Happiness is a .300 batting average and an everyday job in America’s best baseball town. Or is it? Joey Votto, the slugging first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, hasn’t had a lick of trouble with enemy pitchers since the day he arrived in the major leagues. The enemies he’s had to overcome are anxiety and depression. In dealing with his very private demons in a very public way, Joey has gained millions of friends, fans and admirers. Along the way, he has also inspired millions more to face their own problems. Joey has shown that being a star is partly about being human. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Joseph Daniel Votto was born on September 10, 1983 in Toronto, Canada. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) He grew up in the western Etobicoke section of the city. Joey’s mother, Wendy, was a sommelier and restaurant manager. His father, Joseph, was a chef and a huge baseball fan. 

From the time he was a little boy, Joey and his dad played catch almost every day. Joey had a strong arm, but his left-handed batting stroke—though quick—was crude and undisciplined. He worked with his dad and various coaches over the years. Slowly but surely, his swing began to resemble the powerful hack fans see today.

Joey enrolled in high school in 1997 at the Richview Collegiate Institute in Toronto. The school had produced Prime Minister Stephen Harper and hockey star Scott Mellanby. RCI was known for its great sports teams. Joey worked tirelessly on the baseball field. He played a little basketball, too, but he had no interest in hockey.

Toronto conjured many happy memories for Joey. He and his father rooted hard for the Blue Jays. The team was at its best in the early 1990s when Joey was just becoming a fan. The 1993 campaign was one he will always remember. The Vottos jumped for joy when Joe Carter homered in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 to bring the first World Series championship to Canada.

Joey was deadly serious about his own baseball career. Between games and between seasons, he hit at RCI’s indoor batting cage for two hours or more after school almost every day—often under the watchful eye of Bob Smyth, one of the team's coaches. Soon Joey was the Saints’ best player. He logged most of this time behind the plate.

To further his major league aspirations, Joey made an interesting choice as a hitter. While his teammates used aluminum bats, he chose hard maple sticks—the same models used by Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. He knew that his numbers might be blunted, but he was so confident in his future as a professional player that he wanted to get used to using wood right away. Scouts didn’t care—they are less concerned with a player’s numbers as a teenager than they are with his swing. And Joey’s left-handed swing was a thing of beauty. Smooth, controlled and lethal.

After his senior year, Joey waited to see which major league team would draft him. To his utter dismay, he never got the call. Scouts wanted to see a little more refinement from the young slugger.

Joey tried hard to oblige them. He had been playing for a top amateur team called the Thunderbirds, coached by Mel Oswald. In 2002, he switched allegiances to the Etobicoke Rangers, who were run by coach Smyth. The reunion was a success. 

Showcasing his skills in various tournaments that spring, Joey wowed the scouts and was back on the radar for the June draft. The Reds were especially interested. They invited Joey to work out at Riverfront Stadium. Among the talent evaluators on hand were Griffey Jr., Johnny Bench and manager Bob Boone. Joey stepped into the batter’s box and drew smiles from those in attendance when he did the Junior waggle on the first pitch. He then went back to his normal swing and blasted four pitches out of the park.

Joey was still on the board in the second round. When it came time for the Reds to pick, they grabbed him. He signed for $600,000 and joined the organization’s Gulf Coast League club in Sarasota. In 50 games, Joey batted .269 with nine home runs and 33 RBIs. He tied for the league lead with 25 extra-base hits. Joey did all this while playing three different positions—catcher, third base and the outfield. Jim Bowden, the Reds’ GM, had ordered the move away from behind the plate. Joey had no problem with that—he didn’t like catching at all.

Joey jumped two levels to the Class-A Dayton Dragons in 2003. He struggled early in the year, partly because he did not have his beloved maple bats. Joey thought the team would automatically supply what he needed, but the Reds just sent a supply of regular bats. Joey was later moved down to the Billings Mustangs, where he hit .317 in the season’s final 70 games and earned honorable mention on the Pioneer League’s postseason All-Star team as a first baseman. As far as the Reds were concerned, this would be his big-league position.

ON THE RISE


 

 

 


Joe Carter, Black Book Partner archives

     
 

Joey split the 2004 campaign between the Dragons and the High Class-A Potomac Cannons. He batted a cumulative .301 with 19 homers and 92 RBIs—a fantastic performance for a 21-year-old. After the season, he kept playing in the Florida Instructional League and was named the circuit’s top player.

The Reds switched their High Class-A affiliation in 2005, dumping Potomac and picking up Sarasota. Joey spent the entire year with the new club. He counted among his teammates Chris Dickerson and Johnny Cueto. All three were seen as top prospects. In a few years, the Reds hoped to see the trio in the majors.

The ’04 season was a different story. Sarasota never got untracked and finished eighth. Joey had his problems as well, batting a mere .256. He did show good power, leading the club with 23 doubles, 17 homers  and 83 RBIs. The Reds sent him to the Arizona Fall League, sensing that he might be only a year or two away from stardom.

Their faith was rewarded in 2006 when Joey led the Class-AA Southern League with a .319 average and was also tops in hits, runs, walks, doubles, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases. Second in the league in homers with 22, he was an easy pick for MVP. Behind this great performance, the Chattanooga Lookouts won the first-half pennant and ended the year with an overall record of 81–59.  

The next stop for Joey was the Louisville Bats of the Class-AAA International League. He put up another great year in 2007, batting .294 and finishing among the league leaders with 22 homers and 92 RBIs.

The Bats were basically a .500 team, but Joey got to rub elbows with teammates who had logged time in the big leagues, including Ryan Freel, Bubba Crosby, Jorge Cantu, Mark Bellhorn and Eddie Guardado. Joey played 94 games at first base and 41 more in the outfield. This was part of he Reds’ plan. They wanted him to be available for double duty when they called him up. 

