the final pre-game appearance of Marty Brennaman. If it were an election, Joey Votto would be dictator for life.

All I Know

Now I don’t understand what made Joey Votto sit across from Jim Day and spill his guts about insecurities and crossword puzzles and fear and getting dumped (THERE IS A WOMAN ON THIS PLANET WHO DUMPED JOEY. FREAKING. VOTTO.) I have no idea if it will ever happen again, or if this marks a new, autograph-spewing epoch in The Legend of Joey Votto. We’ll learn those answers together.

No matter what else happens from here on out, no matter how the song ends, what I will pack away with me is that he said this: “All I know is Cincinnati. All I know is this uniform. My joy comes from wearing this uniform.”

Joey Votto’s contract lasts for another four years. He may retire before then if he feels himself in decline. When the lights go out for the last time because we are all sitting so very still, we will never see the likes of him again.

That’s a folk song.

25 Responses

  1. Gonzo Reds

    Saw the title and said Mary Beth is back! Still a fan of yours and Joey’s. Hoping he can get his mojo back this year and not only make it back to the playoffs but take the next step to the WS. And part of me is also wishing for the return of Zack Cozart and that famous Reds goat!

    Reply
  2. Eric

    ? The legend lives on, from Toronto on down…
    A first baseman they call Joey Votto…?

    …sung to the tune of a folk song from another Canadian, no less!

    I’ll have the whole thing written out by the end of this weekend, I’m sure. Or die trying. 😉

    Hope your cold’s on its way out the door!

    Reply
    • Eric

      …of course, the alt+14 eighth-notes looked great in the editor, before they came out on the page as question marks.

      As my Mom says, “…it can’t all be gravy.”

      Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Keep those chords comin’!

      Today I am… upright, thank you. Fortunately, Josh The Pilot and I weren’t planning on having Valentine’s Day until tomorrow.

      Reply
  3. CFD3000

    I have just made a huge tactical error. Today, on my brief lunch break, I started listening to the Joey Votto episode of the Jim Day podcast. I have never claimed to be especially astute. 15 minutes in and I’m wanting to tell my clients they are JUST GOING TO HAVE TO WAIT so I can hear the rest. Alas, it is me (and Jim and Joey) who will be waiting. Not since George Will finished Men at Work has there been a more compelling peak under the hood of serious baseball, and no offense to Orel Hershiser or Tony LaRussa, but Joey Votto and the mystery dumping girl are WAY more interesting. So if Joey and Jim think no one will be tuning in to this 94 minutes they’ve swung and missed worse than Shogo Akiyama in his first spring training batting cage. I’m glad you’re back MBE, but you’ll have to excuse me as I need to go listen to more of that compelling, catchy folk song on the Jim Day Podcast.

    Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Oh dude the prep on this took at least a day because I kept pausing it to either take a note or type out something great Votto said. And of course I wanted to keep the direct quotes to an absolute minimum because people really need to go hear this interview for themselves. But by the time it was over I had about 800 words and hadn’t even started writing yet.

      Reply
  4. RedNat

    thank you Mary Beth. I guess I never will understand Joey’s greatness because I really don’t understand the new baseball advanced metrics at all. I measure greatness by the old school stats of HRs, RBI’s , batting average, and of course the ever objective clutchness stat.
    Based on my old metrics Joey is not even close to being the best Red ever or even the top first basemen. I rank him 4th in between Hal Morris and Dan Driessen.

    Having said all this Joey is a great ambassador for the game and for the city of Cincinnati. There is a “folk hero” quality about him and I was happy that they signed him for a long deal. I kind of hope he does stop yelling at the umps this year. I wouldn’t want anything to tarnish his reputation though.

    Reply
    • Patrick Jeter

      Votto is 4th in HR (Bench, Robinson, Perez) and will be 3rd by May, most likely. And possibly 2nd by the time he retires behind Bench.

      Votto is 8th in RBI and will be 5th by season’s end, most likely, and probably 3rd by the time he retires.

      Votto is tied with Pete Rose in batting average (.307) and everyone ahead of his is an old-timer, and those batting averages don’t really compare well to modern age.

      Votto’s “clutch” is hard to measure, because “clutch” itself is something that can’t be properly measured (assuming it exists), however, a stat called “Clutch” is tracked by FanGraphs. What it does is measure a player’s contributions during low leverage situations (like the Top of the 1st, or the bottom of the 5th up 13-4) and compare those to a player’s contributions during high leverage situations (like, bottom of the 9th, tied 3-3). A “Clutch” of 1.0 would mean equal performance in all situations, I believe. A negative Clutch means you performed worse in high leverage situations than your own baseline, and a highly positive clutch means you performed better in high leverage situations than your own baseline. Votto’s “Clutch” is 1.02. The dude just performs at ALL times. Pete Rose has the highest “Clutch,” which could possibly mean he just performed poorly in other parts of the game, rather than performing overly well in clutch situations. It’s merely a comparison to yourself. I’d rather have a player hit ALL the time, rather than just some of the time, to be honest.

