Votto homers one pitch into his Blue Jays career

March 17th, 2024

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It took one pitch to deliver his first Canadian heritage moment with the Blue Jays.

Making his Grapefruit League debut for the team he grew up idolizing, Votto stepped in against Phillies ace Zack Wheeler and launched a 392-foot home run to left-center field at BayCare Ballpark on Sunday. The umpires huddled up, discussing whether the ball bounced off the yellow padding atop the wall, but the moment was too good to take away.

It was a dream debut for Votto, even if he didn’t exactly stick the landing on the dismount. When the Blue Jays trotted out to play defense in the second inning, suddenly, Votto wasn’t there.

“I accidentally stepped on a bat in the dugout, rolled my ankle and it hurt like the dickens,” Votto said during Toronto's 5-5 tie with Philadelphia. “So I came out of the game, but not intentionally. I was scheduled to play five innings and get three at-bats.”

Votto says that Monday’s off-day will be all he needs to recover, snapping his fingers quickly as he said he’d “be back real soon.”

“I wanted to leave on a high, leave everybody wanting more,” Votto joked.

Still, in the dog days of spring, Votto provided so much life, so much hope with one swing. Not since a teenaged Vladimir Guerrero Jr. walked off an exhibition game in Montreal on the eve of the 2018 season has Spring Training produced Canadian content quite like this for the Blue Jays.

A lot of Votto’s game exists above the shoulders. A .409 on-base percentage over 17 MLB seasons is the product of an elite plate approach. But later in his career, Votto has adapted and begun reaching more for this power. Even the man who’s led the planet in walks a few times knows how important that aspect is.

“I felt like this was the swing I was chasing,” Votto said. “The pull homers are a bit fake. They’re a bit of an illusion. If you ask any really, really good hitter, keeping the ball in the center of the field or the opposite-field side with some power, with some line, it’s hard to fail with that. It’s hard to feel dissatisfied. I’m ecstatic about that swing.”

That swing is what Toronto is looking for, too. The Canadiana of it all is lovely, but the Blue Jays are not in pursuit of loveliness -- they’re in pursuit of a World Series. Votto is here because, if he’s healthy and it all comes together one more time, the club believes he can be part of that.

It’s a new role for Votto, too. He’s spent most of his career as the center of the Reds’ universe, with new players and managers being brought into his orbit. Now, he’s the new guy, leaning on lessons he’s taken from players he’s respected in the past. How have other players come into a new clubhouse and done it properly?

“That includes listening, being a good teammate, playing hard and working every day,” Votto said. “Those things have a tendency to, no matter how quiet you are, bring people closer to you. That’s the final objective, to have everyone close and everyone supporting one another. That’s what a good team is about. Even though I’m starting off as a non-roster invite in the heart of Spring Training, my goal, my target is to be one of the guys moving towards a championship.”

From the moment Votto arrived in Dunedin, Fla., he’s taken the language of “Minor League deal” very literally. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if a player with Votto’s resume and a legitimate case for the Hall of Fame arrived in camp with a long list of demands, but he views himself as another player trying to make the team. He’s “trying out.”

If Votto’s rolled right ankle is as minor as he expects, he’ll be back on track to an expected assignment at Triple-A Buffalo to open the season. That would give him some more time -- and more at-bats -- to prove to the Blue Jays that he’s ready for season 18 in the big leagues. To Votto, there’s nothing complicated about this.

“Baseball is the same everywhere,” Votto said. “As long as you have that little guy on the back of your head and the back of your jersey, it’s the exact same everywhere. That’s what I was gunning for. I’m grateful that it’s here in Toronto. Buffalo? Extended spring training? New Hampshire? Dunedin, in the Florida State League? I’m down for whatever.”