Joey Votto’s journey begins anew with the

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DUNEDIN, Fla. — It was 11:39 on a breezy Sunday morning. And the place to be was Field 5 of what was once, in a previous life, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Cecil P. Englebert minor-league complex.

It was in this moment, in this unlikely place, that a Canadian baseball icon named Joey Votto found himself in a back-field batter’s box, taking the first live batting practice of the rest of his baseball life.

Sixty feet away, Eric Pardinho, a 23-year-old right-handed reliever from Brazil with a 7.15 ERA in High A last year, rocked, fired and watched a legend swing through a four-seam fastball. Then, as he walked off the mound, rocking a smile so wide they could practically see it in Rio de Janeiro, he uttered these immortal words:

“I just struck out Joey Gallo!”

Well, he was close! Hey, Joey Gallo … or Votto … or whatever your name is … welcome to the Blue Jays.

Baseball is a journey. Life is a journey. And we all know how easily those journeys can spin out of control. So what were the odds that this weekend, the fascinating baseball journey of Joseph Daniel Votto would lead him to a place where everybody knows his name — everybody, that is, except Eric Pardinho?

Born in Toronto … still a resident of greater Toronto … still carrying around a boyhood memory of Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series homer floating through the sky … Joey Votto officially became a Blue Jay over the weekend. What a story.

All right, to be technical, he’s actually a (Triple-A) Buffalo Bison now, signed to a minor-league contract that would pay him $2 million if he spends this season in the major leagues. But in truth, everyone wants this to work, from the Blue Jays’ front office to Votto’s mom to, we’re guessing, Nickelback and the entire Canadian parliament.

Obviously, though, no one wants this to work more than Votto himself. But it’s also fair to say that no one in this camp understands a beautiful baseball story better than Votto.

So as that word, “journey,” rolled off his lips Sunday morning, it came with an appreciation of the miles he has traveled to reach this place.

“It is a journey. That’s for sure,” Votto told The Athletic, as he walked those back fields. “And it’s also a bit of a full-circle experience for me — because the way I feel right now is no different than the version of me at 18: Uncertain, completely uncertain about my future, wanting to do my best, wanting to work, assuming nothing.

“And now I’m kind of restarting (that journey). I’m in Florida. I’m at a new camp as a minor leaguer, trying to work and trying to perform well, to earn a spot, to reach some goals. And I feel the fire that was in me at 18 is the same right now at 40. It’s really cool. It’s great. I’m very lucky.”

On his first full day as a Blue Jay, Votto graciously let us follow him around, from field to field, cage to cage, new adventure to new adventure. So let’s recap it all — his day, his journey and how all those new pieces in his life began fitting together.

Joey Votto heads to Field 3 on his first full day as a Blue Jay. (Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

No. 19 in your heart, but No. 37 on your roster

He spent 17 seasons in Cincinnati, with the No. 19 on his back. Only three players in history ever got more hits wearing that number for any team than the 2,135 Joey Votto got: Robin Yount (3,142), Tony Gwynn (3,141) and Bert Campaneris (2,249).

But when Votto plopped down at his new Blue Jays locker Sunday morning, everything was new … including his number.

He’s No. 37 now. And his locker is wedged into the non-roster-invitee portion of the room, in between pitcher Paolo Espino and outfielder Cam Eden. Wait. What? Where? Who?

It was hard not to notice the empty corner locker next to Kevin Kiermaier’s that the Blue Jays could have assigned to a man with more career plate appearances than anyone else in the room. But Votto isn’t looking for special favors.

He also isn’t looking to wear either No. 37 or No. 19 if he makes it to the big leagues. So we tried to get to the bottom of all of that.

Why 37? Because he only had “so many options” for unassigned spring training numbers, he said. But just in case the sight of him wearing it inspires anyone in the northern provinces to rush out to the team store, um, not so fast — because “I hope nobody wastes their money on 37,” he forewarned jersey collectors everywhere.

If he’s fortunate to make this team, he has another number in mind — but this just in: It isn’t 19. Paul Molitor, Fred McGriff and José Bautista all wore 19 for the Blue Jays, so it’s their number, not his, Votto said.

And in truth, he admitted, No. 19 was never his first choice in Cincinnati, either. It’s just the number he was assigned when he first arrived with the Reds. And although he developed “a strong attachment” to it over the years, there is actually a different number he has always dreamed of wearing.

“There’s only one number that I care about,” he said, knowing he was dropping an air of mystery into the conversation. “And if I end up wearing it, I’ll let you know. What is the relevance? That is between my father and I. It’s one that I’ve always wanted to wear. And it’s retired in Cincinnati, so I never got to wear it. But that’s a good hint.”

Whoa. It’s a great hint. But it doesn’t solve the mystery.

So is his eye on No. 1 — once worn by Tony Fernandez, his late father’s favorite Blue Jay, and a number retired in Cincinnati in honor of Fred Hutchinson? Or is it No. 5 — which Votto wore throughout the minor leagues, but a number retired by the Reds in honor of Johnny Bench?

