By Bob Elliott
Sporting a smile and a full beard, homegrown sonJoey Votto was inducted into the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame Thursday night.
Will Votto remove the beard by the time he heads to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds, who have a strict policy against facial hair?
“It will be gone before Reds Fest in a month and a half,” said Votto.
Votto didn’t write a speech but spoke from the heart (“if I wind up blowing it, I’m sorry”) thanking three people: his former coach Bob Smyth, now of Ladysmith, B.C., his mother Wendy and his late father, also named Joe.
“This is home, this is where I grew up,” Votto began drawing the first of applause from the sold out crowd at the Old Mill.
Votto won the National League MVP in 2010 which led to winning the Hank Aaron award, the Lou Marsh award as Canada’s athlete of the year, the George Gross sportsman of the year award for having the most impact of any athlete in Toronto, was named third member of Baseball Canada’s Wall of Fame and is a four-time winner of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Tip O’Neill award as Canada’s best player (2010-2013).
Votto interacted with the autograph seekers in the crowd and posed for pictures.
MC Jerry Howarth, who did an excellent job as always, asked Votto after watching a video of himself running onto the field at Great American Ball Park if he has had time to reflect on how far he’s come.
“I’ve had a lot of time off,” Votto said, “so I’ve had a lot of time to think about it.”
Votto injured his quad and didn’t play after July 5. He hit .255 … 59 points below his .314 career average going into the season. He hit 16 doubles, six homers, 23 RBIs and a .799 OPS in 62 games.
“I have steadily felt better,” Votto said after the banquet. He’s working out at the Toronto Athletic Club with former Leafs trainer, Chris “Broadway” Broadhurst.
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Votto thanked Smyth, his Etobicoke Rangers coach.
Smyth “didn’t think much of me when I was 13,” Votto began with the pacing of a David Letterman opening monologue, “he didn’t think much of me when I was 18 when I was drafted … he had a deep seeded need to see do better … and to this day he’s still not impressed.”
Of course it was a good natured jab.
Smyth was a tough coach.
When Votto once mentioned to scout Walt Burrows, head of the Canadian arm of the Major League Scouting Bureau, how much Smyth yelled at him, Burrows replied “he only yells at kids he likes,” Votto responded “well, he must love me.”
And the feeling is mutual as Votto has sent Smyth his first game-worn jersey from his debut with the Reds, his 2009 World Baseball Classic top and flown him from the coast to Cooperstown on Father’s Day to participate in a golf tourney with Hall of Famers like Ozzie Smith and flown him into New York for the all-star game at Citi Field… to name a few of the gestures the former MVP has done to repay his former coach.
“He wasn’t there intentionally for me each day, but he was,” Votto said. “I took advantage of his facility, whatever it was named. I worked at Pro Teach. I took advantage of a beautiful Connorvalle ball park.
“This was not a nice man. He’s a wonderful man, like a father to me, but in terms of baseball instruction, he was very tough, and I was very, very grateful for him.”
Votto spoke to the sandlot coaches in the crowd when he added “all the younger coaches … teach the game properly, it’s the same game at the top.”
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Former Toronto Maple Leaf Mike Walton, Toronto Malboros coach Dan Brown plus golf and curling scribe Bob Weekes were in the class of 2014.
Turk Broda, the former Leafs goalie, Annis Stukus, Grey Cup champ with the Argos and golfer Ben Kern were inducted into the Legends.
Former inductees Barbara Berezowski. ball scribe Lou Cauz, hockey guru Frank Bonello, Woodbine’s Jim Bannon and jockey Sandy Hawley just some of the former inductees in the crowd.
The well-run event, chaired by Joanne Noble drew the likes of the legendary Jimmy (Howie) McKenny andcurrent Etobicoke Rangers coach Whitey Breitner.
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Votto thanked his mother Wendy.
Before the banquet Votto took his Aunt Brenda Votto, cousin Teena Beneteau and others to Via Allegro Ristorante, where mom Wendy works as a sommelier.
