Word of Votto's determination passed on

* Joey Votto, Canada's highest-paid athlete, came out of Connorvale Park where he learned from the likes of Bobby Smyth and Nick Rico. And Etobicoke minor peewee coach Naeem Siddiq, who used to help Smyth coach teams, makes sure the current Rangers know about Votto. Votto sent Smyth to Cooperstown, N.Y. to golf with Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and others a few years ago as one of his many thank yous to his former coach. ....  

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Letters of Intent



By Bob Elliott

Every now and then a new Joey Votto story pops up.

One we’ve never heard.

Like the other night at Millwood Park in Etobicoke during a minor peewee game ... the same diamond Votto played at the same age.

Do you know who Joey Votto is?

“He’s the first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds,” answered Iliyan Bhanji, of the visiting Mississauga Southwest Twins. “And he’s really, really good.”

Etobicoke Rangers winning pitcher Cooper Wilson, teammates Andrew Forrest, Matteo Forgione and Lucas Ben all know who Votto is. Although Ben, a grade six student/baseball historian in the Cameron Fiske mould, also knows who Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson are too.

Coach Naeem Siddiq, who learned from Etobicoke legends Nick Rico and Bob Smyth, has the Votto story we’d never heard and it reveals a lot about Canada’s highest-paid athlete ... just in time for the Blue Jays weekend visit to the Cincinnati to play Votto and the Reds at the Great American Ballpark .


Siddiq left Mississauga at the urging of Joe Jurus to play for Smyth’s Etobicoke team in 1988, field grounders from Rico at Connorvale Park and when his playing days were over coach juvenile and junior as well as helping run the fund-raising bingo at the Lakeshore Lions Club.

Eventually a kid from Bloordale migrated to Connorvale. His name was Joseph Votto.

“He’d show every spring and you’d say ‘he’s better,’ and every September you’d say ‘he’s even better,’” Siddiq said Tuesday night. A teacher at Richview high, he left to teach at Etobicoke Collegiate, the year Votto entered grade nine.

Votto and his Richview Saints faced coach Siddiq’s Etobicoke Rams at Ourland diamond in Mimico when Votto was a grade 11 student. He hit two homers onto the roof of the community centre in left field and another onto Islington Ave.

After the game Votto approached Siddiq, who he knew from his summer nights at Connorvale, and asked “how am I doing? Anything I can improve on?”

Siddiq replied: “Joey you just lost three balls ... two on the roof, you went 4-for-5 with a double and three homers.”

Votto insisted asking for pointers: “what can I do to get better?”

So the wise coach thought it over ... (“I figured I’d throw him a bone," he said) and told him I thought that on one pitch he was getting out on his front foot ... just a little."

And that was the end of that or so the coach thought.

Around 5 PM the coach drove to school, dropped off the equipment, drove a couple of kids home and drove past Ourland to his house.

“Now, it’s an hour and a half after we last spoke, and there are Joey and Warren Bradley taking batting practice,” said Siddiq, who pulled up the car to the field and asked Votto “what ... are you doing?”

Votto responded: “well, you told me I was out on my front foot, I needed to work on it.”

Siddiq told Votto to go home. Enough.

“Joey was the hardest working player I ever saw, as good as he was then, he wasn’t the best then and I think that drove Joey,” said Siddiq. “I worried that he might take the fun out of it, might listen to too many different people. He was always asing questions.”

Undrafted in grade 12, Votto impressed at Perfect Game showcases in Fort Myers and St. Petersburg that winter, was selected in the second round by the Reds in 2002. The ECI Rams beat Richview on Travis Gilligan’s right arm 8-3 in 2002. Votto hit a three-run homer at Connorvale and the Reds former MVP remembers it as his last swing as an amateur.

In the end Votto listened to only three chefs: Greg O'Halloran, Smyth and Rico.

O’Halloran signed with the Blue Jays and made the majors with the Florida Marlins. Siddiq said the two best he ever saw were Votto and O’Halloran.

“Bobby always told us Nick had a knack of simplifying the game,” said Siddiq, who said saw Rico hit a ball out of Connorvale at age 62 and out of Bond Park at age 65.

Now, 84, Rico played six years in the minors climbing as high as Class-B Bristol playing for Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and Reds affiliates in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Idaho and Utah.

I first met Rico and Siddiq when they were helping Joe Heeney run an Etobicoke camp about 1996 and I took Rovin Perumal and my son for the day. They were amazed at Rico's fungo-hitting ability.

When ancestry.com examines the pros to come out of Connorvale it trace the likes of George Kottaras, who is with the Cleveland Indians after playing with the Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A's and Kansas City Royals, former major leaguer Shawn Hill (who pitched the Washington Nationals, Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays) now pitching in the minors and John Suomi (A's, Pirates, Nationals, Phillies and Royals systems) who retired this year after 13 seasons in the minors -- both played for Smyth and Siddiq when they ran the Ontario Blue Jays.

And when you include limbs of the family tree like Denny Berni (Red Sox system), Warren Sawkiw (Tigers, Blue Jays, White Sox), Alex Borgo (Phillies), Mike Roga (Blue Jays),  Danny Gibbons (A's), Robbie Findlay (Rays), Michael O'Halloran (Blue Jays), Brad Evaschuk (Blue Jays), O’Halloran and Votto, the lineage will all trace all back to Smyth and Rico.