Votto will wait to decide on return

Published 9:50 pm Thursday, September 28, 2023

Cincinnati Reds’ Joey Votto acknowledges the crowd as he stands at home plate during the second inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Cincinnati, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Reds fans feted Joey Votto during Cincinnati’s final regular-season home game as if they don’t expect to see him back next spring.

When Votto approached the plate for the first time Sunday, the 17-year veteran was nearly brought to tears by an unexpected and extended standing ovation.

He turned in a circle to take it all in, raising his batting helmet to acknowledge the adoration of the 31,191 patrons. Home plate umpire Mark Wegner held up play to give him an extra minute to enjoy it.

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“I could have soaked that in forever,” Votto said.

That doesn’t mean he’s made a decision about calling it a career, though.

Whether Votto calls it quits after this season depends on whether Cincinnati still wants him around, and whether his surgically repaired shoulder will allow him to continue as a productive player at 40 years old.

He says he’ll think about it later. The upstart Reds still have a shot at an NL wild card with four games left in the season.

Coming to the end of a long contract, Cincinnati’s favorite athlete — well, maybe he’s tied with that other Joey who plays quarterback for the Bengals — could return to the Reds with a restructured deal and a lower salary.

His contract includes a $7 million buyout, and he could take that and then sign with another team. Or, he could retire.

With a bounty of young talent brought to the majors this year, the Reds are unlikely to pick up Votto’s $20 million club option for 2024.

Playing elsewhere seems unlikely given the love affair between Votto and the city where he debuted as a big leaguer in September 2007.

What comes after baseball for Votto? With his offbeat, outgoing personality, he’ll have options.

He’s said he wants to be a school bus driver, although with Votto, it’s never certain how serious he is. He’s also recently branched into theater, recording a part as “The French Narrator” in a youth edition of “The SpongeBob Musical” running this fall at The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati.

But Votto hasn’t said if he’s ready for that next chapter yet.

The 2010 NL MVP and a potential Hall of Famer, Votto still plays a sharp first base and has some pop left in his bat.

But he hasn’t been much help at the plate after coming back midseason from surgery on his left shoulder to repair a torn rotator cuff and torn biceps. He’s hitting .203 with 14 homers in 63 games.

He’s provided intangible value to the club, though. He’s acted as mentor and advisor to the record-breaking group of rookies who have lifted the Reds back into contention following a disastrous 100-loss season in 2022.

“I wonder if when his career is all said and done, if he doesn’t look back at this year and be most proud of this season that he has had for us,” Reds manager David Bell said. “I really believe he’ll look back and feel really proud of himself. I hope he does. He has given everything he has to our team.”

Votto had a career resurgence in 2021, slugging 36 homers and driving in 99 runs, inspiring a line of “Joey Votto Still Bangs” T-shirts still selling in Reds country.

But his 2022 season ended prematurely with the shoulder operation. He didn’t make it back to the Reds until June 19 and was on the injured list with shoulder soreness again from Aug. 24 to Sept. 10.

“The injury last year was very difficult and coming back from it was not easy, and it’s a process,” he said. “But I’m proud I didn’t cut any corners. I played every day with the combination of intensity and preparation. This is the very best I can do, given what challenges have been presented to me and this stage of my career.”

Votto said he’ll give some more thought to his future after the season.

“I don’t know. I’m just going to keep playing, then stop (at the end of the season), and then we’ll see,” he said. “A ‘we’ll see’ sort of thing. We’re having a great time right now.”

On Sunday, Votto struck out twice and was hit by a pitch before banging a base hit to center field in his last at-bat in the 4-2 Reds win over the Pirates. When he was removed for a pinch runner, the crowd stood and roared again, chanting his name until he came out of the dugout for a curtain call.

“He inspires a lot of people,” 26-year-old Reds second baseman Jonathan India said. “He’s taught me a lot along the way. A lot of people think he’s done. He’s not done. I hope to see him in a Reds uniform next year.”