I didn't know whether to laugh or cry last week when I heard Reds first baseman Joey Votto tell reporters he's on the disabled list because he's really and truly injured.
Has it come to this? Is this the new norm? Have we let the train run that far off the tracks? Or are the talk-radio nitwits and Twitter trolls now setting the agenda for the rest of us?
First of all, what could Votto say to someone who believes he's faking an injury? These people are going to believe what they believe no matter what. Never mind that there's has been absolutely no reason to think that. In fact, it's now obvious he returned from the DL too soon once already this season.
He missed 24 games in May and June with an injury to his left quad, and when he came back, it was painful watching him attempt to swing the bat and move around at first base. He finally gave into the pain and returned to the DL on July 6 and has been there ever since.
In Votto's absence, the Reds have had a tough time of it. They're 33-30 with him in the lineup this season, 30-38 without him. With their playoff hopes slipping away, some folks decided Votto should get back on the field no matter what.
From there, the bonfire grew. For his part, Votto said little, and that didn't help things. Reporters wanted updates on his recovery, and Votto, an introvert by nature, doesn't play that game.
He's a creature of habit, a guy with a relentless work ethic. Once upon a time, he was a poor defensive first baseman. He threw himself into getting better through hours and hours on fields in spring training and other places. He got better at footwork, positioning, you name it, and three years ago, won a Gold Glove.
After being named the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2010, he told Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy, "I want you to let me know if I change in any way." He hasn't.
He listens carefully when reporters ask questions and is thoughtful with his answers. Last week when reporters cornered him, he did the best he could to answer honestly. That is, he said he had no idea when he would play again.
He clearly was stung by the criticism.
"I feel like I've been the one in the crosshairs," he said. "I've noticed little comments here and there and just a general perception that this is something I elected to do. I didn't elect to be injured. I am injured."
When he returned from the DL too soon in June, he steadfastly refused to alibi for his performance when he had every reason to.
"You can assume if I'm on the field, I'm 100 percent," he said several times.
When he went back on the DL, he acknowledged that he'd tried to come back too soon once and would be more cautious this time. Because Votto's injury is tougher to assess, it comes down to how much he can tolerate the pain. And yet there's no reason to think he won't play as soon as he can. To think he would rather be undergoing treatment while watching his team fight to hang in the race flies in the face of everything this guy has stood for in his career.
Yet silliness still rules. When he showed up at a tennis tournament, some fans thought it proved he didn't want to play baseball. Never mind that he'd spent five hours getting treatment earlier in the day.
Some of this comes with the territory. Because he's the guy who makes the most money, the guy around whom the lineup is constructed, he will also get the most blame whether it's fair or not. From the moment Votto signed a $225-million contract two years ago, he was going to be looked at differently than he ever had before. That's not fair, but it comes with the territory.
He learned that last season when 30 doubles, 24 home runs and a .926 OPS struck some as being not enough. The mantra then was that he wasn't much of a clutch hitter.
When it was pointed out that he had a .477 on-base percentage with runners in scoring position, there were suggestions he should expand the strike zone and try to hit more home runs.
Which would have been the dumbest thing possible. This game is about getting on base, about not making outs. His plate discipline is the strength of his game. To think he would be more productive by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, in effect, by striking out more and making more outs, would have been welcomed by every pitcher in the league.
Votto refused to change his approach. He also refused to be shaken by the criticism. He did seem slightly more agitated by the idea that he should be able to play despite an injury, but he's also secure that he's doing things right.
In Votto's six full seasons, only Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have a higher OBP, and they're both going to the Hall of Fame. In that time, Votto is third in batting average in the majors, first in on-base percentage and first in runs created per 27 outs. He's eighth in doubles, 22nd in home runs, third in walks, seventh in extra base hits and 10th in game-winning RBIs.
There's no way to have a discussion about baseball's best players since 2008 without including Joey Votto in the conversation. His .950 career OPS has him 20th on the all-time list, behind Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, but in front of Ty Cobb, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
No, he's not better than Mays and Aaron, but he's special. He's also a tremendously good person, a decent man who cares about the right things. In ways large and small, he's what we'd like all our professional sports stars to be like. All he has done is keep his mouth shut, work hard and play at an extremely high level. He's one of those players who is easy to root for. Shouldn't that be enough?