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Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce enjoys journey to All-Star Game

Matt Joyce watched the Rays as a fan. Now he represents them in the All-Star Game.

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Matt Joyce watched the Rays as a fan. Now he represents them in the All-Star Game.

PHOENIX — He will line up beside them on the field this evening, his name called out among the superstars, the award winners, the future Hall of Famers. And somehow, Matt Joyce will feel a greater kinship with a 27-year-old real estate agent sitting in Section 115.

Yes, Joyce is an All-Star today. And he will be a big-leaguer for many years to come. Yet the Brandon native can still recall all the yesterdays that brought him to this moment.

"People congratulate me and say how wonderful this is," Joyce said Monday, sitting in a ballroom of a luxury hotel. "And I think, 'If only they knew how far I've come and what I had to go through to get here.'

"If they knew, they'd realize how much I really do appreciate it."

If they knew the phone never rang on draft day of his senior year at Armwood High. Or the Division I scholarship offers that never came his way.

Or even the first day of workouts at Florida Southern College when he met a teenager from Orlando named Geoff Strickland. For three years they played together at the Division II school in Lakeland, Strickland at shortstop and Joyce in the outfield.

And when they won the Division II World Series in 2005, it was Strickland who was the first Moccasin drafted, taken 153 picks earlier than Joyce was in the 12th round.

Six years later, Joyce is an American League All-Star.

And Strickland, who will be the best man in Joyce's wedding this winter, is a real estate agent in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after being released following four minor-league seasons.

Maybe Joyce was just more talented. Maybe he was willing to sacrifice more along the way. Or maybe it was just the randomness of this game.

Whatever the reason, the journey is not lost on either.

"People may not believe me, but if it had to be one of us, I'm glad it was him," Strickland said at Chase Field before Monday's home run derby. "He is such a good kid, and he's worked so hard to make it here tonight.

"I'm getting chills and tearing up just thinking about how special this is. I'd love to be out there myself, but I couldn't be happier for him."

• • •

His competition in rightfield was Gabe Gross. And Gabe Kapler, too.

Yet in his first season in Tampa Bay, Joyce could only define himself in comparisons with a pitcher 1,200 miles away.

After his rookie season in Detroit in 2008, Joyce was traded to the Rays in exchange for pitcher Edwin Jackson. Never mind that the Rays wanted to move Jackson's salary, or that they had Jeff Niemann waiting in the wings.

And never mind that the Rays were clear from the start that Joyce was probably heading back to Triple A as soon as spring training ended.

The only truth Joyce could understand was that Jackson was an All-Star three months later, and he was the guy who couldn't get out of the minors.

"It was crushing. It was disheartening. Frustrating would probably be the best word to describe it," Joyce said. "Frustrating to be in the minor leagues after you just got traded for somebody and they're having a lot of success, and you're not getting the chance.

"You have a lot of people looking at you like, 'Why did they trade for this guy?' "

Things only got worse when Joyce was called up from the minors June 25 last season, and that night, Jackson no-hit the Rays at Tropicana Field.

He can laugh about it now. He can tell the story of eating lunch in the clubhouse while Jackson was pitching on TV, and Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey teasing executive vice president Andrew Friedman, who was sitting nearby.

"Yeah, real nice trade you made there," Hickey said.

But at the time, Joyce was eaten up with self-doubt.

"This is why it's always difficult to analyze trades in a vacuum," Friedman says now. "We didn't make that trade necessarily for the 2009 season, although we did take that money (saved) and we reallocated it. But we knew when we made that decision, it was for longer-term benefits."

Two full seasons have passed, and Jackson has been traded twice more.

And now the All-Star comparisons begin with Joyce.

• • •

The guy in the All-Star jersey and Rays hat tonight was once the kid in the bleachers eating the Dippin' Dots out of the miniature Devil Rays helmet.

Joyce was there at Tropicana Field the night Wade Boggs hit a homer for his 3,000th hit. Other nights he would sit near the bullpen and watch the pitchers warm up, as his father teased him about whether he could hit their fastballs.

"I have this vivid memory of sitting next to my dad and him saying, 'That could be you out there someday,' " Joyce said. "It's amazing how far I've come.

"And what a ride it's been."

This is what Joyce has thought about in the days leading up to tonight's All-Star Game. The hours spent in batting cages. The minor-league parties he skipped. The lessons he learned and the impatience he fought.

He is an All-Star, yes. One of baseball's elite.

Yet it is not the honor that defines Matt Joyce, but rather the journey that brought him here.

Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Joyce enjoys journey to All-Star Game 07/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 12, 2011 12:28am]
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