Matt Joyce is trying to help the Rays capture a World Series title, but like every other player on the roster, the outfielder first had to earn a big league job. Joyce’s journey began when he was drafted by the Tigers, in 2005, three years before he came to Tampa Bay in a trade for Edwin Jackson. Joyce talked about his road to “The Show” earlier this season.
David Laurila: Prior to beginning your professional career, you played in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. What was that experience like?
Matt Joyce: That was the first time I had any wood bat experience, and I think it was kind of similar to winter ball in that you get on a bus and you travel, and you play a lot of different games against a lot of different teams. There aren’t a lot of fans. I wasn’t fortunate enough to go to the Cape Cod League, but I did get some good experience in the NECBL. It helped me get to where I am today.
DL: Once you got there, how similar was pro ball to the NECBL?
MJ: There were definitely some similarities. There were the bus rides, it was obviously a wooden bat league, and there was great competition. The only real difference is that you do it for six months in the minor leagues, and are staying in hotels in different cities, and it’s an absolute grind. In the NECBL you’re only doing it for a couple of months.
DL: When you signed your first contract, did you know what life in the minor leagues was truly going to be like?
MJ: I had no idea. It was definitely a shock and something that you have to get used to. And you never really actually get used to it. It’s always a grind, but you have to do your best.
DL: You started your career in the New York-Penn League, in Oneonta. What was that like?
MJ: Oneonta was actually not a bad town. It was a nice town, and there was beautiful scenery, but the field was really rough and the clubhouse wasn’t very good. We stayed in a dorm for the first half of the season and then in the last half we stayed in a motel called The Oasis. And it was not pretty, to say the least.
DL: Were you aware of the facilities before you got to Oneonta?
MJ: No, I wasn’t. The dorm wasn’t too bad; each of the guys had their own room, which was a good thing. Once we got to the motel we had to share a room, which meant that you didn’t really have any time to unwind by yourself and relax. It was a different experience. It was a learning experience and something that helps you to build a lot of character.
DL: Once you and your teammates left Oneonta, did you find yourselves saying, “Geez, we really played there?”
MJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. We would say that all the time. I remember a line drive, kind of a hard-hit line drive that was hit to me when I was in right field. It took one bounce, then another bounce, and then it just kicked. The grass was just so uneven, and there were so many potholes, that the ball just kicked and I remember that I had to literally dive to my left. It started right at me, but I had to dive to my left. The field was tough. So it was a real grind, and obviously the guys would joke about it afterwards. They’d say, “Man, that was an experience; that was rough.”
DL: Your second year was with the West Michigan Whitecaps, who draw well and have a nice ballpark. Did that feel more like professional baseball?
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. We had a lot more fans, a lot more support, and like you said, the field is beautiful. We actually stayed with a host family, who took care of us. That was a great experience, because they helped us out a lot.
DL: For people who aren’t familiar with host families in the minor leagues, how does that work?
MJ: A host family is basically a family that takes you in; they put you under their roof. You pay them a little bit of money and they kind of support you. They take care of you, they shelter you, and then if you’re lucky enough, they feed you. They’ll cook some homemade food for you sometimes. They also come and support you at the games. Justin Justice and I were lucky enough to live together with a good family.
DL: The following season you moved up to Double-A. What were your living arrangements in Erie?
MJ: I stayed with Jair Jurrjens and Eulogio de la Cruz. I don’t know where de la Cruz is now; I obviously know that J.J. is with Atlanta. I actually just faced him in Triple-A. That was cool, man. We were giggling at each other, trying not to smirk.
We had to get our own house. Fortunately enough, it was cheap and we split the [rent]. But it was cold, man. Erie was cold. That was the main thing I remember about Erie. You had to fight through everything that comes with being in the minor leagues, plus it was freezing cold. We got snowed out of our first four games.
DL: From Erie you went to Triple-A Toledo. What was that experience like?
MJ: Toledo was great. For me, it was a great experience. The coaching staff, the players, the whole atmosphere; we lived right across the street in a nice apartment. It was a great setup. It was a beautiful field; the ball traveled well there. I was happy to play there and did pretty well.
DL: You’ve also spent time in the minors since coming over to the Rays. How do the two organizations compare at the minor league level?
MJ: You know, it’s tough for me to say because I didn’t come up with the Rays, but as far as Double-A and Triple-A go, it’s similar. I think that the Rays really force being aggressive on the basepaths. They want you to take chances; they want you to steal and put pressure on the opposition.
The Tigers, in Triple-A, I mean, they really want you to drive the ball. They’re more worried about hitting doubles and home runs, and stuff like that. That was the biggest difference for me when I came over to the Rays, learning to play all aspects of the game. I was never really expected to steal when I was with the Tigers.
DL: You went back to Triple-A after spending half a season with the Tigers, in 2008. Mentally, how different is to play in the minors when you’ve already had some success in the big leagues?
MJ: At each level you go up to, the first time there you’re excited and you don’t know any better. You’re just happy to be there. Once you go up to the big leagues, and then come down, it’s kind of frustrating. You know that you’re good enough to play in the big leagues, but you have to kind of sit in Triple-A and work on other aspects of your game when you feel that you should be in the big leagues. But a lot of guys do it, and you just have to learn how to deal it. You have to learn how to deal with going through that emotional rollercoaster.
You obviously want to play in the big leagues, and there’s everything that comes along with the big leagues, like the pay, the fans, the beautiful…I mean, they spoil you up here, basically. When you go down to the minors, you obviously take a huge pay cut, you ride on long bus trips, you take the red-eye flights, you stay in just-OK hotels with a roommate. It’s a different world.
I don’t think that people really realize what you have to go through in the minor leagues, what it really takes. That’s why there are a lot of stories in the minor leagues. There are a lot of things that people don’t see, and it’s just the way things are. I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent down there, but I’d rather be up here in the big leagues. We all would.