Via Allegro has won as many awards as the Big Red Machine did in Cincinnati, according to its web site:
The CAA/AAA Four Diamond Award for culinary excellence and service, the Dine.TO Best Italian restaurant, The Wine Spectator Magazine, NY Grand award, Whisky Magazine, UK.- The Supreme Whisky award, Double Platinum Award, the Global leadership in selection, education and promotion of Malt Whisky; Companions of the Quaich, World’s Best Scotch List; Toronto Life Magazine, top five best in T.O. Spiegelau Grand Passion award; The DiRoNA for outstanding food and service; Golden Glass Award (LCBO) for excellence in wine and spirits; Solid Gold Spoon, first for best risotto in Toronto; Royal Selangor award of excellence; Best Sommelier, Toronto Life; Glenfiddich award, culinary excellence and Miguel Torres Sommelier award, Spain.
“Everyone thinks what of what they have accomplished … 99 out of 100% they did it themselves, when that is not the case,” Votto said. “That’s another instance of me realizing I’m so lucky to be surrounded by people, and my mom is a perfect example.”
He told how while Mom wasn’t there but the server told Votto and his party of his mother’s goals and all the things she does at the restaurant.
“I’m so lucky my mother taught me to work hard, to be diligent,” said Votto, “(The server) described her goals and her achievements. She wants something, she’s going to achieve it. I got that from here and I want to thank her. She doesn’t get enough thanks from me.”
The wine list includes 5,000-5,500 selections, the largest Canadian wine list (450 plus selections, more than 950 Tuscan selections, Piedmonte selection of 450 with 100 Gaja, an Amarone collection of more than 300, 100 selections of Mouton Rothschild from 1893, 85 selections from Chateau Latour, Rhone linears of Guigal, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, California selections including 50 from Dominus, 25 Chateau d’Yquem from 1918 and 100 Ports including 15 by the glass.
And 1,000 Whiskies, including more than 50 selections of Macallan dating back to 1937, more than 200 Grappas, including the complete collection from the prestigious houses of Nonino and Poli, selections of Cognacs and Armagnacs, 100 Ports, more than 100 selections of rum, vodka and ginl 60 Cognacs and Armagnacs; 100 Liqueurs from around the world and 50 Tequilas.
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Denny Berni ran his Pro Teach clinic out of Smyth’s Etobicoke Baseball Centre when Votto showed up in 2000 as a grade 11 student. Votto was there every night after school and on weekends with Mark Capone and Warren Bradley.
“He was there so often, Bobby put in a locker for Joey upstairs,” Berni said. “When I first saw Joey he was a big strong kid. He was cordial, a nice guy. No one knew he was going to be this great.”
Every day after school … grade 12 too … grade 13 too.
Berni had read how Baltimore OriolesCal Ripken could place a ball on a batting tee at home plate and hit the ball out of the park. One night in May of 2002 at Connorvale Park he arrived to see Votto doing the same.
“I said to Bobby that’s ridiculous power, not every major leaguer has that kind of power,” Berni said. “And he had a ridiculous work ethic.”
Votto played with the Etobicoke, then the Canadian Thunderbirds and returned to the Rangers for his draft year.
Berni took his Pro Teach team with Votto to Pompano Beach Fla. for March break playing in rickety yard where Pete Incaviglia of the Texas Rangers once hit a ball through the decaying wooden fence in left.
“Joey hit balls out to right, the guy who ran the place was the son-in-law of Fred Feriera, who worked for the Florida Marlins,” Berni said. “I told Fred, who had been involved on the New York Yankees signing Bernie Williams “this kid is here is the real deal.’”
The next March Berni returned … with an I told you so message: John Castlebury of the Reds fell in love with Votto’s swing at a showcase in Fort Myers, Fla and took Votto in the second round giving him a $650,000 bonus.
The Reds made Votto Canada’s highest-paid salaried athlete with a 10-year $248 contract extension.
“For us, people who live in Etobicoke this is a big deal, the highest-paid athlete from Canada lives right here in the winter,” said Berni. “He came to one of Greg O’Halloran’s bantam game this summer at Queensway Park during the all-star break. The Royal York kids can’t stop talking about it.
