December 21, 2010
Votto wins inaugural QMI Agency male athlete of year
By DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency
No one can truly know the strength of the demons Joey Votto had to battle in the summer of 2009.
Dealing with depression, an angry and debilitating disease, and overwhelming anxiety issues, the Cincinnati Reds first baseman was forced to temporarily step away from baseball to put his life, which was spinning out of control, back together.
Brought on by the death of his father the year previous, the experience, Votto has said in the past, was "totally overwhelming" and threatened to derail his career.
So no one would have been surprised if Votto's upward trajectory with the Reds -- his progression from big-league prospect to budding superstar -- had plateaued in 2010.
But, incredibly, one season removed from what was likely the hardest-fought battle of his life, the 27-year-old Toronto native instead launched himself through the baseball stratosphere.
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Votto's MVP performance, particularly coming on the heels of an illness that has shattered the lives of countless people, earned him enough votes to edge out Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews, who doubled up as Olympic and Stanley Cup champ, as the QMI Agency Canadian male athlete of the year for 2010.
"To have come back and played at that level is miraculous," said Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame president and CEO Tom Valcke. "To come back and win MVP, that's just beyond reason. It really is amazing."
Votto had a season that ranks among the best ever by a Canadian major leaguer, becoming a near-unanimous selection as the National League's most-valuable player. He is just the third Canadian to win one of the most prestigious awards in the game.
"I would say I'm more proud of myself off the field than on," Votto told QMI Agency. "I won the MVP, I won the Canadian athlete of the year. I won a ton of amazing awards -- Hank Aaron Award, I know I'm missing a few -- but I'm proud of myself off the field. It was a very difficult year for me in 2009 and 2008 was worse, I lost my father (in '08). I'm young and it took me time to recover from it. Everybody's different and I reacted the only way I knew how to react.
"This year was definitely progress. It was hell the last couple years but this year was progress. I feel the progress I made off the field, with my life, was way more important than what I did on the field."
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When asked about Votto and his impact on the Canadian baseball landscape now that he has joined Larry Walker and Justin Morneau in the ultra-exclusive MVP club, Valcke begins with an anecdote that goes back to the early 2000's.
Valcke and the late Tom Burgess, a former big-league player, coach and manager who was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, were speaking at a fund-raiser for Mel Oswald's ball team, the Canadian Thunderbirds, of which Votto is an alum. When things were winding down, a young man approached him and wanted to talk ball.
"A kid came up and started firing questions at me," Valcke said. "I told him I could talk all day about (baseball) but he had a better resource in Tommy Burgess. This kid peppered Burgess, it went on for well over an hour.
"The place had cleared out and there were only three of us left: me, Burgess and the kid. That kid was Joey Votto. Did I think he was going to make it, win the MVP? No, how could you know. But if there was knowledge there, he was going to grab what he could."
Three full seasons into his major league career, Votto has parlayed that knowledge, those words of advice, and an incredible work ethic to become one of the best in the game.
"I don't think anything ever just falls into place," Votto said. "It took a lot of effort and a lot of energy. Things were difficult for me in the past. I think being on a team that won the Central helped me, I think being lucky enough to compete against (St. Louis Cardinals first baseman) Albert Pujols, the best player in our sport, helped. I felt like this year was the first year I really started to come into my own.
"Players take time to progress and improve and I felt like this was the first year where I played to near my full potential."
Votto finished 2010 with a .324 average, 37 home runs and 113 RBI, numbers good enough to earn 31 of 32 first-place votes in MVP balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Pujols, considered one of the game's greats and two-time defending MVP, was runner-up, garnering one first-place vote.
It was, in a word, a landslide victory for Votto.
During a conference call with members of the BBWAA, Votto admitted he was shocked at the voting, adding, "It's pretty frickin' awesome to beat Albert Pujols for the MVP."
"I had to watch my mouth," Votto said, only half in jest. "I would have said something else if I had the opportunity. Yeah, it was awesome, man. The guy's won back to back and he was about to win the third straight. It would have been the fourth (of his career). C'mon, the guy's pretty badass."
Some day, an up-and-coming young Canadian with big-league hopes in his heart might say the same thing about beating Votto for a major award.
There's no question, Valcke says, that Votto being named MVP will have an effect on baseball in this country. He's seen in happen before, when Walker won the N.L. award in 1997 and Morneau was named American League MVP in 2006.
"There is a direct impact," Valcke said. "There's always been a direct correlation between what is going on at the top and what's going on at the (grassroots level)."
To know how much the MVP award means to Votto, one simply needs to hear him talk about his reaction when he found out he won. His voice wavers ever so slightly when he mentions how he would have liked to share it with the one person he couldn't, his father Joseph, who died in August 2008.
"Not to be dramatic but after I was told (about the MVP award) I couldn't help but cry because of how much something like this means to me and would have meant to my father," Votto said. "I had a really difficult time getting over the death of my father. It's still difficult for me sometimes now. It's hard when you lose someone in your life who means so much."
The death of his father was so profound, Votto needed to get away from baseball for a month during the 2009 season. He was experiencing panic attacks that forced him to leave three games. Those emotional issues resulted in two trips to the hospital and, eventually, the Reds put him on the disabled list due to what the team said was stress.
The game, his career, was barely an afterthought for much of that time on the DL.
"It didn't even cross my mind, baseball," he said. "Let me take that back. I missed being with the team, and I missed the routine, I missed doing what I enjoy doing, but I think that at the time I was more focused on myself."
Votto has gotten more exposure north of the border over the last two months than he has in the eight years since the Reds made him a second-round draft pick. In addition to winning the MVP, he was the recipient of the N.L. Hank Aaron Award as the league's best hitter; won the Tip O'Neill Award handed out annually by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame; and copped the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's athlete of the year, beating out a handful of Olympians.
For a private -- and genuinely humble, rare in many professional athletes at the height of fame -- guy like Votto, the increased attention that goes along with reaching a new level of stardom might become too much to take. Votto, still the kid from suburban Etobicoke who lights up at the mention of his former high school or one of the teams he played for as a child, doesn't see that happening, even though he is becoming one of Canada's most familiar sporting faces.
"In Cincinnati, I can't imagine being more recognized," Votto explained. "I walk around everywhere and people recognize me and that's a tremendous complement. But if I can handle Cincinnati, I think I can handle the other cities. I live in Florida and I live around senior citizens and no one gives a s*** who I am. And then I go to Toronto and everybody cares about the Leafs and the Raptors, there's nobody would know who I am. If they do, I know the Canadian fans would be polite and respect my space.
"There's some people that really want to be recognized and be known and want the attention. I'm not one of those guys."