Votto espouses Teddy Ballgame’s theories on hitting (Gold)
ST. LOUIS – He leaves the bible home now. He bought it when the Reds drafted him in 2002. He carried it with him every day, town to town, bushes to bushes, bus to bus, into his major-league career. After eight years, it became too fragile and dog-eared to pack. And what if he lost it?
Joey Votto no longer needs the book Ted Williams wrote, called The Science of Hitting. In a year when he pursues a Triple Crown and an MVP trophy — and, mostly he would tell you, a World Series ring — Votto is making some science of his own.
“A legend,’’ Votto says of Williams, the last man to hit .400, arguably the best hitter the game has produced. “Beyond a legend. He was mythic.’’
Votto still tracks down people he guesses might have seen Williams play. He has read everything written about Teddy Ballgame. He watches the old black-and-whites of Williams employing that big stride and long, graceful swing. He reads the bible. “The thesis of the book was, get a good pitch to hit, be quick, make sure your swing is prepared,’’ Votto says. It’s everything every hitter wants to do, but few are able. Votto, it seems, is among the few.
Will he win the Triple Crown? No National Leaguer has since Joe Medwick, in 1937. Votto can drive in enough runs to be the best, because he has help around him that Albert Pujols does not. He can hit for a high-enough average, but only if Omar Infante – batting .342 after Saturday – cools down a little or plays less. Only if Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez, who plays in a bigger park in Denver, finds a mini-slump.
Votto is not a home run hitter, not in the classic sense. He hits line drives with loft. You have to think either Pujols or Adam Dunn will hit more homers.
The MVP is a different matter. Ideally, Votto’s victory would be sealed by a Reds division championship. Realistically, his name isn’t Albert. Name recognition and track record matter. The Great Pujols has followed a breathtaking August with an empty September, though, and the Cardinals have done likewise. The MVP award is right there.
The awards don’t mean much to Votto. They mean more recognition, more spotlight, more time away from hallowed routine. It’s not that Votto doesn’t like the praise. Who wouldn’t? He tolerates the attention that comes with it, mostly because he sees it as part of his job. It distracts from his real purpose.
“Do you ever waste a swing?’’ I ask him. “Take a pitch off? I mean, even in batting practice?’’
“No, I don’t.’’
Care to elaborate?
“I’ve made that mistake before and it’s cost me. You get a little older, you can’t waste swings. Your body can only handle so many. I don’t have the energy,’’ explains Votto, who is all of almost-27. “I think of baseball so much as my job. I just try to be efficient. I’m not here to mess around.’’
Votto the Person is somewhat off limits. Votto the Ballplayer is an easy study. Just watch batting practice. It’s like watching Hemingway type.Every swing has a purpose, every batted ball goes where Votto wants it to go. Preparing to succeed is much of the war.
“If I feel like the (opposing starter) is throwing a little harder, maybe I should think about driving the ball up the middle. If he throws a lot of breaking balls, I’ll try some other approach,’’ Votto says. “I will hit the ball where I want it to land.’’
In BP, Votto says, “I try to prepare for the pitcher that day. I try to get my swing leveled out. I don’t want any holes in my swing. I want to know I can do anything I want during the game. Any pitch, any swing, any location, I can handle it.’’
I ask him if his diligence as a hitter also defines him off the field.
“Some. As a ballplayer, certainly. I’m working. I wish I was having a better time out there, but I’m not. I’m working really hard.’’
Votto is a soldier of routine. You do not disrupt it. Team marketers and publicists rarely try. An extended interview? An appearance away from the park, on a game day? Getting more than a minute of Votto’s time between the time he gets to the ballpark and the time he leaves is usually a futile act.
“If I don’t have that feeling of being completely prepared before a game, it affects my game,’’ he says. “I try to grind through it. If I want the most from me, I have to maintain my routine.’’
He’s a stickler for his bats, too. Votto has been known to throw more than half a box of 12 new bats straight into the trash. “I’m really particular,’’ he says. It’s the wood. The quality of the ash. That’s all he knows. “It’s difficult to get really wood,’’ says Votto. As he has grown to know the Louisville Slugger rep that visits GABP, the reject pile has become smaller. “Maybe four out of every dozen,’’ Votto says.
We have talked for 15 minutes, in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, after Votto has worked out and hit in the cage. He had the time because it was Photo Day at the stadium; no batting practice.
The talk turns toward Votto’s earnestness. I remind him of a conversation we had earlier in the season, the day after his three-run, 9th-inning home run off Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge tied the game. I’d mentioned the homer offered a rare, spine-tingling event in the life of a longtime sports scribe. Votto had responded, “I’m glad I was able to do that for you.’’
Any other pro jock, you guess he’s pulling your leg, hard. Not Votto. “I don’t want to say something and have to look over my shoulder,’’ he says. “If I say something, I completely mean it.’’
Words, as well struck as a line drive. Joey Votto works. October awaits.
BY PAUL DAUGHERTY