martes, febrero 27

How Joey Votto of the Reds Became a Social Media Star

On a July night in Milwaukee, Joey Votto got his revenge.

Votto, the first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, had seen a clip weeks earlier of the broadcaster Chris Russo, known as Mad Dog, voicing doubt that he and Royals pitcher Zack Greinke belonged in the Hall of Fame. Now, with the opportunity to confront Russo during an appearance on the MLB Network’s “High Heat,” Votto was planning something special.

Standing in foul territory and wearing a headset, Votto looked into a dugout camera. When Russo’s co-host, Alanna Rizzo, asked a question, Votto smiled and answered engagingly. When Russo took a turn, Votto managed just a few sullen syllables in response. Quickly, Russo caught on — “Funny! You’re funny today” — spurring Votto into a minute-long rant befitting a pro wrestler.

With big hand gestures and a rising tone, Votto inveighed against Russo’s supposed slight toward him and Greinke. “You’re looking down on us, a couple small-market Midwest ballplayers, just because we’re not big-city just like you!” Votto lectured. His eyes widened as he bellowed critiques of Russo’s “Fifth Avenue ties” and “perfectly coifed, Broadway hair.”

Finally, the climax. “Not everyone can be the next Roger Peckinpaugh!” Votto yelled, reaching into the dead-ball era for a good-not-great former Yankee. “You should be ashamed!”

The rant, which Votto and Jim Day, the sideline reporter on Reds’ broadcasts, had been rehearsing for weeks — including on the team plane, which confused more than a few Reds personnel — went viral: One of baseball’s funniest characters had delivered again.

Votto, 40, who did not embrace social media until March 2020, now routinely posts content to an audience of more than 300,000 followers between Instagram and X, formerly known as Twitter. Like his ambush of Russo, Votto’s posts are carefully conceived and executed.

Last winter, he posed in a garish designer outfit — puffy vest, furry jumpsuit, expensive sunglasses, all purchased for the occasion — before playing in a Toronto chess tournament. In June, just before he returned from shoulder surgery, he debuted a skit of himself at the wheel of a Cincinnati school bus as a student chastised him to get back on the field.

That Votto, who homered in his return from the injured list on Sunday, has approached social media with forethought and planning is unsurprising. He has long been known as one of the game’s most meticulous players. What is new is his willingness to devote any energy to it at all. For years, he conducted his career like an ascetic, devoting himself solely to the task of swinging a bat. “He was so focused on his craft as a baseball player,” said Zack Cozart, a teammate in Cincinnati for seven seasons, “it was almost like he had no time for anything else.”

Votto is as dedicated to his craft as he ever was, though persistent shoulder problems have hampered his production this year. But now, with his career in its final descent, Votto has loosened up.

Everything changed, Votto said, after the 2017 season.

It had been a terrific year. At 33, he’d played in every game, led the majors in on-base percentage and finished second in voting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. But he wasn’t happy. The Reds were rebuilding and many of his closest teammates — Cozart, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto — had been traded away. He was less than halfway through a 10-year, $225 million contract extension — an expensive piece of furniture left behind because the movers couldn’t get it out the door.

“I felt very isolated,” Votto said. “Friends back home were having kids, and teammates were going elsewhere. I was just a little worn out of not feeling like I could be myself.”

To expand his world beyond the 24 square feet of the batter’s box — being himself had always required some effort — he hired a Spanish teacher, took up chess and learned jiu-jitsu. “I’m not a man of any other talent other than what I do in the batter’s box,” Votto said. “There’s no doubt about that.” Those who have witnessed his comic timing or listened to him speak Spanish or French might disagree, but Votto views those things as outlets, not skills. “All these things give me the feeling that I’m not just one thing,” he said, “because I’m really just one thing.”

That paradox — his steely-eyed dedication to baseball, and his surprising number of interests outside of it — made Votto something of a baseball man of mystery. He was courteous to new teammates but hardly gregarious.

Cozart recalled a sobering appraisal from Votto early in his M.L.B. days. “If you hit balls like that,” Votto said after watching Cozart repeatedly hit the top of the batting cage, “you’ve got no chance to play in this league.” It was a splash of ice water for Cozart — “That’s Joey Votto telling me that I’m terrible,” he thought — but he soon recognized it as Votto’s way of helping him. Cozart now considers Votto one of his favorite teammates. In 2017, Cozart’s last as a Red, Votto fulfilled a public promise by buying the shortstop a donkey when he was named an All-Star.