Sorry! That was all the hints we got. So that’s one more reason to pull for Joey Votto to be a Blue Jay — just to solve the latest riddle on Mystery Number Theater.

‘Which field am I on?’

Joey Votto, right, talks with Bo Bichette. (Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

His path out of the clubhouse led him first to the indoor batting cage, where he leaned on a bench next to Kevin Kiermaier and chatted him up amiably. Next, Joey Votto grabbed his equipment bag and marched toward Field 2, where he took groundballs, spun to practice his 3-6-3’s and found a few moments to connect with Bo Bichette.

His next stop? Field 1 — where a popup machine launched baseballs twisting into the deep blue sky and swirling winds. Votto clanked one, couldn’t see another and felt grateful to be lugging his bats toward Fields 3, 4 and 5, where a bunch of minor-league pitchers were waiting.

“Which field am I on?” he asked the first coach he saw.

“Any field you want,” was the laughing reply.

Joey Votto takes live batting practice. (Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

He would wind up bouncing between Field 3 and Field 5 — facing two different minor-league left-handers, including Brandon Barriera, the Blue Jays’ No. 1 pick in 2022. For the record, Barriera struck Votto out looking, in an at-bat in which he took all four pitches.

In 45 minutes of live batting practice, he would see only one other right-hander: Evan Elliott, whom Toronto purchased just two weeks ago from the Frontier League’s Ottawa Titans. Shockingly, in that at-bat, The Man Who Never Hits a Popup … hit a popup.

“It didn’t count,” Votto quipped, after that experience. “Just shows I’ve got some things to work on. And it was to first base. That’s even worse. I’ve only got one of those in my career.”

He hit that one on April 17, 2019, at Dodger Stadium … in the 6,828th plate appearance of his career. And of course, our resident Votto Whisperer, C. Trent Rosecrans, wrote an entire column about it.

But the most Joey Votto moment of the day came a few minutes later. It was time for the group of minor leaguers he’d been hitting with on Field 3 to move on to their next station.

“Hey guys,” he told them, as they began to trek off the field. “Thank you for letting me share this. Thank you. I owe you guys.”

After all those BP swings over the past two decades, he was well aware that by wedging his way into someone else’s hitting group, he was actually taking swings away from everyone else. He wanted them to know he didn’t take that for granted. It was a special level of awareness, even for a player who doesn’t seem to miss anything in the baseball cosmos.

“Hey, we’re all working together,” he said afterward, “to do the same thing, right?”

Right. But this was still a window into Votto’s mindset and the way he is approaching this spring. He isn’t That Guy with 2,100 Hits, not in this camp. He’s a guy on a minor-league contract, with nothing guaranteed.

“Every single day, not only is that my attitude, but that’s the reality of the scenario,” he said. “So the idea that I’m going to come in and presume anything is a disconnect from reality. But mostly, it’s just what I’m about.

“I just want to work, and I want to compete, and I want to fit in. I want to get along with guys. I want to be liked. And I want to represent myself, my family and my country. And this is the perfect opportunity.”

Joey Votto in the batting cage. (Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

Oh, Canada

In the long history of Major League Baseball, only seven men born in Canada have gotten 1,000 hits or more in the big leagues. Just one of them — Russell Martin — ever wore the uniform of the Blue Jays.

The thought of Joey Votto becoming the second has tantalized the baseball fans of Canada for many years now, eh? But you know who was never particularly tantalized by it — until very recently? Joey Votto.

“I would have loved to finish my career in one uniform,” he said Sunday. “But that opportunity wasn’t presented to me (by the Reds).”

So once it became clear this winter that his old team wasn’t planning to invite him back — and the only opportunities he had to play were on a minor-league deal — his thinking changed.

“This is the one team,” he said of the Blue Jays, “that excited me — the idea of not having a major-league deal but working my way back and being able to stay at home.”

He retraced all his steps, from the neighborhoods he lived in growing up to his current home west of Toronto. The memories began to pour out of him.

“I was a Blue Jays fan,” he said. “I watched Carter hit the walk-off home run (to end the 1993 World Series). I watched us win (the 1992 World Series) against the Braves on the road. Those were the most exciting moments of my childhood. So the idea that … I’m working towards trying to be a part of a team down the road that has championship aspirations, is exactly what I would like to (accomplish). It’s just a dream.”

Then, moments later, he posted this classic photo on X and Instagram.

It was Joey Votto’s regularly scheduled Post That Went Viral of the day. And “my mom was excited about that,” he revealed later.

His mother, Wendy, has held onto that photo since his first birthday. And when the Blue Jays became an option recently to be her son’s next team, she made sure to remind him of that. So when he agreed to his contract, Votto began thinking of how to commemorate the moment on Instagram. He reached out to his mom.

“I said, ‘I think I’m going to do this,’” Votto reported. “And she goes, ‘All right, I’ll send you that picture.’”

