* The Pro-Teach starting nine (from left) John Suomi, Mark Capone, Kyle Clancy, Rob McGee, Alex Andreopoulos, Joey Votto, Denny Berni, Tony Tedesco and Greg O'Halloran ... at Pro Teach indoor facility in Etobicoke. ....
By Bob Elliott
For the first time since the 2004-05 off-season Etobicoke’s Joey Votto spent the winter in Toronto.
Oh, in past years he would visit after the Cincinnati Reds season was over, but the majority of his time was spent in Sarasota, Fla., where the Reds had their spring home and an over coat was something Floridians use to cover their cars.
So Votto roamed Toronto, caught up with pals from his Etobicoke Rangers days and re-habbed his injured quad which limited him to only 62 games in 2014.
Outside of being inducted into the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame and making a personal appearance at a Brampton minor ball outing in November, attending the annual Baseball Canada banquet and dropping by the Pro-Teach indoor facility last month, how many times was Canada’s highest-paid athlete recognized?
“Sometimes in a restaurant if I’m there for a long time some one would come over, say hello,” said Votto. “Walking down the street? Just once. In Yorkville and a man stopped me and said ‘man, you’re Joey Votto?’”
In the hustle and bustle of the big city, Votto moved in anonymity.
He came home in October to get well, prepare for 2015 and found a sanctuary, one he departs this weekend heading for Arizona and spring training.
Remember those dreaded assignments when you returned to school in September? The teacher would tell students they had to write about what they did on their summer vacation.
What did former National League MVP Votto do on his first winter in Toronto since he was getting ready to play for Sarasota in the class-A Florida State League in 2005?
Here are 10 things ...
1. Re-habbed his left quad at the Toronto Athletic Club.
Votto was under the care of Chris Broadhurst, director of The TAC Sport Medicine Clinic, who started with the Blue Jays class-A St. Catharines affiliate in 1986 and was an NHL athletic therapist for 20 years with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes.
Broadhurst put Votto through his paces in conjunction with the Reds doctors and trainers starting in October. Reds strength and conditioning coach Sean Marohn was in Toronto last month.
2. Watched Canada beat Russia to win the World Juniors in the gold medal game.
Votto wasn’t one of the 19,014 fans inside the Air Canada Centre as Canada held onto a 5-4 lead through a scoreless third period for the win.
He was going to buy tickets, but the day got away from him so he took his black Flat-Coated Retriever, Maris, for a walk and wound up at Maple Leaf Square.
“Maris and I watched the entire game, saw the crazies celebrate,” said Votto. “It was cool. How many people recognized me? No one.”
Fans wore Canada jerseys, red-and-white face paint, Vancouver Olympics mittens, red and white toques stand and cheering in sub-zero temperatures, which dipped as low as -13 C.
“I didn’t notice how cold it was, haven’t noticed the weather once all winter,” said Votto after 10 straight winters in the Florida sun.
3. Spent time with family.
Votto’s mom Wendy is a mainstay at the Via Allegro Ristorante, an Etobicoke land mark. He’d dine there often.
He’d drop by to see his brother Tyler, 26, at work.
His twin brothers Ryan and Paul, 15, who live in Brampton with mom. And that’s why he was at the Brampton Soccer Centre for a minor ball outing, as part RBC’s Sports Day in Canada initiative.
Wendy is on the board of directors for Brampton Minor, where Ryan and Paul played bantam ball last year.
Votto sponsored teams the last three seasons and he will appear on Brampton signage and literature in 2015. The association presented him with a plaque of appreciation.
4. Worked out with Greg O’Halloran.
The former Florida Marlin, who used to throw Votto batting practice as a high schooler, did the same this winter, as well as hitting ground balls.
Votto agreed to sign for $550,000 US when the Reds phoned him in drama class before the second round in 2002. Since Votto didn’t have an agent, O’Halloran was in the Votto house when Reds scout John Castlebury arrived to sign Votto. O’Halloran raising the bonus to $600,000.
Votto has joked more than once about not paying back his pal “a single penny.”
5. Was a court side regular at the ACC to watch his Toronto Raptors.
He didn’t make every home game, but guesses he was at 70% of the home games.
“I’ve been a Raptors fan since their inauguration,” Votto says. “I did take time off cheering for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, but the Raptors are my first love ... like your first girl friend. We used to sit in the nose bleeds of the nose bleeds sections when they played at The SkyDome, almost behind a tarp. We were so high up in the 500 level you could barely see the players.”
And now the Raptors fast break less than 10 feet from where he sits directly across from the Raptors bench.
“Not many things make me feel like I’ve made it,” Votto said, “but being able to buy court side tickets is one, more so than buying cars, a house or jewelry. This, along with building a gym in my house, is the treat I’m most happy with. It might be the highlight of my life away from the ball field.”
He says DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the Raptors’ best and likes the way they play. The first baseman said he respects the way Patrick Patterson, James Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough play.
“Those three are the type of player Toronto fans love,” Votto said. “Probably the most popular Raptor with fans, besides Vince Carter or Damon Stoudamire, is Junkyard Dog (Jerome Williams).”
In past years he has visited Raptors practices. Not this year.
“This is their time ... they don’t need me around as a distraction,” he says.
6. Visited the indoor Pro-Teach indoor facility in Etobicoke.
Nowadays, former Boston Red Sox minor league catcher Denny Berni runs clinics, showcases and camps out the long building on Whitlam Ave., off 24th St., not far from the water tower.
The building was Votto’s home away from home as a high schooler.