      Anyways – its hard to discount Votto by traditional stats. At worst, he’ll go down as the 3rd best Reds hitter by traditional stats, behind Robinson and Bench. When you throw in the fact that he dominates in more meaningful stats like wRC+ and OBP, you can to conclude Votto is perhaps the greatest hitter in Reds history.

      Saying you rate him between Morris and Driessen is nothing but uninformed and lazy.

      Reply
      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Second behind Bench.
        Wow.
        Enjoy the greatness while we have it.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      RedNat, I want to let you know how much I appreciate this comment, because it’s in the spirit of this piece. Our hearts choose our favorites. It’s an emotional connection that rarely has anything to do with stats. My great favorites are Johnny Bench and Sean Casey– will Casey will ever see Cooperstown? Nah. But I love him because of who he is and his compelling story; the way he came to town and rebounded from a devastating injury with so much joy.

      Similarly, I took notice of Votto and “adopted” him when he began having anxiety issues. I was impressed with how honest and forthright he was about it and remember hoping that he’d come back with a good season. I’d say he did!

      So if you’re not in the Joey Votto fan club, there’s no need to apologize for it. Life would be pretty boring if we all had the same jersey 🙂

      Reply
      • LWblogger2

        A lot of my favorites are also non-HoF players and many aren’t even that good by MLB standards. Just fun to watch or full of personality.

      • LWblogger2

        And responses like this almost make me smile as much as some of your original pieces. You’re definitely one of my favorite writers. That is not just here but anywhere.

  5. Kevin Patrick

    I think Joey just likes to keep everyone guessing. I also think sometimes he feels like being social, and other times its just a distraction. He is the master of compartmentalization.

    Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Agree, agree. He was specific about how he pretty much shuts down all other parts of his life during the season, and even mentioned compartmentalization a couple times. Fascinating guy. He’s in no one’s MBTI box. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’s a “performing introvert” like me– someone who enjoys entertaining crowds and being with close friends/family, but cocktail parties are agony.

      When I worked at the HOF and got to be in the clubhouse, it was well known that Voto was constantly looking at game film, examining every possible angle to learn and improve. So I always knew he was a hard worker, but the way he describes it here makes me realize that his dedication and ethic are just… whew, intense, and far more than I knew.

      Reply
  6. John Fulford

    Great work, MB. Always look for your articles on RLNation. Nice to say “I knew her when”… Stop by the HOF.

    Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Hi John! This is awesome! Great to hear one of my favorites is still there 🙂 See you once Opening Day has come upon us. Tell the gang I said hey and that I miss them!

      Reply
  7. Robert

    Seriously of the best written articles I have ever read, and not just because of the subject. That being said, Votto is an interesting subject. One of the most interesting things for me was what we said at the 65 minute mark. In his own Votto-esque way, he basically echoed the frustration of many a fan last year, and without using direct language called out Iglesias and said your job is to work and perform your best every time you agree in the game. Iglesias’ griping about his usage last year was irritating for us fans and its good to know at least one teammate who felt the same way.

    Reply
    • Robert

      Sorry for the spelling errors – did not check the autocorrect.

      Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s so kind of you. Thanks.
      I hadn’t connected those comments to Iglesias. Interesting.

      Reply
  8. Scott Benhase

    Mary Beth, just a lovely piece of writing. Thank you. You have a gift. And the podcast with Mr. Votto was classic. He always dispels any notion that great athletes are one-dimensional jocks. He loves and is devoted to the game he plays (and the team he plays for), but he is so much more than just a great baseball player. He’s also, more importantly, a fine human being, which to me makes him all the more worth rooting for. He seems “dialed in” for this year. One thing we know, we will never see him “mail it in.” Not in his character. As a Cincinnatian exiled to the deep south for most of my adulthood, I’ve admired his craft from afar (although I did get lucky once – I took my three adult kids to GABP when we were in Cincy on July 2, 2013 for my mama’s birthday – yes, we witnessed Homer’s no hitter). I may live a few hours from the Home of the Braves, but Mr Votto’s Reds will always be my team.

    Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks Scott! Well said. This is a guy I’d never feel wary about pointing out to my nephews as a role model as far as work ethic and off-the-field behavior goes. Votto has never given us any indication that he doesn’t have his head on straight despite the tremendous contract. I suspect he does a great deal for charity on the down-low.

      Reply
  9. e2n2

    I listened to the podcast last night and had intended to enjoy it while also reading a book I wanted to finish. I put that book down very quickly. Joey is just so interesting to listen to that I wanted to be sure I did not miss anything. Besides having a wonderful speaking voice, his comments were intelligent, insightful and witty. I would love to see him (well, hear him 🙂 ) as a color commentator for the Reds broadcasts after he hangs up his cleats.

    Reply
    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That would be a perfect job for him. I hope he can fit it in between school bus runs 🙂

      Reply
      • e2n2

        LOL – I do remember now that Joey had previously mentioned that his post baseball career would involve working as a school bus driver. 🙂 Such a funny guy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.