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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Joey Votto’s journey begins anew as a Toronto Blue Jay: ‘I feel the fire’



Joey Votto with the Cincinnati Reds in 2017 (Wikipedia)

By Jayson Stark / The Athletic


Joey Votto found himself in a batter’s box on a back field in Dunedin, Florida last Sunday, taking the first live batting practice of the rest of his baseball life.


Sixty feet away, Eric Pardinho, 23, a relief pitcher from Brazil with a 7.15 earned run average in Class A last year, rocked, fired and watched a legend swing through a four-seam fastball. Then, as he walked off the mound, rocking a wide smile, the pitcher said, “I just struck out Joey Gallo!”


Well, he was close! Hey, Joey Gallo … or Votto … or whatever your name is … welcome to the Toronto Blue Jays.


Baseball is a journey. Life is a journey. And we all know how easily those journeys can spin out of control. So what were the odds that this weekend, the fascinating baseball journey of Joseph Daniel Votto would lead him to a place where everybody knows his name — everybody, that is, except Eric Pardinho?


Born in Toronto, still a resident of greater Toronto, still carrying a boyhood memory of Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series homer floating through the sky, Joey Votto officially became a Blue Jay over the weekend. What a story.


Technically, he is a Class AAA Buffalo Bison, signed to a minor league contract that will pay him $2 million if he spends this season in the major leagues. But in truth, everyone wants this to work, from the Blue Jays’ front office to Votto’s mother to, we’re guessing, Nickelback and the entire Canadian Parliament.


Obviously, though, no one wants this to work more than Votto. But it’s also fair to say that no one in this camp understands a beautiful baseball story better than Votto.


So as that word, “journey,” rolled off his lips, it came with an appreciation of the miles he has traveled to reach this place.


“It is a journey. That’s for sure,” Votto said as he walked those back fields. “And it’s also a bit of a full-circle experience for me — because the way I feel right now is no different than the version of me at 18: uncertain, completely uncertain about my future, wanting to do my best, wanting to work, assuming nothing.


“And now I’m kind of restarting. I’m in Florida. I’m at a new camp as a minor leaguer, trying to work and trying to perform well, to earn a spot, to reach some goals. And I feel the fire that was in me at 18 is the same right now at 40. It’s really cool. It’s great. I’m very lucky.”


On his first full day as a Blue Jay, Votto graciously let us follow him around, from field to field, cage to cage, new adventure to new adventure.


He spent 17 seasons in Cincinnati, compiling 2,135 hits with the No. 19 on his back. But when Votto plopped down at his new Blue Jays locker Sunday, everything was new, including his number.


He’s No. 37 now. And his locker is wedged into the nonroster-invitee portion of the room, between pitcher Paolo Espino and outfielder Cam Eden. Wait. What? Where? Who?


It was hard not to notice the empty corner locker next to Kevin Kiermaier’s that the Blue Jays could have assigned to a man with more career plate appearances than anyone else in the room. But Votto isn’t looking for special favors.


‘I want to fit in’


The most Joey Votto moment of the day came when it was time for the group of minor leaguers he had been hitting with on Field 3 to move to their next station.


“Hey guys,” he told them, as they began to trek off the field. “Thank you for letting me share this. Thank you. I owe you guys.”


After all those batting practice swings over the past two decades, he was well aware that by wedging his way into someone else’s hitting group, he was taking swings away from everyone else. He wanted them to know he didn’t take that for granted.


“Hey, we’re all working together,” he said afterward, “to do the same thing, right?”


Right. But this was still a window into Votto’s mindset and the way he is approaching this spring training. He isn’t That Guy with 2,100 Hits, not in this camp. He’s a guy on a minor league contract.


“I just want to work, and I want to compete, and I want to fit in,” he said. “I want to get along with guys. I want to be liked. And I want to represent myself, my family and my country. And this is the perfect opportunity.”


Oh, Canada


Only seven men born in Canada have gotten 1,000 hits or more in MLB. Just one of them, Russell Martin, wore the uniform of the Blue Jays. The thought of Votto becoming the second has tantalized Canadian baseball fans. But you know who was never tantalized by it, until very recently? Joey Votto.


Once it became clear this winter that the Reds were not planning to invite him back, his thinking changed.


“This is the one team,” he said of the Blue Jays, “that excited me — the idea of not having a major league deal but working my way back and being able to stay at home.”


He retraced his steps from the neighborhoods he lived in growing up to his current home west of Toronto. The memories began to pour out of him.


“I was a Blue Jays fan,” he said before recalling the Blue Jays’ World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. “I watched Carter hit the walk-off home run. I watched us win against the Braves on the road. Those were the most exciting moments of my childhood.”


Why did it take so long?


Joey Votto, Toronto Blue Jay. Now there’s an idea that made way too much sense — not just all winter, since the Reds turned the page, but especially over these past three weeks. Did he see his baseball life passing before his eyes?


“I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I was a little confused. But I understood. I’m a very specific type of player. But no, I wasn’t worried. I knew I had these sorts of opportunities, but I didn’t have a clear major league opportunity.”


When the calendar flipped to March, Votto knew what he had to do. He called Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins last week.


“We had a conversation about my expectations,” Votto said, “and how I wanted to just fit in. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to basically try out. And he seemed interested. Then it all happened quite quickly. I was on a plane the next day.”


Even as he worked out Sunday, you could not find Votto’s name on any roster. But recognition wasn’t what Votto was searching for. He was searching for joy — the joy that only playing baseball brings.


A final chapter?


If Votto plays even semi-regularly, an incredibly poetic moment is going to happen this season: He is going to break Larry Walker’s record for most hits by a player born in Canada … while playing for a team in Canada. Votto will enter the season 25 hits back.


“I’m not thinking about that,” he said when asked about it.


“OK, I’m not dismissing any of those plot lines or the excitement people may feel with that. But what I’m thinking about is staying healthy, finally being healthy, feeling strong, feeling well and fitting in.”


There’s another side to being Canada’s favorite son, heading off to play baseball in Canada. And Votto has clearly thought about that side, too.


“If it comes up short, then that means that there will be changes in my life in a lot of ways,” he said. “Just transitioning away from the Reds was painful. Painful. And if this comes up short, then it’s a transition away from baseball. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But if it does, and it is on the table, then it’ll hurt. But that’s OK.”

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