- The Washington Times
Friday, July 1, 2016

Joey Votto, by his own admission, does not like to be criticized. The Cincinnati Reds’ slugging first baseman doesn’t like to be challenged, particularly when he is playing well.

“Most people, if they criticized me or stayed on me, I’d blow them off because I’d think they’re coming from a place of ignorance or a lack of experience,” Votto said.

Dusty Baker, whose professional baseball experience spans nearly five decades, never came from that place. He played 19 years with four different teams, sharing the field with the likes of Hank Aaron and Tommy John. Baker managed for 14 seasons with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs before leading the Reds starting in 2008 and ending when he was fired in 2013.

Votto, a 10-year veteran, was only 24 and in his second season when Baker was named manager of the Reds. For the next six years, Baker ferociously challenged Votto, even when the first baseman won the National League MVP after hitting .324 with 37 home runs and 113 RBI.

“There’s only so many people in the game I’ll listen to, but he played,” Votto said. “He was a really great player. Had a real long career. He’s been through just about everything a player can go through. So when he spoke, you listened to him because you knew it was coming from a place of experience, not an ideology. He was tough. There were times he drove me nuts, but it always made me better and I miss him and admire him and respect him. Even when I’m playing well, he pushed me more and I didn’t understand it and now I do with some perspective.”

The admiration is why Votto was so happy to see the Washington Nationals’ manager on Thursday, as the Reds arrived at Nationals Park for a four-game series.

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“It’s crazy, man, it’s like seeing your favorite uncle,” Votto said. “I can’t help but smile every time I see him and interact with him. I miss him. He’s charming. He’s got a fantastic sense of humor.”

Baker is charming indeed, particularly during his pregame media availability. He’ll drop references about Aaron or former NFL running back Joe Don Looney. Before Thursday’s game against the Reds, Baker was asked about the injury to starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who was scratched June 20 against the Los Angeles Dodgers because of an upper back strain. While working out, Strasburg popped two ribs out of place.

“You don’t think of a rib being up here,” said Baker on Thursday, motioning toward his upper back.

“But this is not anatomy 101,” he quipped.

Between the lines, Baker’s charm takes a back seat to a more focused competitiveness.

“That’s one of the things that’s not portrayed publicly when it comes to his image,” Votto said. “He’s very competitive. Losing and poor play and failure wears him out and he expects to win.”

Nationals outfielder Chris Heisey, who also played for Baker in Cincinnati, echoed Votto’s sentiment. There is a directness with Baker that is not always present with other managers, Heisey said.

“He does communicate well, which you always know where you stand with him and I do appreciate that,” Heisey said. “Maybe sometimes it’s not what you want to hear, but he’ll let you know.”

It’s that transparency, Votto said, that has made Baker a strong fit with the Nationals. After sweeping the New York Mets, Washington entered Thursday with a 47-32 record and a five-game lead in the NL East.

When Baker — who led Cincinnati to its first playoff appearance in 15 years in 2010 — was fired from the Reds in 2013 after a loss in the NL wild-card game, Votto said he didn’t understand the decision, which was why he was so happy when the Nationals hired his former manager.

“I was probably as happy as I’ve ever been for someone else in baseball,” Votto said. “He deserved it. I didn’t have enough information to understand his departure in Cincinnati. It’s tough to do well and then be told you haven’t done well enough. I thought he was the right man for [the Nationals.] They’ve been incredibly talented. But sometimes it takes somebody that can handle egos and different personalities and get the most out of each player and he’s that type of guy.”

• Anthony Gulizia can be reached at agulizia@washingtontimes.com.

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