TORONTO - You can take the boy out of Toronto.
But you can’t take Toronto out of the young man.
Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds has played 456 games in the majors, 711 in the minors and hundreds on area sandlots.
His most memorable game?
Playing for the Bloordale Bombers and beating Martingrove in the Etobicoke playoffs as a 13-year-old.
Now, 14 years later, Joey Votto — National League MVP — is the 2010 winner of the seventh annual George Gross/Toronto Sun Sportsman of the Year award.
The honour goes to the athlete adjudged to have had the most impact on the Toronto sports scene.
Votto was with the Billings Mustangs when Jim Paduch threw a no-hitter to beat the Odgen Raptors and win the rookie-class Pioneer League championship in 2003.
He was watching when Reds teammate Jay Bruce hit a walk-off homer to clinch the NL Central Division on Sept. 28.
Surely those games must loom larger in Votto’s memory bank than playing Martingrove?
“We won the championship in Billings, but beating Martingrove was better,” Votto said from Sarasota, Fla. “I’d be pretty disrespectful to put a game which we clinched a playoff berth second ... but beating Martingrove was better.”
Back in the mid-1990s, a Bloordale-Martingrove match would be off the boards in Vegas.
Votto estimates that “if we played them 20 times over three years, they mercied us probably 18 times. A moral victory was when Bloordale played the whole game, without the game being stopped due to a lopsided run differential.
“They’d kill us,” Votto said. “I remember pitching and crying on themound down 17-1.”
Martingrove, with Mark Capone and Warren Bradley at the helm, wound up as provincial champions.
“We were like the Bad News Bears,” Votto said.
Unlike the movie, however, the Toronto double-elimination championship had a different outcome for the Bloordale nine that day at Centennial Park as Mike Anderson’s two-run liner in the sixth inning was the winning hit.
“We beat Martingrove. It was as if we won the World Series,” Votto said. “I struck out the last hitter in a 15-14 win. That’s my favourite moment.”
The coaches even took the team to McDonald’s to celebrate.
Votto, who has a treasure chest of Etobicoke memories, made some for Reds fans winning the National League MVP award last month as his No. 19 jersey became the top seller at Ohio souvenir stands.
The Toronto Sun will donate $1,000 in Votto’s name to the charity of his choice. His choice will be amateur ball in Etobicoke.
The impact slugger continues to make an impact on his old diamonds. Votto wants the monies used for underprivileged kids to register, repair rundown equipment or reduce costs in some way.
“I can remember not being able to afford things I needed for baseball,” Votto said.
Votto was told he beat out Jose Bautista, who hit 54 homers for the Blue Jays to lead the American League, for the Gross Award.
They met backstage at the World Series in Arlington Tex., along with commissioner Bud Selig and Hank Aaron, before they were presented with the trophy bearing Aaron’s name as the top offensive players in their respective leagues.
“I got along with Jose,” Votto said. “It’s not like he was from Seattle or California. I was able to ask him about the city, my city, the park, the fans. He had nothing but good things to say about Toronto.”
Votto also beat out all the local amateurs, all the local pros with the Maple Leafs, Jays and Raptors.
“Even Hedo Turkoglu?” Votto said with a laugh of the former Raptor. “I know he holds a special place in the hearts of Raptors fans.”
Votto said to win any award “is awesome, but it’s pretty fantastic to win an award from the city I grew up in, unbelievable.”
“No disrespect to the city of Cincinnati and our loyal fans, but making the front page or sports section cover in Toronto is something for a Toronto kid. People mailed my pages from the Sun and others.
“Anything from Toronto means a lot to me.”
Then Votto tells a story, which we were personally involved in, although we don’t remember a thing about it.
“I remember e-mailing you to get Richview Collegiate ranked in the paper amongst high school teams,” Votto said. “It meant a lot to our team, when we finally were ranked.”
Wendy and Joe Votto Sr. signed their son up for ball with Queensway in Etobicoke as a 9-year-old, playing at the Queensway and Royal York diamond.
The next year, he played for Kingsway at Kingsway Field at Islington and Bloor, then Bloordale from ages 11 to 13 at Mill Road and Bloor.
Steve Plumley, along with Vince Campanelli and Rick Anderson, who both had children on the team, coached Bloordale.
Frank Campanelli, Vince’s son, e-mailed Plumley: “We played ball and video games with Joey. Now look what’s he’s done.”
Bloordale, Votto said, is where “I learned to love the game with a whole array of kids.” Kids with money, kids with little money and kids in between.
