Outfielder Matt Joyce will join his Rays teammates today at newly renovated Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, striving to find his role for the defending American League champions.
Joyce, who was acquired from Detroit in the offseason, takes on the challenge of becoming a fixture on a team that won 97 games last year.
He will shag flies across lush green fields, hurl laser throws into home and maybe even crush a few batting practice home runs off the new tiki bar in center field.
And then he'll reminisce about the place he hit his first home run. No, not Detroit's Comerica Park. I mean the place he hit his first home run: North Brandon Little League.
The Armwood High and Florida Southern graduate will make the 90-minute drive from Port Charlotte to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the North Brandon complex tonight.
Joyce, 24, joins Chone Figgins (Angels) and Ryan Raburn (Tigers) as major leaguers who learned the game at North Brandon, but his appearance tonight takes on a little more meaning because he's playing for the hometown team.
"I think there's going to be a special connection because the kids can turn on the TV every night and see him play," said North Brandon's Rob Turkett. "They can drive 45 minutes with their dads and watch him play for the Rays just like Matt did with his dad.
"We're extremely excited to have him here."
Joyce is excited, too. Although he has played only one season, he already embraces the chance to influence his youngest fans.
"I definitely want to be a role model," Joyce said. "I think there are a lot of guys nowadays that kids look up to. Because of the news about some, they may be getting the wrong image of what they should be like.
"I just want to be a big part of that. That's where you grew up, that's your home ground. You have to pay respect to it and take care of it."
Part of Joyce's motivation comes from the fact he didn't have a major league player come out and discuss what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport. However, there will be more than major league talk to his message.
"I guess the biggest thing is don't take it too seriously," Joyce said when asked what he would share. "This game can be very frustrating and it's meant to be fun. Enjoy it. It goes really fast and you get what you put into it.
"Work hard enough, and anything is possible."
Joyce is living proof of that last statement. Although he displayed potential during his Little League days, he wasn't necessarily one of those players everyone ticketed for stardom. Even today, about half his friends say they knew he would make it and about half say they can't believe he made it.
Yet under the watchful eye of his father, also Matt, Joyce spent long days honing his game at North Brandon. He often played against older kids in higher age divisions, and fondly recalls competing with his stepbrother, Lance McDonald.
Those formative years featured a lot of firsts, a lot of growing and a lot of time with his dad, who coached most of his teams.
It wasn't always rosy.
"He knew baseball. He helped out a lot … but I think we butted heads a lot. He wanted me to succeed so he was overly involved, but I know I wouldn't be where I am now without him."
After North Brandon, Joyce went on to Armwood, playing against many of his former North Brandon friends who moved on to Brandon High. He earned a scholarship to Florida Southern and Detroit drafted him in 2005.
Last year, he made his major league debut, hitting .252 with 12 home runs and 33 RBIs for the Tigers in 242 at-bats. The Rays, who gave up 14-game winner Edwin Jackson to get Joyce, believe Joyce has exceptional defensive skills and the potential to be a real force at the plate.
However, he will have to compete with Gabe Gross to earn a spot in a right-field platoon situation, and could begin the year in Triple-A Durham depending on how well he plays this spring.
Sure, throwing out the first pitch only requires an hour of his time, but don't take it for granted.
If he told the North Brandon officials, "Sorry, can't make it," not many would quibble with the decision.
Instead, he's making the drive up — proving that the term "hometown hero" is not always defined by hits and homers.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at [email protected] or (813) 226-3406.