The donkey episode showcased Votto’s personality, as did a 2014 hit he did for MLB Network dressed as a Mountie, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (Votto was born in Canada.) But the notion of Joey Votto, social media star, would have seemed ridiculous to most who knew him back then.

“There were times like, ‘No, I’m not bothering him today,’” said Day, who has covered Votto for his entire career. “I could tell that he’s not in the mood to talk.”

Now when Votto is feeling playful, Day is among his favorite foils.

As he has gotten older, Votto has also gotten more comfortable serving as the punchline.

One day earlier this year, the Reds prospect Matt McLain stood in the clubhouse of the Class AAA Louisville Bats and began to bad mouth the game of chess. Behind him, undetected, was Votto, who was with the club on a rehab assignment. Votto might have objected and put the minor leaguer in his place, but instead he laughed and enlisted McLain in a gag.

He set up a secret camera to record a chess match between himself and infielder Alex McGarry. In the resulting video, the contest is in full swing when McLain walks by and defiantly slaps all the pieces onto the floor. McLain said McGarry was not in on the act and that his initial anger was real. But most people got the joke, which Votto ensured would be on himself.

McLain is now one of several young players powering a Reds team that is hoping to claim one of the National League’s three wild-card spots in the playoffs. They are a team with so much young talent that something that had once been so difficult to envision — a bright Reds future without Votto — is now easy to see.

Instead of being left behind, Votto is determined to fit in.

That involves learning the rhythms of a generation of players that is less snarky and more earnest than his was. The blunt, standoffish thing doesn’t land.

“You can’t be that stubborn old dude in the locker room and then all these young bucks are going to look at you like, ‘This dude is a grumpy old guy,’” Cozart said. “He’s trying to be hip again.”

That potential of these Reds reinforces what draws Votto to the game. “I love the challenge, I love competing, I love feeling worthwhile, like I’m a helpful piece of the puzzle,” Votto said. “That’s why I still think there’s something left.”

There had been times he’d doubted that. One day before sitting in the visiting dugout for an interview in Phoenix earlier this season, he’d been dealt a difficult blow. His left shoulder, which had required surgery midway through last season and had cost him much of this one, had forced him back on the I.L. The timing was inauspicious. Votto is in the final guaranteed year of his contract — the Reds hold a $20 million option for next season, with a $7 million buyout — and with less than a month of games remaining, it seemed possible at the time that he has played his last one as a Red.

In 51 games between the two I.L. stints this year, he had batted only .200 with a .303 on-base percentage. Cincinnati is brimming with young talent and might decide to move on.

This latest setback prompted thoughts of retirement, Votto admitted. “There have been times when I’m like, ‘Should I be done? Should I beat everyone to the punch?’” he said. But a recent conversation with his mother brought clarity. He worked his way back onto the field and he hopes to be a lifelong Red.

If the Reds decide otherwise, he gets it. “I’ve loved every single second here,” he said. “Truly. Even the cold times, it’s been an honor.” Whatever happens, Votto insists he’s not done.

“This is the first time in my career I realize that I love what I do,” he said.

After two decades as a professional, all of it spent intensely focused on baseball, Votto is just now starting to enjoy it.

In Cincinnati, Votto is an icon, a label he wouldn’t apply to himself, but one he has learned to embrace. Sharing more of himself — and signed memorabilia, which he hides around Cincinnati while dropping location clues on social media — is Votto’s way of returning that love. “All I really want to do is give,” he said. “I’ve taken so much.”

But he is not an open book. Votto remains protective of his privacy, and though he discussed the 2008 death of his father on social media last year, he has little interest in unpacking for the public that or any other chapter of his personal life. He’ll share his personality — more comfortably than many ever would have predicted — but he also wistfully anticipates the day when he’ll fade into anonymity.

“Truly I fantasize about this,” he said. “I dream about playing my last game and basically shutting everything off — saying goodbye on social, saying goodbye to the media and just getting away. Like I’m done. I’m done with baseball, done with the public eye.”

He’s not there yet, but the day is coming. For now, he’s content to be just another small-market, Midwest ballplayer. Enjoy him while you can.