Reds’ Votto aims to be best in majors

At some point during spring training — usually around the second or third week — most interviews begin to sound the same. As a general rule, players want to (a) improve on a good season, (b) improve on a crummy season or (c) sign a contract extension. In each clubhouse, at every locker, all of them say they feel great.

My conversation with Joey Votto was different. He said something at the Cincinnati Reds complex in Goodyear, Ariz., that has stuck with me for four months.

I want to be the best.

He didn’t mean it in the abstract. He wasn’t repeating it blithely, the way a high school football player might because that’s what it says on his team T-shirt. Votto told me he wanted to become the best player in baseball, because, frankly, it’s within his grasp.

A half-season later, he’s done it: At this moment, Votto is the greatest offensive force in baseball.

Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton took their turns during April and May, but neither is better than Votto right now; Kemp hasn’t played this month because of a left hamstring strain, while Hamilton’s June batting average is .197.

Meanwhile, Votto leads the majors with a 1.121 OPS, while walking at a Bondsian rate and continuing his Gold Glove work at first base. As if to validate his stature within the sport, Major League Baseball announced Tuesday that Votto has eclipsed Kemp as the top vote-getter among National League players for the All-Star Game (FOX, July 10, 7:30 p.m. ET).

So, has Votto realized his spring ambition? Is he the best player in baseball?

“No,” he said flatly Tuesday afternoon. “I’ve got a lot of things to work on.”

A lot of things?

OK, maybe Votto has a point: He has zero triples this season. So there’s that. He’s not a very good triples hitter. I suppose Votto could be self-critical about the fact that he’s slower than the Angels’ Mike Trout. (Votto is 4 for 7 in stolen bases this year.) Otherwise, Votto is a baseball purist’s archetype — regimented before the game, fundamentally sound during it, thoughtful afterward.

The 28-year-old talks about “the well-rounded things that make a player great”: baserunning, sound defense, situational hitting, leadership. And he does them gracefully. “He really gets it,” admired Reds pitching coach Bryan Price.

In the third inning of Tuesday’s 4-3 victory over Milwaukee, Votto sprawled to his left and stole a base hit from Cesar Izturis. From his knees, Votto flipped to pitcher Bronson Arroyo for the putout. The athleticism was spectacular, but all the actions were subtle. At no point did he seem rushed. Votto made the difficult look simple — a sign of how he’s mastered the craft.

Three innings later, Votto batted with the game stuck in a scoreless tie. He had fanned in his first two plate appearances against Brewers starter Marco Estrada. But here he fouled off a two-strike fastball and was rewarded with a hittable curve. Votto served it to the opposite field with that smooth left-handed stroke. It carried to the wall for a double. Votto scored on Jay Bruce’s home run, and the Reds never trailed.

Votto finished 1 for 4. For once he wasn’t the statistical star. Yet his impact on the game was undeniable. These nights, as much as his walk-off heroics against the Washington Nationals earlier this season, are why Reds manager Dusty Baker believes Votto is “on the way” to becoming baseball’s best player. If he keeps this up, Votto could claim his second MVP award in a three-year span. Only two NL players have won multiple MVPs during Votto’s lifetime: Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols.

Like Pujols, Votto signed a 10-year contract before this season. Unlike Pujols, Votto had no apparent trouble adjusting to the scrutiny that accompanies a $200 million deal.

True, Votto didn’t have the added pressure of changing organizations and leagues. (Pujols left the Cardinals for a $240 million payday in Anaheim; Votto stayed in Cincinnati for the comparative hometown discount of $225 million.) But Votto could teach a major league seminar about how to excel in the season after signing a huge contract.

“It’s nice to set up some roots and familiarity,” he said. “It’s funny. You get into a city and see the good parts, but then you realize it’s going to be home, and the good parts really stand out quite a bit more.

“It’s only been three months now since I signed, but I think I’m very proud of signing an extension here, very excited to spend my career here. I really would like to think at this point in time — it’s a great point in time to say this — but I made the right decision.”

Votto acknowledged that he was concerned initially about how he would handle the expectations. But he said he drew strength from the way he overcame the grief and anxiety that followed the death of his father in 2008.

“I’ve been through some things in my life, and I know humans have an ability to adapt to life circumstances and situations,” Votto said. “It usually takes time. Things take time in life.

“I was a little overwhelmed at first (after signing the contract). It was an adjustment in my life. But I think the familiarity — being comfortable here — made things so much easier. I’ve spoken to people who have told me it takes one or two years to adjust to a city and contract. You have a great year and all of a sudden people are high on you. Then you have a rough year and — I don’t want to name a player — but you’re in a big market, and, all of a sudden, ‘What a disaster.’”

For Votto, the 2012 season has been quite the opposite of a disaster. After Tuesday’s win, the Reds have a two-game lead in the National League Central, and Votto’s personal popularity has never been higher — in Cincinnati, across the US, or in his native Canada. The fan support for Votto’s All-Star candidacy is particularly remarkable when considering Cincinnati is the smallest television market in the United States with an MLB franchise, according to Nielsen.

“Very, very proud of that,” Votto said of Tuesday’s balloting returns. “I had a big smile (when I found out). I usually don’t let my emotions go too high or too low, but this is something that’s a great, great honor for me, especially being able to do it as a Cincinnati Red.

“A lot of people say that a contract similar to mine can’t happen here, or I can’t lead the All-Star voting. There are several different stereotypes. Hopefully things finish up well. But to be at this point is really something I’m very proud of.”