“Every where you go in Etobicoke people talk about Joey Votto.”
* * *
Votto thanked his late father.
How his father gave him a bat for his eighth birthday. How they lived on Lakeshore (where he now has a place, along with his home in Sarasota), how they moved to Oakville for a few years (“but the restaurant my parents tired didn’t work out”) and how they moved back to Etobicoke.
He told of playing catch every night with his father after school … “every single day.”
“He was the beginning of my baseball, I’m not sure I got a lot out of it baseball wise,” Votto said, “but family wise it was a daily connection and it was so important.”
There wasn’t any rustling or turning of papers as he spoke answering questions from Howarth at the start and again at the end.
“I thought it would be a pretty good idea to wing it, kind of come out of nowhere with it,” said Votto. “I thought it would be appropriate to just talk to my people, just have a conversation.”
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Dante Berni, five, woke up Friday to a copy of the excellent Etobicoke Hall of Fame program.
“Dante used to have a Fat Head of Joey on his wall until we re-did the house,” said Berni Thursday night, “wait until he opens the program to see a picture of Joey in the batting cage wearing a blue Pro Teach jersey.”
Just like the one Dante wears.
Berni told Dante on Friday he’d seen Votto the night before. Dante flashed the Ranger E and asked “he was Ranger, right dad?”
Right you are Dante.
Berni, who has two other children, Emily, eight and baby Faith, one, signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1990 and played in 204 games with the rookie-class Gulf Coast Red Sox, class-A Elmira and class-A Lynchburg, playing with future major leaguers like Scott Hatteberg, Aaron Sele, Jim Byrd, Alex Delgado, Gar Finnvold, Cory Bailey, Erik Plantenberg, Frankie Rodriguez andTim Van Egmond.
”Everyone knows the story,” he says, “Joey played for Bloordale house league, didn’t play triple-A. He was never the best guy for his age group. He got where he is by hard work.”
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Howarth, an Etobicoke senior high school basketball coach brought in at great expense (he works home games for free, as he prepares for a return to the Baseball Canada banquet in January) asked Votto if any particular player had helped him in his eight years in the majors.
He namedScott Rolen, Votto’s locker mate in Cincinnati.
“There are a two kinds of ball players,” Votto said. “Prima donna superstars, guys in the middle you can take or leave … and grinders that could have been hockey players, guys that play hurt, no excuses, I’m going to play and perform no matter what and you’re going to have to take me out.
Rolen played hurt.
Votto played hurt.
“A valuable lesson I learned fromChase Utley and Scott was ‘that you can NOT come out of a game until you affect your team negatively or they take you out, that’s the rule, so you’ve got to keep playing,’” Votto said. “Scott Rolen was tough on me. I learned a lot from him. I know he played here and I’m not sure how much of a following he had, but I hope that one day he’s in the Hall of Fame.”
Asked how he handled his fame Votto joked about “the mean things” said about him on Twitter.
In Bob Symth’s day social media meant going to the Seaway Hotel on the Lakeshore for a post-game beer with Ted Reeve of the Toronto Telegram or Neil MacCarl of the Toronto Star and Blue Jays right-hander Jim Clancy or Argos quarterback Tobin Rote.
Votto told Howarth how much he enjoyed the evening.
“I had not idea how big a deal this is,” Votto said. “It was very humbling.”
Votto said he was amazed when he opened the program to see ‘hey this guy is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, this guy made six all-star teams,” and on and on.
And down the road another ball player will pick up a program and be amazed that he’s in the same program as Votto.
Inductees: Dan Brown, Joey Votto, Mike Walton, Bob Weekes.
Legends: Turk Broda, Annis Stukus, Ben Kern.
Humber College scholarships: Johnny Sheridan, Kateryna Teplo, Brittany Verge, Katherine White.
Special Olympics: Carlea Wilkie-Ellis, Stephen Graham.
Jack Dominico scholarships: Tamara Chackeris, Gabriel Lopez.
George Gross media award: Zach McRae.