As they made the pregame introductions on Opening Day, each Cincinnati Reds player ran from the dugout and formed a line between home plate and first base.
Joey Votto was introduced. No Joey Votto. He didn’t run onto the field. He didn’t line up. He didn’t shake hands with his teammates — all traditions on Opening Day in a city that believes it is a religion of its own and messing with tradition is sacrilegious.
But Votto not only marches to the beat of a different drummer, he is the drummer.
Asked after the 6-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies if he was, um, indisposed during introductions, he smiled and said, “No, I meant to do that. I wanted to be a no-show. I’ve done the LeBron, I’ve done the Ronaldo, so today I figured I’d do the no-show.”
The game began and Votto still was a no-show, although he showed up on the field and in the batter’s box in uniform No. 19. He didn’t show up in his first three trips to the plate. He was there physically, but he struck out all three times, a Votto anomaly if ever there was one.
Meanwhile, shortstop and leadoff hitter Zack Cozart showed up, maybe the only one for seven innings. Through seven innings the Reds had three hits, all by Cozart — double in the first, single in the third, double in the sixth. But all it provided was a one-run deficit, a 2-1 Phillies lead when the Reds came to bat in the eighth.
That’s when Votto showed up, after Cozart did another deed of derring-do. The Reds scored five times. Cozart tied it, 2-2, with a sacrifice fly. Votto, 0-for-3, three strikeouts and a no-show on his record, banged a two-run game-winning single to left-center.
A lot of Average Joes take three strikeouts to the plate with them for the fourth at-bat, fearing another one, an embarrassing one. Votto, though, isn’t your Average Joey.
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks, y’know?” he said. “I have an obligation, something I pride myself in — not taking at-bats to at-bats to the plate. I try to think of the season as one big at-bat. I struggled my first three at-bats, I learned from them, carried it to the plate and hope to carry it into the rest of the season.
“I’m human, I’m going to have my (bad) moments, but you try to train yourself to have a robotic side and just move on from things immediately,” he added. “I still have to play defense, run the bases properly, catch the ball.”
Cozart, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, was nervous and jittery before the game, right up until he took his place in the batter’s box to lead off the bottom of the first.
“It had been nine and a half months since I played in a meaningful game,” he said. “When I got hurt we were playing the Phillies. I was leading off that day, too. It was Opening Day. It was just a bunch of stuff and coincidences that make me think. I just wanted to get the game started, past the ceremonies, and play the game.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I Just started breathing and relaxing. When I got the hit the other way (double to right), I totally relaxed and it calmed my nerves.”
For most of his career, Cozart has been played as a pull hitter because, well, he was a pull hitter. But no more. He had to prove it to the Phillies.
“My first at-bat they were shifting me big-time,” he said. “The second baseman was playing me on the shortstop side of the bag and I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’ll hit it the other way right here.’ So, I did. My next at-bat he wasn’t shifted as much, just a little behind second base and I thought, ‘I can still it in that four hole here. He threw a two-seamer and I did it. After that, they played me straight up.”
Cozart’s first-inning double led to an unearned run when he scored on first baseman Ryan Howard’s error. The second and third hits led to nothing. The fourth at-bat, the sacrifice fly, was his most important plate appearances because it tied the game — a shallow fly ball to right field.
“I knew I didn’t hit it good, but I knew (pinch-runner) Tyler Holt was on third and has really good speed,” said Cozart. “I didn’t know how much it would carry, but just good enough.”
There were 43,683 in the stands, a regular-season record, when Votto pulled his pregame hibernations. Due to a bitingly cold wind, when Votto produced his big hit, the upper deck and the bleachers were nearly empty. Many of the fans, too, pulled a no-show.