That call came as soon as the minor league season was over. The Reds were on their way to a 90-loss season, so they had nothing to lose by throwing Joey right into the fire. In 21 starts split between first base and left field, he hit .321 with 17 RBIs and four home runs.

In his first at-bat, he struck out on five consecutive changeups from Guillermo Mota of the Mets. Joey homered in his second big-league at-bat, off New York’s John Maine. He knew Maine from the minors and suspected the young righty would try to get him out with a changeup, too. He hammered it over the fence. Joey finished the year with a bang, too. In the season’s final game he had a double, a homer and five RBIs.

While every fan in Cincinnati was anointing Joey as the Reds’ everyday first baseman in 2008, new manager Dusty Baker was being a little more cautious. In spring training, the Cincy skipper he settled on a platoon of Joey and Scott Hatteberg. For his part, Hatteberg knew he was just keeping the full-time spot warm for Joey. That day came by the end of April. Joey was hitting the ball hard, driving in runs, and fielding his position well. On May 7th, he launched three home runs against the Chicago Cubs.  


Johonny Cueto, 2008 Topps
     
 

Any thoughts that Joey might fade in the second half were dispelled when he blistered the ball at a .382 clip in August, and .321 overall after the All-Star Break. This despite the shocking news that his father, Joseph, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly that summer. Joey just shut it all out, planning to deal with it after the season.

And a fine job he did, at least on paper. Joey ended up leading the Reds in batting, home runs and RBIs in September. He finished second to Geovanny Soto of the Cubs in the Rookie of the Year voting, even though he led all NL rookies in hitting (.297), hits (156), HR (24), total bases (266), multi-hit games (42), on-base percentage (.368) and slugging percentage (.506). His 24 round-trippers placed him second to Frank Robinson among Cincinnati rookies. Robinson belted 38 in 1956. Joey’s 84 RBIs eclipsed Robinson's team record by one.

Joey began the 2009 season where he left off in ’08. He was on fire in April and May, hitting for power and average. Between the lines, he was a budding All-Star.

But between the ears, however, he was still trying to cope with his father’s death. Joey had thought the best course of action was burying his feelings and concentrating instead on baseball. But it eventually became too much for him. At one point, he sat out a few games with an ear infection and respiratory illness. That gave him more time to think. Joey began June on the DL, as he sought counseling for anxiety and depression. After nearly a month, he returned to the team. He pronounced he had a clear head, and the team gave him a clean bill of health.

Joey’s battle with his peronal problems won him lots of fans. Rather than shying away from the stigma of mental illness, he acknowledged his issues publicly. Always a hardnosed competitor, he desperately wanted to return to the diamond. But Joey knew he had to work through the anxiety and depression that plagued him. In turn, he was viewed as the uncommon professional athlete, a superstar who didn’t pretend he was a super-hero.

Joey’s absence, plus a season-ending injury to pitching stud Edinson Volquez, doomed the Reds to yet another sub-.500 season. Joey rebounded to finish the year among the Top 10 National League hitters in batting (.322), on-base percentage (.414), slugging percentage (.567), hitting on the road (.335), hitting with runners in scoring position (.336), hitting in night games (.323), hitting vs. righties (.319) and hitting vs. lefties (.329).

Already an elite hitter, Joey took another step toward stardom with a lights-out first half in 2010. Heading into the All-Star break, he was on pace for another .300 season with 40 homers and 120 RBIs. Joey was also leading the NL in slugging and on-base percentage. Amazingly, he did not make the initial All-Star roster. Joey’s fate was in the hands of the fans. It was a nice surprise—and a validation of his performance on and off the field—when they voted him into the final spot on the NL squad.

The bigger surprise was that the Reds were leading the NL Central at the break. Cincinnati’s infield was one of the most productive in baseball. In addition to Joey and second baseman Brandon Phillips, the team had added veterans Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera. Rolen had brought new professionalism and confidence to the young Reds, and Cabrera was a playoff participant year after year. The infield production allowed young outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs to develop slowly, while the team’s robust starting staff—led by Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and rookie Mike Leake—masked a weak bullpen. The Reds, often sellers in the second half, were now buyers.


Joey Votto, 2008 Topp Highlights
     
 

Whatever the rest of 2010 holds, the season has been an unqualified triumph for Joey. Little more than a year removed from his debilitating bout with anxiety and depression, he has made peace with his emotions, declared war on opposing pitchers, and given baseball fans in Cincinnati something to be truly happy about.

JOEY THE PLAYER

At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Joey is powerfully built. His muscular frame translates into a violent stroke at the plate. One of the keys to Joey’s offensive game is his ability to wait on a pitch and lash at it at the very last moment. Joey is known spoiling strikeout deliveries with a quick flick of his wrists, just as it appears the ball will settle in the catcher’s glove. With new life, he often makes frustrated pitchers pay later on in the at-bat.

Joey has power to all fields. This makes him especially dangerous in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. The stadium’s cozy dimensions allow Joey to comfortably drive the ball to left, center and right. He is a true run producer—his average with runners in scoring position is always higher than his overall average.

Joey is an agile defensive first baseman, particularly for a player his size. He moves well to his left and right, and charges hard on slow rollers. his athleticism can work against him. At times, he tries to make the spectacular play instead of the safe one.  

Joey’s competitive fire burns red hot. After Marlon Byrd ended the 2010 All-Star Game with a good defensive play, Joey refused to compliment him. He told reporters that since Byrd was a member of the division-rival Cubs, he had nothing nice to say about him. That type of take-no-prisoners attitude resonates with teammates. Joey is seen as a leader for his production on the field and his intensity off of it.

 


Joey Votto, 2010 Heritage


 

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