By CATHAL KELLY
Thursday, November 16, 2017
TORONTO -- During this year's World Series, Joey Votto did something weird - he went on TV and talked each night.
It was difficult to reconcile the famously reticent player with his new job as a baseball analyst. He didn't seem to be enjoying himself - hands locked in a death grip, flat stare, his bulging figure poured so snugly into a suit that he looked in constant danger of bursting it at the seams, Incredible Hulk-style.
But like everything he does, Votto was good at it. Perceptive, succinct, occasionally acerbic.
After a dreary Game 7, his coanalyst Gregg Zaun tried to tee him up with a joke about people being obsessed with their phones.
Votto looked over sleepily and said, "I'm not on the internet, so I don't know."
Like, not on social media or not on the internet as a whole? Has Joey Votto heard of Google? Because there is some amazing stuff in there.
It would be very like Votto to be the last true Luddite in pro sports, someone untouched by the goingson in the outside world. He does occasionally wander down off the top of Mount Baseball - often to comedic effect when taking on hecklers - but you can see that it involves effort. This past year he set himself a new goal: talking to people.
"I'm making an intentional point to connect and listen to my teammates and build relationships," Votto told ESPN during spring training.
Given that pros spend 10 or 12 hours a day with the same group of guys, often doing nothing more than sitting blankly in front of a locker staring at the walls, you'd think "relationships" would be unavoidable in baseball. But Votto had apparently avoided them for a decade.
That uncanny detachment has allowed Votto to become the best Canadian player in the game, perhaps ever. He does everything very well, but one thing exceptionally well - getting on base.
Votto more predictably ends an atbat standing on a bag than all but nine players in history. You will recognize a few of the names ahead of him - Williams, Ruth, Bonds, Cobb.
Twenty-five years ago, it's possible few would have noticed. But since Sabermetrics issued its core commandment - "Thou Shalt Not Make An Easy Out" - Votto has been its key disciple. He's gone entire seasons without an infield pop-up.
Nothing about this is flashy. Some great players are jackhammers. Despite his imposing physicality, Votto is a chisel. He chips away at you until you crack.
Nobody in baseball knows a ball from a strike better than him, which may be why one of the few times he's ever floated to the top of the news cycle was an unhinged 2015 meltdown after a couple of bad calls at the plate.
At the time, Votto's team, the hapless Cincinnati Reds, were 20 games out of a playoff position. Nothing about that game mattered. But Votto erupted liked he'd been punched out in the World Series by a ball thrown into the visitor's dugout.
For just a moment there, you got the sense of how much this all means to Votto and how much it eats at him.
He has been open in the past about his emotional troubles, his occasional anxiety and all the other things that make baseball hard (and perhaps on some other level, easier) for him.
He is so rattled by the idea that he's missing the target that he once said he cannot look at the stats put up by his closest peers because that would be "far too stressful."
The best comparison is probably Roy Halladay. The two men were different stylistically, but philosophical twins. Both are laser beams focused on sport, often to the point of blocking out regular life.
As with Halladay, Votto has been the best player on a bad team for a long time.
(This is often used to discredit players - 'He isn't making the people around him better.' But it takes a very special person - forget athlete - to rise above a culture of mediocrity. You try being good at work if no one else in the office can figure out how to turn their computer on.)
Although observers recognize his elite qualities, Votto does not get nearly enough credit for steadiness.
People like the new thing, the most improved thing or the unlikely thing. They bore easily of the dependable thing.
That's why Votto probably will not win the award as the National League's most valuable player on Thursday, although he should.
At a guess, the MVP will be Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt. A few things will probably put Goldschmidt over the top - he's never won the award (Votto took it in 2010), his team made the playoffs (the Reds finished 26 games under .500) and he's a Gold Glove-calibre defender (as in most other things, Votto may be slightly underrated on this score).
The other contender is Giancarlo Stanton, a player whose big personality and statistical superlatives (he hits a lot of home runs) obscure his deficiencies (he strikes out so often that he is Florida's fourth-leading cause of wind chill).
In this race, Goldschmidt is the almost-Votto and Stanton is the anti-Votto. Only Votto is Votto. Were he on a better team, or made more of an impression, or was just a little louder, Votto would be spoken of in generational terms. Instead, he's largely perceived as a tragic waste of talent.
That's inevitable in the United States, but the general apathy shouldn't extend to Votto's native country. If we take hockey out of it, he may be the finest professional team athlete Canada has ever produced. He doesn't have Steve Nash's profile, or Ferguson Jenkins's struggles, or Larry Walker's homer bona fides, but that shouldn't count against him.
Votto is just a guy who does one thing incredibly well and doesn't like to talk about it very much.
So he may also be the most Canadian great Canadian athlete in history.
Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds hits one of his 36 home runs in the 2017 season. The Toronto native and 2010 National League MVP also batted .320 with 100 RBIs. His .454 on-base percentage was the best in Major League Baseball.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES