Joey Votto goes back home to the Toronto city park that forged him into MLB star – The Athletic

TORONTO — At the end of a cul-de-sac, a 15-minute ride west on the GO Train from Toronto’s Union Station downtown, lies what Joey Votto calls “sacred” ground.

Votto’s been gone a long time, absent from Manchester Park so long that the line of seven pine trees that separate the park from the duplexes on Burlington Street in the Mimico neighborhood of Etobicoke weren’t there when he remembers playing in this park. They now tower over the two-story homes, 25-30 feet high.

But some things never change, and some memories never fade.

“Right here,” he said as he squatted in a catcher’s crouch at the exact spot where his father once planted his feet, day after day. When Votto says it, he looks over to the small hill where he’d stand, pitching off a natural mound to his father, and smiles.

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Votto squats down at the spot where his father used to catch him. (C. Trent Rosecrans / The Athletic)

It’s the smile of a time and place long past. The smile of familiarity and comfort. It is the smile of time with those no longer with us. It is the smile of being at peace, of being at home, back in his old neighborhood, back in the park where he spent so much time.

Before Votto, now 38, journeyed to Toronto’s Rogers Centre for what may be the last time in his Hall of Fame career this weekend, he returned to Manchester Park, where he was forged as a baseball player decades before. Manchester Park is a green space with two parks connected by a small wooded path running beside the tracks of a metropolitan commuter train. It is just 11 kilometers — and two train stops — from the Rogers Centre. It is in that park where a young Joey Votto dreamed of playing down the road for his beloved Toronto Blue Jays. It’s where the young Joey Votto would stand and pitch to his father, Joseph, nearly every day from when he was 9 to when he was 12 or 13.

“He would love to catch the ball,” Votto said of his father, his smile coming through again in the timbre of his voice.

The time away has changed many things. The Blue Goose Tavern down the road, in business for more than 60 years, is being redeveloped into condos; the painting on the side of the three-story building still offers the outline of a goose and the reminders that it was once the only pub to win four categories of the Etobicoke’s Guardian’s Reachers Choice Awards for best pool hall, best wines, best sports bar and best pub.

Home prices in the once-blue-collar neighborhood are far, far higher than they were when Votto was growing up here. There are apartment complexes on the other side of Manchester Tennis Courts, the place where Votto would occasionally play tennis as a kid and then street hockey in the winter when the nets came down. Now young people walk their purebreds in the park; this past week, a Schnauzer named Bonsi chased down a tennis ball on the same grass where Votto once did much the same.

A young Joey would stand atop a small hill. Joseph Votto would squat, some distance less than 60 feet, 6 inches away, on the other side of a paved walkway that leads to the tennis courts.

Joey would pitch to his dad. It was their time together, just the two of them.

“He loved the precision of it, he loved that I got better,” Votto said. “He loved being a part of the process. He enjoyed getting into a crouch. He enjoyed calling pitches. He enjoyed watching his son get stronger, more athletic and more precise.”

At 13, the younger Votto’s elbow started hurting. He gave up pitching.

“It was actually probably the best thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Votto said. “And at the time, it was a disaster, because my father, it meant so much to him, me pitching that I basically told him I couldn’t pitch anymore because of my elbow.”

His dad didn’t want to give it up. Reflecting on that, Joey thinks his dad, who died in 2008 — after his son’s big-league debut but before he became the National League Most Valuable Player or established himself as one of the greats in the history of the game’s oldest team — enjoyed it as much, or maybe even more than he did.

Joseph Votto would egg on his son to try again, to give pitching a go. But every time Joey tried to pitch, his elbow hurt.

“Whether it was because I was growing or I was throwing too hard for my age — I wasn’t throwing terribly hard, but maybe my body didn’t have the ability to handle it,” Votto said. “It was right in my elbow.”

It was then that Joey Votto, right-handed pitcher, turned into Joey Votto, left-handed hitter, and the rest was history.

Still, it’s that image of the park at the end of the cul-de-sac that Votto counts as dear to his heart as any place in the world. Votto has had a painting commissioned of the site.

Talking about Toronto as he returned this week for what may be the final time in his storied career — he has one guaranteed year left on his contract, and the Reds may not return in that time — it’s easy to hear the pride Votto has in his hometown. He’s excited to hear his teammates and players from other teams compliment him on the city. The Reds, as a whole, were seemingly gushing about the place all week. Air Canada, which just re-started its nonstop flight from CVG to Toronto’s Pearson Airport, would be wise to capitalize on the newfound Canadaphiles who inhabit Great American Ball Park.

Driving to the ballpark from his offseason home west of downtown before the weekend series — where he played the hero in Sunday’s game, calling his shot for the go-ahead home run in a 3-2 victory — Votto said he got goosebumps as he drove in. His childhood home is about halfway between his current home and the ballpark. He stopped there Friday on his way.

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Votto was all smiles in the ninth inning Sunday at the Rogers Centre, shortly after hitting the go-ahead homer. (Cole Burston / Getty Images)

From Mimico to Rogers Centre by way of the Gardiner Expressway that runs along the shore of Lake Ontario, Votto pointed out the tennis club where his father worked as a chef and then toward the islands across from the Rogers Centre where his father later worked. As part of his father’s contract with the yacht club, Joey and his younger brother Tyler, had sailing lessons every summer. The two would come downtown with their father and every day, he’d see the Rogers Centre (then SkyDome) where the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in his childhood.

He didn’t have a favorite player from those teams, although his dad’s favorite was Tony Fernández, the slick-fielding shortstop who was part of the trade that brought Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to Toronto, but then returned to Toronto in 1993, winning the World Series.

For Joey, it was really the entire team. He can go through the lineup of that 1993 team: Rickey Henderson, Devon White, Paul Molitor, Carter, John Olerud, Alomar, Fernández, Ed Sprague, Pat Borders.

“I remember sitting in the upper section and taking in the game and there’s something about a Toronto spring and summer, I felt it driving in, it’s so refreshing to pay your dues all winter and all of a sudden the sun kicks and blue skies,” Votto said this past week. “I remember experiencing a beautiful day and getting to play baseball. It’s the exact same stadium I’m in now. I feel very much like I’m a kid still.”

Memories are strange that way, the smallest things — the way the sun hits, a scent, the whistle of the robins flying in and out of the buckeye trees that marked the entrance to the park.

It was by those buckeye trees, where the ground leveled out, that he’d stand as he made his brother Tyler, five years younger, go out day after day and throw him Wiffle balls. Votto would save up money to buy buckets of used Wiffle balls.

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The buckeye trees in Manchester Park. (C. Trent Rosecrans / The Athletic)

“I would drag him outside and hit buckets and buckets of Wiffle balls every day off of him every day in the spring and summer,” Votto said. “And he fucking hated it. Hated it. He would throw balls and it was really good batting practice and I would just hit. I smashed balls and break the balls and then have to buy new ones or just hit the broken ones. I would just keep hitting for years and years and years.”

Tyler Votto would complain all the time about his brother’s demands. “He would cry about it and I made him do it,” Joey Votto said.

Looking back, Votto is both amused and appreciative that his little brother would always throw to him.

“I remember telling him, ‘c’mon if you do this, I’ll buy you a car one day,’” Votto said. “Yeah, I’ve bought him cars, but that was a lie. That was a blatant lie. I didn’t think about that. I was just like, ‘throw the flippin’ ball.’”

It was this place, now with more trees but no less life, that shaped Votto. It was here that he fell in love with the game, playing the game, throwing, hitting — all of it.

On this sunny day, Votto’s SUV is parked in the cul-de-sac and he walks over to his old house and looks up. It’s on the left side of the duplex, two stories with a doorway and then a big window downstairs. On the second floor are a pair of windows. Votto points up at the window on the right, that was his room. As easily as he could look out and see the train, he could hear it and feel it. One westbound every half-hour during the day and another eastbound every half-hour.

As he tells of the way the sound of the train didn’t bother him, but soothed him, he chuckles. His current house, like this one, is close to a train station and abuts a park. He said he hadn’t thought about it until then, but it’s a setup he’s comfortable with, that makes him feel at ease. As much as we can sometimes try to get away from where we grew up, we always carry that place with us. And here, it’s a park with the sounds of kids from the adjacent school playing during recess. It is, simply, home.

(Top photo: C. Trent Rosecrans / The Athletic)