Commentary

Given opportunity, Matt Joyce excelling

Rays outfielder, a native of the Tampa Bay area, second in the major leagues in hitting

Originally Published: June 8, 2011
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Matt Joyce is 26 years old and will earn $426,000 this season to play baseball. He is currently second in the majors in batting with a .340 average. Last week, his team dressed grunge-style in flannel shirts and torn jeans for a flight to Seattle and in Beach Boy surf wear for a trip to Anaheim.

But it sounds as if Joyce's father, Matt, might have had a wilder time playing ball.

The elder Joyce is a softball legend in the Tampa Bay area with the clippings to prove it, playing for teams such as Doc's in tournaments all around the Southeast in the 1980s and '90s. He was such a slugger that he batted in Tropicana Field before his son did -- he says he took part in a softball-hitting contest at the dome around 1998 when the Devil Rays were starting out.

[+] EnlargeMatt Joyce
Kim Klement/US PresswireThe Rays acquired Matt Joyce from the Tigers in exchange for pitcher Edwin Jackson before the beginning of the 2009 season.

"Did you ever hear of Eddie Feigner?'' the elder Joyce said of the famous softball pitcher who threw no-hitters across the country with his four-player team. "We played him in an exhibition game in Tampa once. They beat us like 28-1. He struck me out three times, once pitching the ball between his legs and once behind his back. But the one run we scored, I hit the pitch 400 feet. I guessed right that time.''

This was definitely not your typical beer league, and the elder Joyce says he was well compensated for playing. "[The team] took care of the hotel, would give me $500 for a weekend, take care of the flights, hotels -- it was pretty exciting," the elder Joyce said. "I would work my regular job [driving a beer truck] and go fly and play on the weekends.''

When the tournaments were within driving distance, Joyce would take his son along. "I remember watching him play and being completely wowed by his talent and athletic ability. It was awesome,'' the younger Joyce said. "He played left field and he had an absolute cannon. You think of those beer league softball teams, but he played competitive softball. It was professional. Being a little kid, I would watch an inning or two and then go play on the monkey bars or something because I was so little. But I really remember him being unbelievably good.

"It was crazy. They would travel around and I would usually go with them. I would go to the bars with them after the games. It was a great learning experience. You were around the baseball field all the time so it was ingrained in you. You saw your dad out there doing it and wanted to be like him, and it worked out.''

Yes, it did. The elder Joyce taught his son to bat left-handed so he could better instruct with his swing and frequently pitched batting practice to him after tiring days driving a beer truck ("I did make him chase the balls he hit,'' the elder Joyce said). He coached his youth ball teams. He videotaped his college games at Florida Southern. He offered whatever baseball advice he could. And when the Devils Rays started in 1998, Joyce took his son there as well, roughly six games a year.

"I would tell him, 'When you get here, this is how you want to act and this is not how you want to act,'" the elder Joyce said.

There wasn't much to cheer for during that first generation of Rays days -- "Most of the time you probably got more excited to see the other team,'' the younger Joyce said -- but father and son fondly recall attending the game in which Tampa native Wade Boggs homered for his 3,000th career hit and kissed home plate after he circled the bases. The younger Joyce remembers sitting there in the stands, eating Dippin' Dots ("The ice cream of the future!'') and watching the five-time batting champ reach one of the game's greatest milestones when his father leaned over and said, "That could be you one day.''

Well, Joyce is 2,816 hits short of kissing home plate. But after six seasons in pro ball, two organizations and three major league seasons never hitting higher than .252 or batting as many as 250 times, he's second in the majors in hitting. Dippin' Dots may not have turned out to be the ice cream of the future, but the kid who ate them in the Tampa Bay stands was definitely a ballplayer of the future.

"I feel like for the first time I've been given the chance to go out there and play every day,'' Joyce said. "I'm relaxed and comfortable and confident. I think when you have those things, it allows you to do a lot more things than when you're under pressure and trying to do too much.''

Joyce knows all about that. Drafted by Detroit in 2005 and traded to Tampa Bay for pitcher Edwin Jackson before the 2009 season, Joyce had trouble establishing himself, constantly worrying that if he didn't come up big enough one game he would be out of the lineup the next.

"That's the thing I struggled with for three years," Joyce said. "It's a terrible feeling, it's a terrible way to play. You have to find a way to be consistent, you have to find a way to have good at-bats. You just battle, you grind it out and hopefully find a way to play every day.''

I'm relaxed and comfortable and confident. I think when you have those things, it allows you to do a lot more things than when you're under pressure and trying to do too much.

-- Matt Joyce

He finally has. This season he's batting .340 with 10 home runs, a .400 on base percentage and a .997 OPS. He hit 30 points higher in May (.414) than any other player in the majors. He cooled a bit the first week of June and has struggled some against lefties (a .222 batting average), but Rays manager Joe Maddon says Joyce is helping the team win in every way -- hitting, fielding and running.

"I think maturity is part of it,'' Maddon said of Joyce's success this year. "Another part of it is, as a hitter, I'm seeing two things. One, he's more apt to hit the ball to left field than he has in the past, and it's on a line for a hit. And he's got a real good organization of the strike zone now. He's not swinging at bad pitches. He's just not. He's always had somewhat of an organized strike zone, but he would chase a breaking ball out of it. He's definitely done that in the past and he's not doing it now.''

"In spring training, I struggled a little bit, then made some adjustments,'' Joyce said. "I shortened my swing a bit and started to use the whole field. And I'm really keeping the ball out of the air. With all those things combined, and learning the strike zone, it's worked out and I'm having success.''

And his father is there to enjoy it, watching his games in Tampa and texting Matt positive hitting reminders most every day. He gave up softball five years ago due to the pain and restrictions brought on by multiple injuries to his back and knees. Talking with him, however, and listening to the old stories about bounties being placed on opposing pitchers, you sense that the greatest pain is not being able to play the game he loved so well. "I miss them days playing, but I was taught when you can't play the game the way you're supposed to at 120 percent, then it's time to get out,'' the elder Joyce said.

And besides, he is able to live his old baseball dreams through his son. "I pretty much do,'' he said. "It's a lot of fun to watch him play and know I played a part in it.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Follow Jim Caple on Twitter:

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com