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On Joey Votto moving on from the Cincinnati Reds

The former MVP and face of the franchise had his option declined over the weekend, rendering him a free agent for the first time.

Cincinnati Reds v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

As a young pup down in Lexington, I first began to watch Cincinnati Reds baseball right around the time they slayed the giant that was the 1990 Oakland A’s to claim the fifth World Series title in franchise history. And while that seems like a lifetime ago, the timing of it becomes even more relevant when you consider it was merely 14 years after the back to back titles taken home by the Big Red Machine.

Those two championship clubs were not so far removed by today’s standards. Some 33 years later and the Reds are still wading through baseball purgatory, barely sniffing the playoffs since that ‘90 club and doing almost nothing in the few chances they’ve accrued.

When the Reds chose not to pick up Joey Votto’s option over the weekend - doing so with language that made it sound like any renegotiation to return on a new one in 2024 was thoroughly moot - they ended a relationship that spanned back some 21 years. Votto was drafted in the 2nd round back in 2002 and spent his entire career, to date, with the franchise, appearing at the big league level in at least 24 games in every year since 2007.

His rise marked the first true rise of the club in what ended up being 15 years, his MVP campaign in 2010 spearheading a Reds club that would go on to win NL Central crowns in 2 out of 3 years and make the playoffs in 3 out of 4 years, packing in 97 wins during what had all the makings of a historic 2012 season before both he, and ace Johnny Cueto, picked up back-breaking injuries. I think it goes without saying that should we all be gifted the opportunity to still be around for hindsight in 20 years, we’ll point to that 2012 season as both the high point for that era of Reds baseball and the high point of Joey’s career, pre-injury.

I’m going to pivot here a bit. This piece was neither meant to be a full-on Votto retrospective (we’ll get to that at some point later) or a basic lesson in even more basic math. Rather, it was me talking myself into a realization about why the Reds cutting ties with Votto felt like a kick to the shins on Saturday despite knowing full well there was never a world in which his option would be picked up by this iteration of the Reds.

Dating myself a bit reveals that following the Reds in the 1990-1995 era meant flipping though box scores when the newspaper was finished being read by my parents in the morning. It meant watching the standings change there as the sun rose, catching games on radio through Marty and Joe, and riding with the family the hour north to Riverfront a time or four during the summer to catch games first hand - trips that included the requisite stop in Latonia to see my very-Irish great aunts for a cold coke in a bottle and to hear the giant wooden clock tick.

The post-1995 Reds fell on their face more often than not for years, but at least that era coincided with the rise of ESPN and SportsCenter. You’d get highlights each night, you had Peter Gammons on Baseball Tonight and Web Gems, and the Reds - semi-close to being champions and relevance at that time - would even pop up on Sunday Night Baseball with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan every now and then. You could begin to track their efforts from outside the ballpark in almost real-time, for once, even if it took tuning in on your boxy TV at precisely the right time to get the updates.

By the time Joey Votto began crushing his way High-A Sarasota - their spring training home used to be in Florida, you’ll recall - I was reading about it on the internet whenever the hell I wanted, which was often. I was reading about Votto and Cueto, Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce, Jung Bong and Jon Coutlangus and Chris Dickerson. Matt Belisle! Norris Hopper! Paul Janish, Ryan Hanigan, and Logan Ondrusek!

RedsZone emerged, as did Redleg Nation and a little place called Red Reporter during that crew’s time in the minors. Joey Votto as a Cincinnati Reds stalwart coincided almost precisely with the entire existence of this here website, and he - and that crew - were the catalyst for the optimism that led me here in the first place. The Reds had youngsters I wanted to read about again, finally, and there was a growing medium that allowed me to read about them all day, every day, their every plate appearance at every level just a click away.

When a player who was the best player, the most critiqued player on every team he played for has that kind of run, it becomes a must-consume portion of the day for anyone who’s tasking themselves with covering said teams. And given how many damn days the baseball world is active during the course of a calendar year between the hot stove, spring training, the regular season, and the playoffs, I can’t begin to quantify the number of times my brain has just started spinning tidbits of Votto’s career and accomplishments that turned into articles that were basically complete before I could spit them out through my fingers into the keyboard.

No other player has had that kind of longevity since I’ve been here. You have to be really, really good at baseball to stick around that long and get that many opportunities in the first place, and that’s just how good he was for that stint. And while I know he’s not the best option for the 2024 Reds at 1B or DH in all likelihood, his absence means I’ve lost the connection with how I followed baseball before him. That’s me, being selfish, as why his name not being on the roster at right now has me grumbling like a man whose favorite diner stopped serving bacon.

I’ll get over that, I think. It’s high time I started getting to know players better by the ways they market and improve themselves these days anyway, through swing videos and Driveline workouts and exit velocities and not merely the splits breakdowns on FanGraphs that brought up the Votto Era crew.

For the record, there were 44 players who played on the 2010 Reds who won their division, 38 who appeared for the 2012 club that did the same. Only two so much as appeared in a big league game during the 2023 season - Joey Votto and Aroldis Chapman, and to hell with the latter of those two. If Votto does choose to hang up his boots after all of this, well, that’s a final link to that era that breaks for good - and following this team, covering this team, will be different than it’s ever been before.