TORONTO – At the end of a cul-de-sac, 15 minutes west on the GO train from Union Station in downtown Toronto, what’s here Joey Watto called “Holy Land”.
Votto has been away from Manchester Park for so long that the seven pines that separate it from the duplex on Burlington Street in the Mimico neighbourhood of Etobicoke are no longer there when he remembers playing in the park. They now tower over two-story homes 25-30 feet tall.
But some things never change, and some memories never fade.
“Right here,” he said, squatting in a catcher’s squat right where his father used to stand, day in and day out. When Votto finished speaking, he looked at the small hill on which he was going to stand, threw a natural mound at his father, and smiled.
It was the smile of a long time and place. A familiar and comfortable smile. It’s a smile with those who are no longer with us. It was a peaceful smile, being at home, back in his old neighborhood, back in the park where he had spent so much time.
Before Votto, 38, heads to Toronto’s Rogers Centre this weekend for what could be his final career Hall of Fame entry, he returns to Manchester Park, where he became a baseball player decades ago. Manchester Park is a green space with two parks connected by a grove that runs along the tracks of the metropolitan commuter train. It is just 11 km from Rogers Centre and has two train stations.It was in that park that young Joey Votto dreamed of playing on the road for his beloved Toronto Blue Jays. Young Joey Watto stood there almost every day from the age of 9 to 12 or 13 and pitched to his father Joseph.
“He wanted to catch the ball,” Votto said of his father, his smile coming out of his voice again.
The passage of time has changed many things. The Blue Goose Tavern, which has operated for over 60 years along the way, is being converted into condos; the painting on the side of the three-story building still provides the outline of a goose and a reminder that it was once the only one to win Etobicoke’s Guardian’s Reachers Choice Awards for best billiards in four categories , Best Wine, Best Sports Bar and Best Bar.
Home prices in this once blue-collar neighborhood are much higher than when Votto grew up here. There are apartment complexes on the other side of the Manchester tennis court, where Votto occasionally played tennis as a child and then street hockey in the winter when the nets came down. Young people are now walking their purebred dogs in the park; last week, a Schnauzer named Bonsi chased a tennis ball on the same grass that Votto once did.
Young Joey would stand on top of a hill. Joseph Votto would crouch on the other side of the paved sidewalk less than 60 feet 6 inches from the tennis court.
Joey would pitch to his father. It’s their time together, just the two of them.
“He likes the precision of it, he likes me getting better,” Votto said. “He likes to be a part of the process. He likes to squat. He likes to call the ball. He likes to watch his son get stronger, more athletic, more precise.”
At the age of 13, a young Votto started to have pain in his elbow. He gave up pitching.
“It was actually probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my life,” Votto said. “At the time, it was a disaster because my dad, who meant a lot to him, I pitched and I basically told him I couldn’t pitch anymore because of my elbow.”
His father didn’t want to give up. With that in mind, Joey thinks his father died in 2008 — after his son’s major league debut, but not before he became the National League MVP or established himself as the greatest in the history of the oldest team. One of the players before – enjoyed it as much as he did, if not more.
Joseph Votto would urge his son to try again, to give it a try. But every time Joey tried to pitch, he hurt his elbow.
“Whether it’s because I’m growing up, or because I’m too hard for my age — I’m not throwing very hard, but maybe my body isn’t capable of handling it,” Votto said. “It’s right at my elbow.”
That’s when right-handed pitcher Joey Votto became left-handed hitter Joey Votto, and the rest is history.
Still, in Votto’s mind, the image of the park at the end of the cul-de-sac is as important as anywhere in the world. Votto has a painting commissioned for the site.
Speaking of Toronto, he’s returning to Toronto this week for what could be the last of his storied career — with one more year guaranteed on his contract, and Red Army That time probably won’t be back — it’s easy to hear Votto’s pride in his hometown. He was happy to hear his teammates and players on other teams compliment him on being in the city. As a whole, the Reds seem to have gushed in this place all week. Air Canada, which has just restarted nonstop flights from CVG to Toronto Pearson Airport, makes wise use of the newfound Canadaphiles residing in the Great American Ball Park.
Driving to the field from his offseason home west of downtown before the weekend series — where he played the hero on Sunday, Called for go-ahead home run in 3-2 win —Wotto said he got goosebumps when he drove in. His childhood home is about halfway between his current home and the stadium. He stopped there on the road Friday.
From Mimico along the Gardiner Highway on the shores of Lake Ontario to Rogers Center, Votto pointed to the tennis club where his father worked as a chef, and then headed to the island opposite the Rogers Center where his father later worked. Joy and his younger brother Taylor take sailing lessons every summer as part of his father’s contract with the yacht club. The pair would come downtown with their dad, and every day, he would visit the Rogers Center (then SkyDome), where the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series during his childhood.
He didn’t have a favorite player from those teams, though his father’s favorite was Tony Fernandez, the brilliant shortstop part of the Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter trades to Toronto, but then in 1993 Back in Toronto, won the tournament World Series.
For Joey, it’s really the whole team. He could get past that 1993 lineup: Rickey Henderson, Devon White, Paul Molitor, Carter, John Olerud, Alomar, Fernández, Ed Sprague, Pat Borders.
“I remember sitting in the top half watching the game, and Toronto had something in the spring and summer, and I thought it was driving, and it was refreshing to pay your dues all winter, and all of a sudden the sun was shining and the sky was blue,” Votto said last week . “I remember having a good day and starting baseball. It’s the same stadium I’m in now. I feel like I’m still a kid.”
Memories like that are weird, the smallest things—the way the sun shines, a smell, the whistle of a robin flying over the buckeyes at the entrance to the park.
It was by those flat buckeyes that he stood there, letting his brother Tyler, five years younger than him, go out and throw waffle balls for him day in and day out. Votto would save up to buy buckets of used waffle balls.
“In the spring and summer, I would drag him outside every day and hit bucket after bucket of waffle balls from him every day,” Votto said. “And he fucking hates it. Hates it. He can throw the ball and it’s really good batting practice and I can hit the ball. I smash the ball and break it and then have to buy a new one or Just hitting broken balls. I’ll keep hitting for years, years, years.”
Tyler Votto always complained about his brother’s demands. “He would cry about it, and I made him do it,” Joey Watto said.
In retrospect, Votto is both amusing and grateful that his younger brother always throws it at him.
“I remember telling him, ‘Come on, if you do this, I’ll buy you a car one day,'” Votto said. “Yeah, I bought him a car, but that was a lie. That was a blatant lie. I didn’t expect it. I was like, ‘Throw the flip’ ball.'”
It was this place, now with more trees, but no less life, that shaped Votto. It was here that he fell in love with the game, playing the game, throwing, hitting the ball – all of it.
On this sunny day, Votto’s SUV was parked in a cul-de-sac, and he walked over to his old house and looked up. It is on the left side of the duplex, two floors, with a doorway and a large window downstairs. On the second floor is a pair of windows. Votto pointed to the window on the right, which was his room. He could look out at the train with ease, as well as hear and feel it. Westbound every half hour and eastbound every half hour during the day.
He laughed when he talked about the way the sound of the train didn’t bother him, but soothed him. His current house, like this one, is near the train station and next to the park. He said he hadn’t thought about it before that, but it’s a setup he’s comfortable with and it’s made him feel comfortable. Although we can sometimes try to get away from where we grew up, we always carry that place with us. Here, it is a park where children from a nearby school play during recess. Simply put, it is home.
(Above: C. Trent Rosecrans / sports)