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Votto, Baker bonded by pursuit of title


LOS ANGELES -- Joey Votto was 18 years old when he was selected by the Reds in the second round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. Forty-three athletes were taken ahead of the kid with the sweet swing from Toronto's Richview Collegiate Institute.

"I was a big fan -- especially a fan of the Giants," Votto recalled. "I was very aware of Dusty Baker. He was a very famous manager. Now I play for him. He's had a quite remarkable career, both playing and managing."

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Alighting in Cincinnati in 2008, Baker has been Votto's manager for all but 24 games of the first baseman's brilliant career. A deep bond of mutual respect exists between the soulful, philosophical manager and the cerebral, articulate player.

They talk all the time, leaning on each other. They got together for a closed-door chat before Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Dodgers.

"He played," Votto said. "He was a very good player. He commands respect and attention. He's played with and managed some of the best players who ever played this game. He learned from them and passes that along to his players. He's a good judge of talent. But by far his most important attribute is his experience."

Both men are driven by the quest for a World Series title. It would enhance measurably Baker's Hall of Fame credentials while further validating Votto's standing as one of the premier players of his generation.

"I think most players recognize that is the one accolade he hasn't achieved," Votto said, referring to Baker's two-decade managerial pursuit of a World Series championship, something he experienced as the Dodgers' left fielder and clubhouse leader in 1981.

"Unfortunately," Votto added, "he has very little control over it once you get to the postseason. The two closest instances with the [2002] Giants and [2003] Cubs were pretty heartbreaking."

Baker and Votto have done a lot of winning since the pieces began to fall in place in 2010: National League Central titles two of the past three seasons, a .553 winning percentage over their past 590 games.

Over the same time frame, the Giants have won eight fewer regular-season games with a .541 winning percentage.

The Giants have also won two World Series championships in three seasons, while the Reds have painful memories of unhappy endings to 2010 and 2012 in NL Division Series losses. Events of last October -- losing three at home to the Giants after going up, 2-0, in San Francisco -- were excruciating.

Yet here they are, playing inspired baseball heading down the stretch in the formidable NL Central.

"They're [14] games over .500, and they're in third place, so they have to win," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "We're in the same position."

Baker's wisdom flows freely, all day and all night.

"You're going to have ups and downs," he said in his old home yard, Dodger Stadium. "The secret to life is you can get down, but don't stay down. You've got to have a strong mind and will to not stay down."

The Reds have had their ace, Johnny Cueto, for nine starts this season and hard-hitting left fielder Ryan Ludwick for one game. Setup men Sean Marshall and Jonathan Broxton have been out. Catcher Ryan Hanigan is getting back from a wrist injury.

Votto was not himself last season. A meniscus tear in his left knee in June requiring two surgeries limited him to 111 games and 14 homers, down from 37 homers (with 113 RBIs) in his 2010 Most Valuable Player season.

He is hitting .320 this year with 16 homers and 47 RBIs, slugging .508 with a .433 on-base percentage.

"I feel I'm a smarter, better player," Votto said. "Even though the power numbers people are only concerned about are down, I think I'm playing fine.

"I feel like I'm in a pretty good place. I don't think I'm at the compensative stage of rehab. I'm feeling better than I did earlier in the season."

His manager's health also is improved. Last season's heart scare in his rearview mirror, Baker is rolling along in his 20th managerial season, his 1,640 regular-season wins exceeded by only 15 men in Major League history.

Baker's 2002 Giants, the team Votto pulled for, watched a World Series title slip away when the Angels rallied improbably to capture Game 6, and then 7, at Angel Stadium.

Relocating on Chicago's North Side, Baker's 2003 Cubs had a World Series in sight when everything unraveled in an apoplectic Game 6 of the NL Championship Series at Wrigley Field. The Marlins took advantage of every break to claim the pennant and then a World Series at the Yankees' expense.

Chicago wept.

Nine years later, Lady Luck smacked Baker again when Cueto was forced to exit Game 1 of the NLDS after only eight pitches because of a strained oblique. The ace did not return. Votto hit .389 but did not find his power stroke on the surgically repaired knee, producing no extra-base hits in the five games. Buster Posey went deep, and soon the Giants were celebrating again.

"It's a combination of luck, talent and having to be hot at the right time," Votto said. "I imagine the Giants would view themselves as somewhat lucky with my knee injury and Cueto's injury."

The Reds are anticipating a lift from the returns of Cueto, Ludwick, Marshall and Broxton, or some combination of the quartet. In the meantime, they keep on keeping on.

"If Dusty keeps running us out there every day," Votto said, "eventually something will break his way. And if not, people will recognize how good he's been. He's proved it over time."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto