Someone asked Joey Votto how he got word Monday that the baseball writers had named him the National League's Most Valuable Player. Votto said he was swimming at a YMCA in Sarasota, Fla., with a group of senior citizens. "Half naked in the pool,'' Votto laughed.
Sarasota in November is generally about 80 degrees and sunny. The beach is nearby, given that Sarasota is, in fact, on the Gulf of Mexico. Failing that, Votto might have been hanging out at his house, somewhat close to a telephone. Not Joey. He was half naked and swimming with the cast of Cocoon.
I'd like to say I made that up because generally, ballplayers can use a little novelizing. What they do and how they do it is compelling. Who they are? Not so much.
But none of it's made up. I couldn't make up Joey Votto.
He's the NL MVP today. He was the runaway winner, getting 31 of 32 first-place votes. Not bad for a player who had to be written in as an All-Star, by 15 million smart fans.
Votto gets on base, hits with power, hits in the clutch and generally wears out every pitcher he sees. He's a student of the game in the same vein as Albert Pujols. Votto is among the league leaders in conscientiousness and humility. He's also the most different athlete I've covered in 22 years in Cincinnati.
As a rule, star athletes are not beholden to introspection or prone to outbursts of thoughtfulness. They might not, for example, say this the day before their first All-Star Game, as Votto did this year when I asked him who the honor was for:
"Honestly, it's for myself. My family, too, of course,'' said Votto. "My friends. Bob Smyth, my [high school] coach. This would have meant a tremendous amount to my father. But I'm starting to learn you have to take a moment to say, 'I've done pretty good. I'm an all star.'
"I've given myself the next few days to pat myself on the back. I've never done that before, but I'm learning to. Not in an arrogant way. In the past, I've never said, 'You know, that was pretty good.' My rookie year, I had a three-home run game and I remember thinking a week later, 'I never want to hit three home runs in a game again', instead of thinking that was a pretty cool accomplishment. I dreaded it because of all the attention. It's an adjustment I'm learning how to make. I made a point to not look at (attention) as a negative. You're receiving attention for all your hard work. That's not a bad thing.''
I'd asked for a few words. I'd expected them to be standard: My parents, my high school coach, my uncle with tuberculosis. Oscar-speech rhetoric. I got five minutes with Dr. Phil.
Which, of course, was tremendous.
Votto is guarded, generally. Not anti-media, just very private and entirely routine-oriented. I got 15 minutes with him in St. Louis in early September, but mainly because it was Photo Day at Busch Stadium, so batting practice had been canceled. They were the best 15 minutes I've gotten from an athlete in a few years.
That day, Votto told me his hero was Ted Williams. The day the Reds drafted Votto, he bought a copy of Williams' classic book, The Science of Hitting. Votto said he carried it around with him for five minor league seasons.
He said he was particular about his bats, occasionally tossing at least half of a box of 12 into the trash before he ever used them. "It's difficult to get really good wood,'' Votto said. As he has grown to know the Louisville Slugger rep that visits GABP, the reject pile has become smaller. "Maybe four out of every dozen,'' Votto said then.
I asked him about his routine. Votto the person is mostly off limits. Votto the player is an easy study. Just watch batting practice. It's like watching Hemingway type. Every swing has a purpose, every batted ball goes where Votto wants it to go. Preparing to succeed is much of the war.
"If I don't have that feeling of being completely prepared before a game, it affects my game,'' he said. "I try to grind through it. If I want the most from me, I have to maintain my routine.''
Votto will give you glimpses inside his baseball head.
"If I feel like the (opposing starter) is throwing a little harder, maybe I should think about driving the ball up the middle. If he throws a lot of breaking balls, I'll try some other approach,'' Votto said. "I will hit the ball where I want it to land.'' In BP, Votto says, "I try to prepare for the pitcher that day. I try to get my swing leveled out. I don't want any holes in my swing. I want to know I can do anything I want during the game. Any pitch, any swing, any location, I can handle it.
"I'm working. I wish I was having a better time out there, but I'm not. I'm working really hard.''
Votto is a loner. He takes vacations by himself. He's respected in the Reds clubhouse, but not well known. He has been known to go to the theater. Not to see the latest exploits of The Rock. Broadway. When Jersey Boys played in Toronto, Votto contacted the producer and got tickets for himself and his family.
Last summer, Votto hit a three-run, ninth-inning homer off Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge that tied the game. The blast and the crowd reaction provoked a rare spine tingle from this longtime sportswriter. I mentioned that to Votto the next day.
"I'm glad I was able to do that for you,'' he said.
Most athletes faced with such a compliment would say thanks and let it go. Either that, or they'd backhand it with a little high, hard sarcasm. If anyone else had said to me, "I'm glad I was able to do that for you,'' I'd have assumed I was being messed with. Not Votto.
"I don't want to say something and have to look over my shoulder,'' he explained. "If I say something, I completely mean it.''
Let us now pause for a moment of silence, for the last sincere athlete.
I don't know how being Most Valuable will change Joseph Daniel Votto, but I'm guessing not much. The diligence, the preparation, the almost obsessive need to be good in all things didn't arrive in a box of semi-flawed bats in Arizona last March. It has defined Votto, through mostly good and the occasional bad. He was hospitalized with anxiety disorder after his father's death during the 2009 season.
Votto thinks about things, deeply. That makes him a fascinating study, on the field and off. Swimming with senior citizens, when he finds out he's the MVP? Who else does that?