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Why Joey Votto logged on

The 38-year-old baseball player spent years trying to become elite. This season, he suddenly became Very Online, too.

“I don’t think the average fan knows me very well, and that probably isn’t a huge priority for the average fan, but it feels kind of important to me,” said Joey Votto, who has emerged as a social media star this season. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
9 min

CINCINNATI — Last month, before their disappointing start evolved into a full-blown nightmare, the Cincinnati Reds had a day off. Joey Votto went to yoga. He attended an improv class. He tweeted. He posted on Instagram.

In his younger years, the Cincinnati stalwart wouldn’t have done any of those things. Too many people could recognize him in public. Someone might take something the wrong way. What if someone saw him out and about and wondered, “Why isn’t he in the cage instead?”

He needed to pour so much into being an elite hitter, into being a perfect star, into the lonely process of being at his baseball best every single day, six months a year, for 16 big league seasons. Teammates and family saw the real Joey Votto. Everyone else just caught glimpses here and there. It was safer that way.

But during the non-baseball moments of Cincinnati’s grim 3-19 start, Votto has emerged as a social media superstar in a sport not known for its outsize online personalities. The 38-year-old started TikTok, Instagram and Twitter accounts, channeling the glimpses of hilarity he delivers in interviews and games into public posts and videos after years of trying not to give too much of himself away.

“I don’t think the average fan knows me very well, and that probably isn’t a huge priority for the average fan, but it feels kind of important to me,” Votto said.

Votto’s posts are funny, self-deprecating, revealing and surprising. He shows off skills he learned in break-dancing classes that he took in the offseason. He shares pictures of his family, incorporates teammates into TikTok videos and occasionally paints his entire body green — as people do. Lately, many of his posts have been making fun of his batting average.

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“I think it’s amazing. He’s showing his personality. A lot of people don’t know, but that’s Joey,” said teammate Jonathan India, Votto’s locker neighbor, who said he has been dancing and joking in the clubhouse for years. “People think Joey is a serious baseball guy — what he looks like on TV. No one knows what he is inside here. But on his TikToks and Instagram, he’s letting his personality out. It’s awesome to see.”

Votto has been an off-and-on YouTube and TikTok addict for years, fighting the urge to keep scrolling, unable to stop watching. He always considered joining the fray, but he needed to be sure he was ready.

No, Votto wouldn’t be doing any of this if he weren’t sure he was going to perform this year. He can predict these things now. He lost the joy in hitting a few years ago, when he prioritized contact over power — not making mistakes over taking big swings. He’s back to the big swings now, at least when appropriate. He knows who he is.

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“In past years, I had doubts. Now I’m in a place where I’m very, very confident I’m going to play well. I understand the rhythm of what it takes to play well,” he said. “And now I can have fun outside of playing well.”

Late last month, he typed out, then slept on, a tweet about the ways in which being in a slump is like “a labyrinth,” leaving a person “trapped, alone and disoriented.” He didn’t send that tweet right away. He worried people might think he’s in some existential crisis, that he was “trapped, alone and disoriented,” rather than sharing an observation. Even if he were … well, he isn’t. So he tweeted it.

That confidence didn’t stop him from dropping a half-dozen expletives while taking early batting practice alone one afternoon early last week, asking Reds coaches to adjust the velocity and spin rate every few pitches — honing his swing against what he calls “spinny” fastballs, the kind he sees so often these days. Votto is not at a point in his career where he doesn’t care when he struggles. He is at a point in his career where he knows struggles won’t last, so he doesn’t let them consume him.

“The level of performance I was expecting of myself early in my career required a real dedication — mind, body and spirit. No social life,” Votto said. “You get burnt out of that. After a while, you realize: ‘Holy cow, this is taking up 85 percent of your year with training. I better have some fun.’

“And this is fun,” Votto continued. “Social is fun for me — as long as I maintain the tenets of respect, boundaries, treating everyone fairly, minding my P’s and Q’s.”

Votto is painstakingly careful about those P’s and Q’s. He has enlisted everyone from PR staff to reporters to teammates to advise him on the phrasing of tweets or music choices for TikToks.

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Pick up a gun click in the beginning of a song? That’s out — kids might hear it. Could a tweet slightly, possibly imply something negative about someone? That tweet dies in the Notes app. When some took issue with a TikTok video of Votto copying a dance from a Doja Cat video while wearing a Ron Weasley costume, he deleted it. What is clear in talking to Votto is that he doesn’t mind if people don’t like him. But he wants to make sure that if they don’t like him, it’s for the right reasons — whatever those are.

So what he does post is so carefully curated, with such high production value, that even PR staffers from other teams marvel at his performance. From dance sequences that require staffers to perform in unison to Instagram posts introducing his family or sharing that he received his American citizenship this offseason, Votto is opening doors he wants to open — whether they be goofy, serious, sentimental or something in between.

“I’m growing so tired of the isolation that the communities that mean something to me, I have to keep feeding them,” he said.

Votto has spent nearly two sometimes-isolating decades of his life trying to be an admirable representative for the Reds, never going so far as to eschew mischief entirely but knowing exactly where he wanted to draw the line. That isn’t to say he hasn’t lost control now and then, such as when he exploded on home plate umpire Bill Welke after being ejected from a 2015 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But after that game, he left the clubhouse and headed toward the umpires’ locker room, the kind of sojourn that some players might take to finish making their point. Votto had a different idea and assured wary Reds staffers that he was heading over to apologize. When he confronted a fan who got in his way on a foul ball the next year, he apologized to that person, too.

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And yet, after all that care, it was just a few weeks ago that Votto watched Reds owner Phil Castellini declare glibly that fans frustrated with the team’s lack of payroll spending had nowhere else to go. It was just a few months ago that he watched his front office trade away Eugenio Suárez and Jesse Winker — two of the 29 people he follows on Instagram — to cut payroll. Votto has played in two division series in his career — all the way back in 2010 and 2012. After all he has done to make sure he doesn’t let the Reds down, have they returned the favor?

Votto’s eyes widened when asked that question, the kind someone such as him would rather answer after some workshopping in the Notes app. Next year is the last guaranteed season on the 10-year extension worth $225 million that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history. This is the only team he has ever known.

“I always want to be with a team that’s on their way to the playoffs and beyond. I can’t say anything more than that,” Votto said, pausing and hesitating between each clause, choosing each word with audible care. “I signed a long contract 10 years ago, and I knew there were going to be ups and downs. I knew it wasn’t going to be all playoffs and winning seasons. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when we’re playing poorly.”

The Reds are playing poorly now. And Votto is struggling, too. So he was on the field before anyone else one day last week, running first to third, taking swings in the cage, diving for groundballs until his sweats were covered in infield clay.

When he was finally done, Votto collected his bats and hurried down the dugout stairs.

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“I’ve got to go TWEET,” Votto said, eyes alight as he emphasized the last word, as if daring someone to tell him not to do it.

“Be careful!” longtime Reds PR man Rob Butcher said. “It’s dangerous out there!”

Votto’s voice echoed back up the tunnel to the Reds’ clubhouse.

“I knowwww,” he groaned, as if the risk of becoming a social media star had once again risen in his mind as a formidable challenger to the reward. He disappeared into the relative privacy of the clubhouse. There, he can type and backspace and type again in the safety of his Notes app, workshopping, weighing the pros and cons — hoping it’s him, the right version of him, the world sees when he decides to push “Send.”