CINCINNATI — As Yogi Bear, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character always said, “I’m smarter than the average bear.”
And Joey Votto is smarter than the average baseball player when it comes to knowing what is important.
As are most baseball players, Votto’s name is strewn with a string of numbers — .326 batting average, .435 onbase average, 29 homers, 97 RBI, 101 runs, 108 walks. Those are all strong, positive numbers, numbers of which Votto can be and should be proud. And he is.
But none of those are the numbers to which Votto aspires. His number is 162. And he came close this year. He want to play all 162 games every year and this year he appeared in 158.
BEFORE HIS CINCINNATI REDS TOOK the field for game 162 Sunday against the Chicago Cubs, the 33-year-old first baseman gave his personal ‘State of His Game’ message that roamed from playing every game to working on his defense to what he looks for in the team’s future.
Asked what he liked most about his escape from the depths (.213 the first two months) to his climb to the peak, Votto never hesistated when he said, “I played every day. You won’t give yourself an opportunity to do good things unless you are out on the field. That’s the thing that stands out to me, making it a point just to be out there every day. I missed a couple of days with the flu and maybe a randon game with a sore neck. But if I could have prevented those I would have played 162. That’s a point of pride for me.”
AND THERE IS ANOTHER REASON, something Votto discovered through comments on social media.
“I feel an obligation to the fans,” he said. “And I feel an obligation to the front office, my teammates and myself. Most of all, though, it is an obligation to the fans. The more stories I hear when people write to me or I see something on Twitter, the feedback is, ‘I got to go to a game and I got to watch my favorite player play.’
“Just knowing that you are out there for somebody who just gets done at work and comes to a game expecting me to play means something. I need to be on the field to justify their ticket, to justify them tuning in. That means a lot to me to give that to them,” Votto added. “So playing every day is really the most important stat to me.”
AND THERE IS ANOTHER SOURCE of pride and a pursuit about the way Votto approaches the game. He boldly says he wants to be the best player in the game. And he knows he had some defensive deficiences this year. He plans to address them this winter with some hard work. The last time he stressed defenve over the winter was before the 2011 season and he won a Gold Glove.
“I went a couple of months with some inconsistent defense this year,” he said. “Personally, until Mike Trout came into the league I thought I would be in the conversation for best player in the game. Then he screwed that up for everybody — Babe Ruth and Ted Williams included. He has ruined it for everyone.
“But you can’t be in that conversation unless you do every aspect of the game,” said Votto. “I love competing against the best and I take a lot of pride in it. Defense is something I fell a little bit short in. Offensively, I could compete with anybody in baseball, but defensively I have a ways to go and it is exciting to have another challenge to overcome and I am grateful for that.”
Told that he won a Gold Glove the last time he addressed defense in the off-season, he smiled and said, “Yeah. . .and I’ll be back in about six months.”
VOTTO SEEMS ENCOURAGED ABOUT the direction of the team, which has finished last two years in a row and is in what it calls rebuilding.
“You hope the younger players get better and I don’t try to separate myself because we all try to get better together to become one unit,” he said. “We need more players, better players and improvement from the players we have.
“We’re heading in the right direction and I am excited about the future,” he added. “We need to continue to add talent and it is really, really important to start playing better ball here. In my experience, this is really a fun city when we’re playing good ball. When we’re not, it is frustrating. That is going to come in the future and I hope sooner than later.”
Votto said he doesnt have a timeline for success and isn’t concerned as long as, “It is done properly.”
As does everybody, Votto cited the emergence of the Chicago Cub and, to a more minor extent, the Houston Astros, as models to follow.
“Witnessing what the Cubs and Astro had to go through (a long period of bad baseball and 100 losses) and then seeing the fruits of their labor,” he said. “The Cubs waited it out and suddenly they are the best ticket in baseball, the best team to tune into. They are so much fun. And they did it in so many different ways — a combination of quality trades, some luck, benefitting from some good draft picks. That has them as the best team with a legitimate chance of winning the World Series. And that’s what we all play for.”
VOTTO FINISHED HIS INTERVIEW with one of his strange, twisted comments that also makes sense. After hitting .213 the first two months, Votto finished the second half hitting over .400.
Asked if hitting .400 the second half means anything to him, he smiled and said, “It means the exact same thing to me as hitting .200 the first two months. I mean, it’s like, ‘Boy, that’s confusing and I’m glad it’s over with.’ And I mean that for both sides of it. I don’t expect to hit .400 and I don’t expect to hit .200.”
As we said, smarter than the average bear and baseball player.