Atlanta: Ex-Lookout Votto seems on his way to Reds success
By: Darren Epps
ATLANTA — He ranks in the top three among National League rookies in almost every hitting category, surely raising some glasses back in Ontario at Via Allegro. That’s an Italian restaurant where Joey Votto’s mother used to work as the sommelier.
His likeness appears on 1,000 bobbleheads, the result of a Chattanooga Lookouts promotion two weeks ago. He’s been gone barely a year.
“How did it look?” Votto asks in the Cincinnati clubhouse before Friday night’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta.
Told he doesn’t look bad, Votto smiles.
He’s a star rookie now, a long way from the kid who received his first baseball bat at the age of 8, viewed Braves Triple-A first baseman and fellow Canadian Scott Thorman as a symbol of hope and struggled initially in the minor leagues. He is the hero now, as evidenced by the Lookouts’ recent promotion. He is the symbol of hope for the Reds, batting .328 in his last 18 games and exhibiting some power.
But the 24-year-old Votto, even as the future at first base for the Reds, still reflects on his time in Chattanooga and beams.
“You know what? It was my favorite place to play. It really was,” he said. “I wasn’t a big fan of, well, you know, I thought Louisville was a tough park to hit in. But I loved playing in Chattanooga. The fans were great. The management and the managers I had were great, and I miss (hitting coach) Jamie Dismuke more than anything. I really liked playing there. I had a great time. It was my favorite stop in the minor leagues.”
And why not? Before emerging as a major prospect in Chattanooga in 2006, Votto and the rest of his Class A teammates had to take a strike before swinging thanks to the not-so-brilliant mind of former Reds general manager Dan O’Brien. It was a worse baseball idea than 10-Cent Beer Night.
Votto slumped. Friend and fellow prospect Jay Bruce slumped. Everyone slumped.
“I was held back those two years when we were forced to take a strike. It was a product of the situation I was in,” Votto said. “If you take a look at any of the guys on that team, we all struggled. It was the entire team.
“But we learned how to deal with struggling and failure and baseball stress. We got through it and, you know, I didn’t have to take a strike anymore in Chattanooga.”
Pitchers didn’t want to throw him any. He batted .319 with 22 home runs and won Southern League MVP honors in Chattanooga two seasons ago, then earned a promotion to Louisville. He was close. The Reds continued to falter. He continued playing well. And so he waited. And waited. And waited all the way until Sept. 1 to earn his call-up.
Four days later, he smashed a 421-foot home run in the first at-bat of his first career start.
“It was hard, I’m not going to lie,” Votto said of the wait. “It wasn’t hard because of what people said. It was more my own expectations. I felt like I was held back a couple of years when I had to take a strike. And it was frustrating being at a level that basically I played as well as I could play and still be stuck at that level. It was more personal stress.”
Votto would never say it, but you have to imagine there’s at least some stress playing for the mystery known as Reds manager Dusty Baker. He’s a friendly man with an infectious smile who uses the word “man” a lot.
And man, he’s strange. He preaches aggressiveness and seems almost against taking walks, some sort of bizarro world opposite of Dan O’Brien. Before Friday’s game, Baker admitted that, maybe, the reeling Reds offense could use Votto and former Lookout Edwin Encarnacion higher in the lineup with Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. struggling. Entering the weekend, Votto had four home runs and 12 RBIs in his last 15 games.
But Baker benched Votto for the aging Scott Hatteberg, now hitting .135, and the Reds managed three hits against Tim Hudson. The closest Cincinnati got to scoring a run was when Votto, pinch-hitting in the eighth with Encarnacion on third, ripped a ball down the first-base line that was stabbed by a diving Mark Teixeira.
If you want to see lots of cursing on the Internet, check out any Reds site when Baker makes a lineup without Votto.
“He’s going to be up there soon. He’ll be a fifth hitter,” Baker said before the game. “Man, he works hard, keeps his mouth shut and is very respectful.”
It won’t be long until many of the Lookouts we’ve watched over the past few years are in Cincinnati with the assignment of saving a failing franchise. Hatteberg’s start Friday fueled speculation that the Reds (12-18) are showcasing him for a trade. If the Reds continue to struggle, Griffey could be traded and replaced by Bruce. Fans are desperate for Homer Bailey to replace Matt Belisle in the rotation.
And maybe, after a few years, they can all reflect on Cincinnati in the same favorable manner Votto talks about Chattanooga.