Baker: Votto a national treasure

 * 1B Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) decides his knee is healthy enough to play for Team Canada in the third World Baseball Classic which begins Friday. ....  Day II with Team Canada Day I with Team Canada

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By Bob Elliott

GOODYEAR, Az. -- As a country Canada has some things sights to see ...

Like Banff National Park, Niagara Falls, the CN Tower, Don Cherry, the Parliament buildings, Old Montreal and the Cabot Trail to name a few.

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker knows of another attraction.

“He’s the top man in Canada as far as baseball, he’s a national treasure when it comes to what he means for his country,” Baker told reporters after the Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto revealed his decision that he would play for Canada in the third World Baseball Classic, which begins Friday.

“You always want to be able to go home,” said Baker, “a lot of the guys on the Canadian team backed out on their country. Joey is there for his country.”

Votto had two knee surgeries last season and Canada’s highest-paid athlete wanted to wait until the last moment before committing to play.

This spring Votto, who will stay in Reds camp until the WBC opener when Canada Italy Friday, played in eight games batting .375 (6-for-16) with one homer and five RBIs. He’s playing with approval of owner Bob Castellini, general manager Walt Jocketty and Baker.

“I never got to play in the Olympics, so this is the next best,” Votto told reporters. “I had a great time in Toronto in 2009, slept in my own bed, took the GO train in and played in the stadium I grew up watching the Blue Jays in a park that inspired me to play.

“To play in front of the home fans, a great crowd meant a lot, more personally, from a patriotic perspective. This one? I’m proud to put on the uniform and be a part of a team completely Canadian. I hope people in Canada tune in and we give them something to cheer about.”

Canada lost reliever Jesse Crain of the Chicago White Sox Monday morn due to an injury and tried to replace him with lefty Evan Rutckyj.

Instead they added lefty RJ Swindle (Vancouver, BC) to replace Crain. Currently a free agent and Swindle represented Canada at the 2012 WBC Qualifier in Regensburg, Germany.

Swindle, 29, appeared in 13 games out of the bullpen with Triple-A Memphis in 2012 where he had a 1-1 record and 4.76 ERA. In 2008, he appeared in three games with the Philadelphia Phillies and in 2009 he appeared in six games with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Earlier catcher Russell Martin withdrew after both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Team Canada didn’t think playing shortstop was a good idea.

Where will Votto play on Friday?

First or DH?

“I imagine I’ll share time with another former Most Valuable Player,” he said, referring to him winning the National League MVP in 2010 and Justin Morneau winning AL honours in 2008.

Said manager Ernie Whitt: “Joey can play either, he and Justin can decide.”

Votto’s Etobicoke coach Bob Smyth, plus his Bloordale coaches Steve Plumley, Rick Anderson and his wife Patti cancelled flights due to the uncertainly of his status.

“It will be a flashback, Bobby telling me about Hill’s curve or how hard John Suomi works,” said Votto one of three former Etobicoke Rangers on the roster. “It will be like playing from guys from my own neighbourhood. I’ve come totally full circle.”

Hill was left without a place to play when he left Mississauga North Tigers and then joined Smyth’s Mickey Mantle’s team as a shortstop. San Diego scout Tim Harkness drafted him in 1999 and the next year Montreal Expos scout Alex Agostino selected him in the sixth round and signed him.

Closer John Axford took it as good news that Votto would play and also that he would not play for the Reds on Wednesday when Canada plays Cincinnati in their second warm-up.

“Joey’s one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball,” said Axford. “He’s always trying to accomplish something, he has an idea, which is why he hits so well.

“Whether it’s a home run to left-centre or a line drive to right.”

The guys in red and white are hoping Votto’s next homer comes this weekend.