CINCINNATI -- As he mingled pleasantly with teammates and met fans during Redsfest on Friday night, Joey Votto was sporting a "fauxhawk" on his head and a pretty thick beard on his face. It was a look not seen before on the Reds first baseman and 2010 National League Most Valuable Player. "It's Rocky IV style," said Votto, referencing the film in which Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa grew his beard as he trained in the Soviet Union to fight Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago.
While in good spirits, the reason for facial hair wasn't borne from comedy. And now Votto is training to resume his career at a top level. "I was really upset from how the season ended," Votto said. "I was certainly upset from getting injured and not being able to play to my potential and have an immediate impact at certain times during games. Time off has done me good and a chance to strengthen, rehab and recover has helped quite a bit also." Votto missed 48 games in 2012 because of a left knee injury that required two surgeries. He was not 100 percent upon his return in September, and his lack of leg strength depleted his power. In the five-game NL Division Series vs. the Giants, Votto had zero RBIs while batting .389. This offseason, Votto has yet to resume hitting but has been very pleased with progress in his rehabilitation. "When I first got injured, I didn't anticipate it taking this long," Votto said. "But I feel like I've made tremendous improvement over the last month. I struggled before, initially after the surgery, to crouch down even. I had too much swelling, not enough mobility in the joint, too much pain. "Now I'm to the point where I can sit on the back of my heels, do a full squat. I can do all kinds of crouching. My strength is not at 100 percent yet, but it's getting there. I can run at full speed, do jumping and do a lot of strength work. As far as improving, it's been a great deal." Votto hoped to be fully ready for Spring Training. Because he isn't yet, he won't commit to represent Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March. "I'm not going to play in the WBC if I'm not 100 percent," Votto said. "My priority is to be at 100 percent for the Cincinnati Reds and hopefully at last we can win a World Series." Not winning the World Series, or even advancing to the NL Championship Series, was crushing to Votto after the Reds had a 2-0 series lead over San Francisco. The heartbreak was hard to get over, and there is still pain. "That was the first time I felt pretty whipped from something," Votto said. "I thought we were just going to keep going. For us to get knocked out like that, I couldn't even talk about it for a good bit. I still haven't spoken about it and have no interest in speaking about it. It was just so upsetting and frustrating. When in it's in your grasp and for it to fall through, it's just really disappointing." The Reds nearly took down the Giants with a Game 5 comeback. As fans screamed at the top of their lungs during the final inning, Votto applauded to the crowd at Great American Ball Park. He is still impressed by the buzz the fans created. "It was the first time I've ever seen the Cincinnati fans go out of their character. They were absolutely crazy that last inning and last bit of the game," Votto said. "It was the best version of them I've ever seen. They were fantastic this year, but just they felt it was close. I was a fan in that moment. To not experience elation was disappointing."