Christian Encarnacion-Strand clubbed a homer into left-center with one out in the Bottom of the 8th inning on Sunday, in the process giving the Cincinnati Reds an insurance run that, after recent implosions, felt as vital as any they’d had all season. A 4-2 lead was then had, and after the next batter up singled up the middle, Reds manager David Bell sent the speedy Stu Fairchild out as a pinch runner - as one does in that situation, of course.
The nuance of it all was quite different, however. The single up the gut, a liner into CF on an 89 mph slider, came off the bat of Joey Votto, the 40 year old generational face of the Reds who was playing his final game in GABP of the 2023 season - a season that marks his final under guaranteed contract with the Reds. His final PA of his final home game as a Red, and Bell pulled him to set a rightfully deserved stage to be greeted, be welcomed by fans who have adored him during his Hall of Fame career.
Is it his final season? Is it even his final game in GABP as a Red? Those will be thoughts for another day, as Votto - to his credit - hasn’t yet begun to address those questions in public. As he has always done, he’s put his head down and tried his best to not make an out each time he’s been called upon in the daily lineup, and despite the fumbles the Reds have made in the stretch run this year, there are still five more daily lineups that need filled.
He’ll figure out what he wants to do, or long ago already has. He’ll let us all know when he’s ready to, if he wants. But, it was hard not to notice the swings of the bat in yesterday’s 8th inning mimicking the swings of the tides of the Reds fortunes.
Votto returned to action on September 10th after his surgically repaired shoulder got a few weeks off to rest, recuperate, and (hopefully) give the future Hall of Famer the chance to return to his best form. He homered in that game, but managed to go just 7 for 31 with a lone XBH (a double) in the 10 games since. His return on the 10th coincided with CES riding pine for a couple of days, too, but in the 9 games he has played since rejoining the lineup on September 13th, he has been as hot as any hitter on the planet.
Encarnacion-Strand’s homer in the 8th yesterday was his 5th in his last 7 games, and he looks all the part of the future, and current, 1B of the Cincinnati Reds. That was far from lost on me as I watched his homer followed by Votto’s single up the middle and replacement by a pinch-runner.
That doesn’t mean the Votto Era in Cincinnati has to end, of course. The Reds are going to pay him at least $7 million to buy out his option this winter either way, and while that will procedurally end his existing contract that does nothing to the idea that they could negotiate a new one for him to return in 2024. A couple million more bucks to DH, play some 1B, swing the bat from the other side of the plate than CES, and pick up 400-450 PA with a shoulder healthier than the one he played on in 2022-2023.
Will they, though? Will the Reds identify Votto as the player in the ‘veteran’ role filled poorly by Wil Myers this year and marginally better by Tommy Pham in 2022? Or, will they turn elsewhere in search of such a guy? Will they even pursue that option at all, or instead just turn every single key they’ve got over to the youthful corps that emerged for them as a whole new club in 2023?
Again, these are questions we’ll get public answers to over the winter, long after the revelry of yesterday has settled into memory. For now, it’s nice enough to know that if that was the final time we’ll ever see Joey in a Reds uniform in GABP, the scene could not have presented itself much better, a player lauded for his exploits one final time during a sunny afternoon victory over a division rival.
I suck at saying goodbyes, at turning corners or pages and moving on. It’s never been something that has come easily to me, nor do I expect it to begin so at my current age.
My current age is right about that of Votto’s. Though I grew up on Barry and Eric and the Nasty Boys, I had drifted away from being much of a Reds fan after spending my high school and college years outside of Reds country, the boppin’ of the rest of the baseball world turning my niche fandom into a larger one of the sport as a whole. The Reds general ineptitude during that era surely inspired some of that drifting, in hindsight, though a move back to Reds country in 2005 meant I was dialed back in to watching on the regular once again.
It was the late-season cameo of a young Canadian first baseman in 2007 that really helped clue me back in to the day to day beast that is devotion to a singular Major League Baseball team fandom. He was the first of what figured to be a wave of new prospects destined to resuscitate the moribund Reds, with Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey and Johnny Cueto on his heels. This promise, this bright future, was about to make it all that much more fun again.
He went out and slugged his way to the top of leaderboards, winning the 2010 MVP before being robbed of another in 2017. He accumulated 64.4 bWAR in that time - not only compiling it, but educating many of us on the concept of bWAR in the process. He taught us the value of getting on-base and refusing to make an out, a concept that should have always been more obvious to us all in a game that plays without a timed clock and, instead, against a finite number of outs to be recorded. And despite the ownership’s inability to ever surround him with enough talent for the final decade he spent in Cincinnati on this contract, he gave my generation its own beacon that will forever stand alongside, and not in the shadows, of the great names who wore the Reds jersey in generations prior.
I’ll be a Reds fan tomorrow. I’ll be a Reds fan next week, next month, next spring. It will just be decidedly different if, and when, Votto’s not on the active roster for reasons other than his busted shoulder. I like to think there are more than six days to celebrate this particular fandom of mine, since I’ll reiterate just how awful I suck at saying goodbyes.
If not, at least I got to grow up watching a legend.