By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Prior to the first game the Cincinnati Reds played after the Oregon District tragedy, Joey Votto sat at his locker thinking about Dayton, “A city that has been very good to me,” he said.
And he came up with an idea. He grabbed a Sharpie from his locker shelf and penned on his cap, ‘Dayton,’ and drew a heart.
He wore it that night and continues to wear it on this homestand against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Chicago Cubs.
While most players get one page of biographical material in the Reds media guide, Votto has 15 pages of small type, befitting the respect shown to a local icon. One small line lists his numbers from 2004, the season he played for the Class A Dayton Dragons.
“I can’t recall if I ever visited the Oregon District, but we did a lot of appearances and things and I’d have to believe I was there,” he said.
So why the cap tribute to Dayton?
“Nothing really inspired me, I just felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It was just a way for me to show my support and reach out to a community that was so good to me. I just hoped that they knew that everybody was there for them. I just wanted them to know that they were on my mind.”
Also on Votto’s mind is something called a championship chase. The Reds, not long ago considered inconsequential, suddenly are at least relevant. For the past four seasons, by early August the Reds were entrenched in last place, so far out of first place they needed a high-power periscope to see first place.
This season they entered Sunday afternoon’s game only six games out of first place, with a chance to make it five with a victory over the first place Chicago Cubs.
Votto likes what he is seeing lately, but remains a realist, realizes there remains a lot of work to do, a lot of improvements to be made.
“We still have a good bit to make up, but it’s a good start,” he said. “We’re in the mix, so that’s a good thing.”
Told that teams have come from farther behind than the Reds to make the players, Votto was tying on his workout shoes when he said, “It happens every year. There is always a team or two that comes along and surprises everyone.”
Oakland last year? “And they are doing it again this year,” he said, referring to the A’s charge into second place in the American League East and just 1 1/2 games away from a wild card spot.
“I hope we continue to have fun, I really hope so,” he said. “We have two to four weeks to see where we are going to be. So we have to play really good ball for that stretch.”
Since the All-Star break the Reds are 15-and-13. They were 2-and-6 to start the second half and then 13-and-7 since.
It is the 13-and-7 stretch that has fans giddy and hopeful.
“We’ve still only played around .500 ball since the All-Star break, so it’s not like we’ve gotten crazy hot,” said Votto. “We had the rough start immediately after the All-Star break.
“I don’t know…but I do know this is the most important time to make a push,” he added. “If we don’t do it now, we do it never. We have a long way to go, a long, long way to go. We’ll see won’t we? We shall see.”
Votto somewhat has rejuvenated himself since tossing aside his deep crouch and choke-up on the bat. He is more erect and down on the knob and said, “I had to do it. I just wasn’t generating any power. The ball was not jumping off my bat.”
It is now. On Friday night he planted one in the right field seats, another good sign. He is no longer hitting so many weak fly balls to shallow left field. He is not only pulling the ball, he is pulling it hard.
“I don’t know what the time frame has been, but it seems he is getting better and better,” manager David Bell said when asked about Votto. “He seems more comfortable.
“That home run he hit (Friday)? That was great to see,” said Bell. “He hit the ball in a similar way Saturday night (a long double to the center field wall). Yeah. He is right there.”
And so are the Reds. They are right there. As Votto said, it is time to do the heavy lifting and try not to drop it on their toes.