LAKELAND — Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said whenever he goes to Joker Marchant Stadium, "it feels like a warm homecoming party."
Joyce, 28, grew up in Tampa, but after starring at Florida Southern in Lakeland and starting his professional career with Detroit, he has developed strong roots — and a fan base — in TigerTown.
"It's like I know everybody in the stands," Joyce said. "They're yelling, 'Go Mocs!' and, 'Hey, Joyce!' You have a lot of Florida Southern fans and Detroit Tigers fans get in there, saying, 'We miss you in Detroit.' It's a good mix, and plus, you have your hometown Rays people out here. It doesn't get any better for me."
Joyce makes sure to visit Florida Southern a couple of times a year, including speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for the program's new clubhouse last fall. Athletic director Pete Meyer, who coached Joyce with the Moccasins, said though about a dozen of the school's players have made the majors, including current coach Lance Niekro, Joyce is the only active one.
"He's as good as gold for me," Meyer said. "He hasn't changed a whole lot."
Joyce is a lot bigger than the wiry 165-pound freshman who showed up on campus 10 years ago. The former Armwood High standout was also recruited by the likes of the University of Tampa, and he got a small scholarship offer from USF, but Meyer sold him on the opportunity to play right away.
Joyce earned All-Sunshine State Conference honors as a sophomore and helped the Mocs win the 2005 Division II national title, the program's ninth. Though Meyer said Joyce wasn't the top prospect on the team, which included 10 players who eventually got drafted, "there was no doubt he had the tools right from the get-go."
The Tigers noticed Joyce during exhibitions against the school at Joker Marchant Stadium, their spring training home, and drafted him in the 12th round in 2005. His signing scout, Steve Nichols, is a former Florida Southern player and assistant.
"It's exciting to see where it kind of originally started for me," Joyce said. "It's a thrill. There's a lot of great memories here for me."
Joyce, who broke into the big leagues in 2008 with the Tigers before getting traded to the Rays that offseason, feels grateful and lucky that he stayed healthy and make it to the majors while some of his talented former teammates may not have received the opportunity.
Though Joyce was an All-Star in 2011, he is still hoping for a chance to play every day, saying he feels "more comfortable than ever." Rays manager Joe Maddon said Joyce has come a long way in becoming a complete player, improving his defense and baserunning. Joyce showed that in Tuesday's 11-5 win over the Tigers, making a running catch against the leftfield wall and slapping a single off a lefty before going first to third on a hit to right.
Maddon acknowledged Joyce is "clamoring" for full-time duty — just 234 of his 1,351 big-league at-bats have come against lefties — but said the Rays likely won't stray from their platoon system. Joyce, who has hit .201 vs lefties, will get matched up with certain ones. "If he's able to run with it further than that," Maddon says, "that's up to him."
Meyer believes Joyce will, having seen his journey from the beginning. "I just want him to keep swinging that swing."