When Bloordale practised, Plumley would load 20 balls into the pitching machine. Each hitter had a bucket. Votto always wanted a second round.
“I’d say: ‘You pick ’em up and I’ll feed the machine.’ And he said: ‘I have to conserve my energy,’ ” Plumley said.
Plumley remembers Votto asking: “Will I make the major leagues?” The coach his fingers and answered yes. Years later he admits “I had no idea.”
Plumley recalls listening to a game at double-A Chattanooga in 2006 and the announcer said: “I saw the most remarkable thing I’d seen in my 20 years in the game when a player boarded the bus for a six-hour trip ... wearing a sports jacket.”
It was Votto.
After his appearance in the Futures Game, Votto sent Plumley an autographed picture of him in uniform with the words: “If there’s a better coach out there I haven’t met him.”
Plumley asked Votto: “Didn’t you mean this for Bobby Smyth?”
When the Reds were in Toronto last year Votto went golfing with Plumley.
Votto has brought his former coach to tears on a few occasions:
n Hitting a homer before a sold-out Rogers Centre crowd for Team Canada against Team USA to cap a four-hit day in 2009.
n Giving his old coach a player-of -the-week watch he’d won in ’09 after hitting 10 doubles and a homer in a five-game span. “Hadn’t been done in the NL since 1932,” Plumley said.
n Hitting a three-run homer June 29 in Cincinnati — with Plumley and Anderson sitting in the stands behind home plate — with two-out in the bottom of the ninth off Brad Lidge to force extras.
Anderson had moved to Nashville and made the five-hour drive for the game.
The next day, Plumley had to leave for the airport after five innings. Votto homered in the sixth against Roy Halladay.
“I was in the cab and could hear the fireworks,” said Plumley, who reached the airport to discover his Air Canada flight was cancelled.
Plumley took Votto’s watch to a jewellery store at Sherway Gardens to get the strap sized correctly. Four links had to be removed at a cost of $9.
It would be ready in 10 minutes.
Plumley went for a coffee and, when he re-entered, the sales lady, after reading Votto’s name on the watch, said in a fairly loud voice asked: “Why do you have Joey Votto’s watch?”
Plumley explained the coaching connection and the lady said: “What a class act by Joey Votto. There will be no charge for removing the links.”
Only in the big smoke of Toronto?
Anderson and Plumley each donate $50 towards the Parkinson’s Society of Canada for each of Votto’s homers. Plumley was diagnosed in February of ’08.
Next season, Votto will match the donation.
Plumley wrote his councillor asking that either Connorvale or Bloordale field be renamed after Votto. He hasn’t heard back.
From Bloordale, Votto moved to the Etobicoke Rangers and legendary coach Bob Smyth.
“Bob was no nonsense,” Votto said. “He was always there to talk to, to scream at us. He learned the game from people who passed it on down to him. It worked for me.
“I had fun at Bloordale. With the Rangers, I took it seriously. I didn’t want to go to school, I wanted to play pro.”
Votto played for Mel Oswald’s Canadian Thunderbirds in Grade 12.
“It was a big benefit to play that many games against American teams, removing the ignorance I had how they were so much better,” Votto said.
“That helped my confidence. Everything I learned about hitting I learned from Bobby.”
He returned to Etobicoke for Grade 13 and the Reds phoned Votto in drama class in 2002 telling him that if he agreed to sign for $550,000 US, they’d take him in the second round.
Reds scout John Castleberry, who saw Votto at Perfect Game and TeamOne Showcases in Florida, arrived at 8:30 p.m., on draft night. Smyth screamed at Votto for agreeing to a below market deal.
Another Smyth pupil, Greg O’Halloran, a former Blue Jays minor-leaguer, who played with the Florida Marlins, also thought Votto should sign for more.
“Greg had helped me when I was trying to learn how to catch,” Votto recalled.
“He came over that night and got me $50,000 extra ... and I’m not paying him back. He swooped in to help, but I’m not giving him a dime.”
The Reds bumped their offer to $600,000 and Votto signed, providing a lifetime of good-natured barbs between Votto and O’Halloran.
We’ve written about Smyth before and how he nutured Votto’s game.
But Votto’s diamond roots go back further to the mighty Bloordale Bombers.
So, coaches Plumley, Anderson and Campanelli should take a bow, too.
“Honest to God, they were such a huge help,” said the best player Toronto has ever produced. “Steve and Rick always drove me because my parents were both working and I couldn’t take the subway in those days.
“I don’t even know if I’d be still playing if it wasn’t for them.”
As the late George Gross might have ended this one: Well said by a true Toronto sportsman with a long memory.