If it was meant to be, why’d it take till March?

Joey Votto, Toronto Blue Jay.

Now there’s an idea that made way too much sense — not just all winter, since the Reds turned the page, but especially over these past three weeks.

Spring training had sprung. But the only place you could find the most interesting man in baseball, Joseph D. Votto, was dropping forlorn posts all over social media.

He looked kinda sad, didn’t he? But never, Votto told us, did he see his baseball life passing before his eyes. Not yet.

“I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I was a little confused. But I understood. I’m a very specific type of player. But no, I wasn’t worried. I knew I had these sorts of (non-roster) opportunities, but I didn’t have a clear major-league opportunity. … So did it pass before my eyes? I was aware of it. But I didn’t want to let that enter my mind.”

So when the calendar flipped to March, Votto knew what he had to do. He called Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins last week — not to beg for a job, but to make it clear he had a full grasp of what it meant to be coming into this, or any camp, on a minor-league deal. He received no promises — and he asked for none.

“We had a conversation about my expectations,” Votto said, “and how I wanted to just fit in. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to basically try out. And he seemed interested. Then it all happened quite quickly. I was on a plane the next day.”

Even as he worked out Sunday, you couldn’t find Votto’s name on any roster. But recognition wasn’t what Votto was searching for. He was searching for joy — the joy that only playing baseball brings.

“It excites me to be in a hotel room in Florida,” he said, “and to take a shuttle or an Uber to the ballpark and to be a minor-league player with an unknown number, just trying my very best to make a team. And it invigorates me. This is what I feel like I’ve been about, and it brings me great joy. So as far as expectations, I have none.”

“I feel the fire that was in me at 18 is the same right now at 40,” Joey Votto said. (Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

Only one thing is missing from this journey: A last chapter

The future is the missing link in every journey. So here’s the question we asked Joey Votto on Sunday:

“Isn’t there a side of you that would love to know how this is going to turn out?”

Just imagine the possibilities.

Maybe the rockets roar off his bat all spring — and it’s impossible for the Blue Jays to put a roster together without him. His shoulder has finally healed. And don’t let his humility mask the confidence he still has that he can do this, at the Hall of Fame standard he has set for himself.

Maybe he winds up playing a lot more than anyone expects. Or maybe a less-is-more, 300-at-bats kind of role is a perfect fit for a talented Blue Jays team that was projected last month by FanGraphs to win the third-most games of any American League team (behind the New York Yankees and Houston Astros).

But if he plays even semi-regularly, an incredibly poetic moment is going to happen this season:

Votto is going to break Larry Walker’s record for most hits by a player born in Canada … while playing for a team in Canada.

Votto goes into this season only 25 hits back. Doesn’t that seem like a plot line that’s practically meant to be, now that he is wearing this uniform?

“I’m not thinking about that,” Votto said when we asked about those possibilities. “OK, I’m not dismissing any of those plot lines or the excitement people may feel with that. But what I’m thinking about is staying healthy, finally being healthy, feeling strong, feeling well and fitting in. It’s so important that I fit in and contribute in whatever way I possibly can, with whatever opportunity I have.”

He has to think that way, of course. The only way to make it to the next opportunity, to make history, is to nail this opportunity. But there’s another side to being Canada’s favorite son, heading off to play baseball in Canada. And Votto has clearly thought about that side, too.

Maybe this doesn’t go well. Maybe this doesn’t end well. Maybe, he said, “I may never play a game for the Toronto Blue Jays. I may never wear a major-league uniform again. But it’s my opportunity to give it a shot.”

So before they committed to giving him this shot, the Blue Jays almost certainly had to have that very conversation with him: If this doesn’t go the way they all hope it goes, is he prepared for that?

And if they did indeed ask those questions, we can assume Votto answered them thoughtfully and realistically — because that’s exactly the way he answered our question: “Isn’t there a side of you that would love to know how this is going to turn out?”

“Yeah, there is, because if it doesn’t turn out optimistically, it’ll hurt,” Votto said. “It’ll hurt in the healthiest of ways. It’ll mean an ending to a lot of things in my adult life. Professionally, it’ll mean a transition in my life. It’ll mean I’ll have a bit of a different identity professionally.

“All my life is built around this. So yeah, if it comes up short, then that means that there will be changes in my life in a lot of ways. Just transitioning away from the Reds was painful. Painful. And if this comes up short, then it’s a transition away from baseball. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But if it does, and it is on the table, then it’ll hurt. But that’s OK.”

He reminded us that we had begun this conversation by talking about the journey. The journey of life. The journey of baseball. That’s a journey full of euphoric possibilities. But that other ending, he knew, was also a possibility.

“Everything comes to an end,” he said. “That’s the cycle. That’s the cycle of life. That’s the cycle of a professional athlete’s career. So for me, it’s getting shorter.

“But that,” said Votto, “is why we agreed I’m lucky. I’m lucky to be here doing this.”



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(Top photo: Jayson Stark / The Athletic)

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