Votto forged bond with RBI program in '21

November 25th, 2021

CINCINNATI -- The Reds Community Fund has been operating Cincinnati’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- or RBI program -- since 2007. But in 2021, the Reds’ RBI program achieved something it had never done by having both its senior baseball and softball teams reach the RBI World Series.

Both teams, and the Community Fund, remain thankful for having Reds first baseman in their corner all year. Votto, the club’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award this year, frequently visited the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy and spent time coaching and speaking with the players.

“We’re thankful for the year we had on the heels of such a chaotic 2020,” Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank said. “We are beyond grateful for the role that Joey played this year and the way he played it.”

In May while on the injured list with a fractured left thumb, Votto made good use of the time he had when he wasn’t doing therapy or rehabilitation. He often visited the youth academy to coach kids from the RBI program.

The connection continued into late July after the senior baseball and RBI teams advanced out of their regional tournaments and into the World Series. In the midst of a stretch where he enjoyed a Reds franchise record seven straight games with a home run, Votto was back at the academy and spent 2 1/2 hours working with both teams.

“We can’t thank him enough,” head coach Roosevelt Barnes said on the Reds radio network. “That week when we came back from the regionals and the time spent with those young men was just so genuine and just so heartfelt. I think it really propelled some of these guys to really push and keep fighting. It was very inspiring.”

After a July 27 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field, Votto reflected on visiting the academy and also made a vow to show more sportsmanship. The previous month, he was ejected from a game for arguing a call with an umpire, and unintentionally ruined the day for a 6-year-old fan who was watching her favorite player at her first Major League game in San Diego.

“I want to make a promise to anybody that wants to listen in Cincinnati youth sports and Cincinnati baseball, that is not going to happen anymore,” Votto said. “If the RBI program, the teams in Cincinnati want to join in, that’s my promise to them. I’m going to respect all those facets of the game and I’m going to try to play the game with my heart and play the game respectfully.”

The senior girls softball team sent Votto a video in reply.

“It was them accepting his pledge to treat each other, their opposition and the umpires in a certain way,” Frank said.

The senior boys baseball advanced to the championship game on Aug. 6, after they had won back-to-back elimination games on the same day in Vero Beach, Fla. The time of the final game the following day had to be moved up to 9 a.m. on Aug. 7 because of the threat of bad weather.

Back in Cincinnati that morning, Frank woke up and found a text message on his phone from Votto. It was sent overnight, a few hours after the Reds notched a 10-0 win over the Pirates at Great American Ball Park.

“It’s indescribable,” Frank said. “[Votto] says in the text, ‘If you can, please share this with the coaches and the players. Let them know I’m thinking of them.’ In the video, he says, ‘I’m aware of what you accomplished today. I know you’ve won twice today and are moving on to your first championship game. I’ve got to be honest. I’m not going to be awake at 9 a.m. tomorrow. But I can’t wait to check it out. I want you all to know what a privilege it’s been to get to know you, to work with you. You’re ready for this experience.’”

Frank obliged and the video was sent to Barnes.

“They were so moved by this,” Frank said. “The coaches told me afterwards that the last thing they did was show Joey’s video to the players before they got off the bus.”

Cincinnati’s RBI team went out and won the title in a 10-5 victory over the top-seeded team from Austin, Texas. On Aug. 8, back at GABP during Joe Morgan Day that honored the late Hall of Famer and big supporter of RBI baseball, Barnes’ team was honored and Votto came out to their seats in right field to join them.

The players handed Votto the Larry Doby Trophy and posed with him for a picture.

“It wasn’t a one-time, look-at-me kind of thing. It was a genuine, heartfelt connection,” Frank said. “It was another step along the way in his relationship with that group and that program.”

“It feels like I'm connecting with my community,” Votto said after the game. “It feels like it's a two-way street. They give, I give. I feel like I'm learning from them. Connecting with that energy level, that age range, it's a gift because you're reminded that the game is supposed to have passion, you're supposed to be excited. There's supposed to be endless energy and you play with intensity. Watching them practice, watching them play, I feel like it reminds me of my very first days as an amateur baseball player. I’m proud of them.”