His former Rangers teammate Mark Capone, all conference with the UBC Thunderbirds, was there, along with former catchers John Suomi (13 years in the minors), Alex Andreopoulos (eight years) now the Blue Jays bullpen coach and O’Halloran (a pro for 10 seasons) and the other instructors.
Votto was unsure if he had been inside the place since he turned pro and his former Rangers coach and mentor Bobby Smyth moved to Ladysmith, B.C. Still, the memories came flooding back.
“The place looks great, they’re building a gym, expanding ... but I looked up to where the (second-floor) office use to be, when I was in high school. I knew who was always there,” Votto said. “All the hundreds and 1,000s of hours I was in there hitting, Bobby would be up there smoking a cigarette, drinking a coffee ... and screaming at me ... well sometimes.
“I can’t think of how many players walked through those doors and how fortunate I was to have Bobby Smyth take an interest in me. I was so lucky to have him in my life.”
Capone and Votto have been talking ball since “they were 11 or 13.”
And then the Etobicoke gang went for wings. Now, as then, Votto loves wings.
Like 13 years ago when Capone and Votto were high schoolers ... and they talk about the old days ... like way back in 2002.
Votto said friends and families, are the same, treat him the same as they did more than a decade ago.
7. Told The Story.
The best two hitters on his team when Votto was in high school were Warren Bradley and Capone.
All are still close. Bradley comes to Votto’s for dinner.
“Chris was the best high school in the province, maybe the whole country,” Votto recalled.
Robinson remembers Votto hitting an opposite field homer over the fence, over Eglinton Ave. into the strip mall.
(“ATTENTION SHOPPERS: Rawlings bouncing through the door!”)
“When people in pro ball asked if I played with Joey, I always told that story about the ball he hit that game,” Robinson said.
Bradley, an outfielder, and Votto each hit two homers while infielder Capone had five hits in a 15-14 loss to London.
“I really hate telling this story about Warren,” Votto said with a laugh, “but it’s such a good story. Warren has been a great friend, we’ve been that way since we were 14. We tease each other.
“Believe me Warren was truly an elite player, one of the best high school players.”
Votto remembers Bradley hitting two homers and two doubles, describing him as an “force,” at the plate that day.
“Warren came in for a ball, tripped and the ball hit him ... right on the head, I mean directly on his cap,” Votto said, “despite everyone hitting so well, that’s the play I remember most.”
In full giggle now Votto says “I mean the ball hit Warren right on the button on his cap and buckled his knees. How many times have you seen that?”
8. Picked up friendly advice.
His circle is the same as it was a decade ago. All are Etobicoke people and he sees O’Halloran more than the others.
“Some of the best advice I ever received was from Greg, he ‘save your money, save your money ... don’t buy cars, don’t buy houses, don’t buy anything.’
“I asked ‘what about food?’ And he said ‘you can go broke eating out, everything ads up.’”
Votto saved all his bonus money. He bought a used Audi A6 at age 18 and bought a new Accura TL in 2005 and still had it in 2010.
“A lot of things Greg said stuck, I eat out some but I try to cook at home,” said Votto, who cooks vegetables, chicken and meat. “I saved my bonus until I made the majors.”
Votto took O’Halloran to the Milwaukee Bucks-Raptors game at the ACC and Toronto hit triple figures, which meant pizza for everyone.
“Greg still practices what he preaches, when the Raptors hit 100 he asked about turning in his ticket for a free slice,” said Votto. “He didn’t do it, but he asked.”
9. Wondered about the 2002 draft.
“Do you still have that draft list of Canadian kids?” Votto asked.
Yes, it runs on the Canadian Baseball Network.
Votto went undrafted in grade 12, idolizing Scott Thorman hit line drives weekend mornings at Symth’s facility. Thorman went in the first round to the Atlanta Braves in 2000.
“I was never on your list in grade 12 and I remember the next year making it as an honourable mention,” said Votto. “It was important. I had my sights set on pro ball. Making the list was a glimmer of hope, a huge step. Very rarely is a player drafted that isn’t mentioned on some list.
The Reds chose Votto in the second round, 44th over-all in North America.
What advice does Votto have for unranked players not highly heading into June?
“I wasn’t listed until several months before the draft,” he said, “that means things can’t happen. April ‘til June was a whirlwind for me ... anything can happen.”’
10. Enjoyed HIS city.
While Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis of the Toronto Maple Leafs made like Isiash Thomas and J.P. Ricciardi not living in Toronto (sort of a “sure, I’ll work here, I’ll take your money, but live here? no way,” approach) Votto’s chose to come home.
“Toronto became my sanctuary,” said Votto said. “I’m so lucky to be from here it’s so beautiful. I visit the best cities in the world with my job when the Reds are on the road: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and Atlanta.
“I recognize how appealing they all are but it’s not home. My city competes well with those cities. When I’m in the U.S. they see me a certain way ... in Toronto they see me as a guy they went to school with. I’ve never felt as comfortable in the other cities as I do at home.”
Votto’s injuries cut short the 2014 season. He went on the disabled list twice: playing both ends of a from May 15 doubleheader until he returned to the lineup June 10. And he didn’t play after July 8 until the end of the season.
A strained left distal quad was the problem. The injury is near the knee that Votto twice had surgery on in 2012.
“It’s nice to be home, in your home country,” Votto said. “I don’t want to sound overly patriotic, but I know when I cross the border leaving and I know when I cross the border coming home.
“And the thing is, no one recognizes me.”