Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Matt Joyce stands near the dugout recently at Henley Field, where he played baseball as a member of the Florida Southern College baseball team in Lakeland.
Ernst Peters | The Ledger
Published: Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 9:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 9:50 p.m.
LAKELAND | A text message from his agent arrived while Matt Joyce was playing baseball in Mexico.
At first, he didn’t know what to make of it.
“Matt, call me. You’re going to Tampa.”
That was soon followed by a similar message from his father.
Two weeks before Christmas, Joyce had been traded by the Detroit Tigers to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I’m almost scared because it’s so perfect,” Joyce said. “At first you’re kind of split. It’s hard to see yourself anywhere else than the team you came up with. But if I had to be traded, I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The trade was the final twist of a wild year for Joyce, who made it to the major leagues for the first time at the age of 24. It has been his dream for as long as he can remember.
Now if he makes it with the Rays, who have no regular right fielder, Joyce will play close to home.
Home has been Hillsborough County and Lakeland, where he went to college, trained with the Tigers and now spends much of his time with his girlfriend, Randi Jones. It would be hard to imagine a better or a better-timed opportunity.
“I was hoping (for a trade to) an East Coast team, but I never expected the Rays at all,” said Joyce’s dad, Matt Joyce Sr. “It’s awesome. This is the best thing that could have happened.”
looking to the future
Joyce will report to spring training this week as one of five or six players who could start the regular season in right field for the Rays.
Even while they were winning the pennant last year, right field was the Rays’ most unsettled position, and now Eric Hinske and Rocco Baldelli are out of the mix.
That doesn’t assure Joyce of anything.
Indeed, the Rays seem to consider him more a part of their future than their present.
“We think he has a chance to develop into a very good player and can help this team for many years,” said Andrew Friedman, vice president of baseball operations, who traded pitcher Edwin Jackson for Joyce. “I’m not sure yet what type of impact he’ll have in ’09, but I feel like he will certainly contribute.
“But we also feel like he’s someone that’ll help us win games in 2010 and beyond.” Friedman said.
Fair enough, says Joyce.
“It’s not my decision, and I don’t really want to know (what the Rays have in mind),” he said. “I’m just going to get to know the guys and have fun with it.
“Coming up through the minors and being drafted in the 12th round, I’m not handed anything,” he said. “You earn each step along the way. I’ll come in and hopefully raise a few eyebrows and show them I should play.”
That approach is part of what made Joyce attractive as a winter trade commodity, said David Meter, his agent. The Rays needed an outfielder with power more than they needed a pitcher.
“If you’re the Rays, you don’t trade a 14-game winner unless you feel like the guy you get can contribute,” Meter said.
FSC ‘the BEST FIT’
Matthew Ryan Joyce was born Aug. 3, 1984, in Tampa.
His parents were divorced when he was young, and for three years he lived with his grandmother and two uncles in Carrolwood.
It was there, as a first-grader, that he read a pamphlet about being a Major League baseball player, and the dream began.
In fifth grade, the Joyces moved to Seffner, where Matt attended Armwood High School and went to Rays games with his dad.
After high school, Florida Southern College in Lakeland was “the best fit,” he said. “Full ride, very good baseball program and school, a chance to start right away.”
Pete Meyer, who coached him at FSC, remembers Joyce as a “really skinny” freshman in 2003. “But he always had that left-handed swing; I just tried not to mess it up. He’s a natural hitter.”
The 6-foot-2 Joyce has added some 20 pounds since then and now weighs 185.
Although he tries not to think like a home-run hitter – an obsession with pulling the ball subjects him to slumps – the extra muscle paid off last year. Joyce broke in with a power surge, becoming the first Tiger in more than a half-century to hit 10 home runs in his first 36 games.
His favorite was the first one, in Detroit against the New York Yankees on May 10.
“My dad came up for that one, and for some reason he had never seen me hit a home run in the minor leagues,” Joyce said. “Then the first time he saw me in the majors, I hit a home run the first time up. Someone was looking down on me then.”
With his promotion to the big leagues, Joyce’s salary went up several multiples to $390,000 per year.
What he makes this year will depend on the portion of the season he spends in the majors.
His father has been a major influence in Joyce’s career choice, starting with “pitching to him when he was 2 years old.”
Once when Matt Sr. was called on short notice to make a delivery for a beer distributor, he had to take his adolescent son along.
“Dad, I don’t know how you can do this,” Matt said as he watched his father stock shelves.
“I asked him, Would you rather do this or hit a baseball for a living?'” Matt Sr. recalled. “He was always a hard worker, but I think it was at that point he got a little extra oomph.”
‘The low times’
Like most ballplayers, Joyce has had setbacks.
Even after his good start with Detroit last spring, he was sent back to the minors for a while. In 2007, self-doubt set in when he hit .190 in his first two months at Double-A ball with the team at Erie.
“Glen Adams, the manager, called me into his office and said you’ve got to pick it up,” Joyce said. “I remember praying at night, not sleeping. That week I got a couple of hits and took off from there.
“Finally I told myself I’ve got to relax and play, and whatever happens happens,” he said.
Sometimes, what happens is good.
“Every year I get a get a little better, a little smarter in how to play the game,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a roller coaster, but a lot of times it comes down to how you deal with the low times.”
[ Dick Scanlon can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7554. ]
MATTHEW RYAN JOYCE
Born: Aug. 3, 1984, in Tampa
Education: Seffner Armwood High School, Florida Southern College
Major: Business marketing
Family: Father, Matt Kevin Joyce, who lives in Riverview with wife
Lisa and Matt’s stepsisters, Lindsey and Lacey; two sisters, Danielle, Wesley Chapel, and Breanna, Texas
Web site: Mattjoycebaseball.com
Job: Outfielder, Tampa Bay Rays
Drafted: 12th round by Detroit Tigers in 2005
Uniform number: 20
Car: Infiniti G37
Honor: American League Player of Week, July 7 to 13, 2008
Other sports: Golf, bowling
Other interests: Animals (rescued a kitten at Detroit’s Comerica Park last summer), video games and investment books
Oddity: Does everything right-handed except bat
Favorite food: Italian
Favorite players: Ken Griffey Jr. and Fred McGriff
Also admires: Investor Warren Buffett