TORONTO — SkyDome will always have a special place in Joey Votto's heart. And yes, the six-time all-star has to correct himself and say Rogers Centre when speaking about Toronto's ballpark.

Votto returned to the Cincinnati Reds lineup on Friday in time for the first game of a three-game interleague series against the Blue Jays. He told media before the game how much playing at the stadium by Toronto's waterfront means to him.

"It just gives me goosebumps. I lose sleep over it," said Votto, who noted he grew up 11 kilometres away in the Toronto neighbourhood of Mimico. "My father worked on an island across the lake so I came down here and I looked up at SkyDome, Rogers Centre, almost every day, coming down during the summer.

"There's great meaning to me here, truly great meaning to me."

Votto was not playing up to his usual standards when he started showing symptoms of COVID-19 on May 3, ahead of a game against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Reds put him on the injured list to recover as he was hitting just .122 with no home runs and three runs batted in over 22 games this season.

After more than two weeks on the COVID-IL and a brief rehab assignment with the Class A Drayton Dragons, Votto said he felt great and was ready to start playing baseball again.

"A good bit ago I started feeling much better. Symptoms abated and I got to join teams in the Reds minor league," said Votto. "I feel fantastic. I can't wait to play.

"I'm happy to be back in a major league uniform, competing in front of crowds and on television."

Votto's return to Cincinnati's lineup isn't just well-timed for personal reasons, but because four Reds players were put on the team's restricted list due to their COVID-19 vaccination status. Former Blue Jays infielder Brandon Drury, outfielder Albert Almora, as well as pitchers Joel Kuhnel and Tyler Mahle will all miss the series in Toronto.

For Votto, Rogers Centre is still the site of his midsummer dreams.

"I have this idea, this image, of me catching a foul ball, but I don't think I've ever caught a foul ball," said Votto with a laugh.

Taking a moment to compose himself, Votto continued.

"I just remember sitting in the upper section and taking in the game and just feeling like, you know, there's something about a Toronto spring, summer — I felt it today driving in — that just is so refreshing," he said. "You pay your dues all winter long, fall and winter, and then all of a sudden when the sun kicks in with the blue skies...

"I just remember that moment, just experiencing a beautiful day, and then getting to watch baseball and it's in the exact same stadium I'm playing in now."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2022.