Luke Voit still can’t get used to people recognizing him in the city. The subway system remains terrifying to him. And the folks back home would never believe the price you have to pay for a good steak dinner in New York City.
But, man, it sure beats traveling in coach and having a roommate on the minor-league circuit, living on White Castle burgers on the road, and wondering if the dream of being a major-league ballplayer is nothing more than a delusionary fantasy.
A year ago, Voit was an unknown player stuck in Triple-A Memphis.
Today, he is the prince of New York, the savior of the New York Yankees’ franchise.
“Crazy, isn’t it?’’ Voit tells USA TODAY Sports. “A year ago, I feel like nobody knew me at all. Now, all of a sudden, I’m blowing up, especially in New York where the whole world is kind of watching.
“If you do well in New York, everybody loves you.
“It’s pretty special.’’
Luke Voit, 28, playing in his first full season as the Yankees’ everyday first baseman. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
Voit has been almost a one-man act playing in a group filled with raspy voices and broken-down instruments, with the Yankees placing a major league-leading 16 players on the injured list this season, and a dozen still out.
Yet, here are the Yankees, 19-14 entering Monday, two games behind the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East, while outscoring the opposition by 36 runs.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone says. “He’s been huge for us. He’s just a really good hitter who’s locked in, which is huge for us, with all of the guys we’ve had down.
“It’s really impressive what he’s done. You better be on your game as a pitcher, because you make a mistake, and he’s going to hurt you. He’s proving to be a front-line hitter in this game.’’
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Voit, 28, playing in his first full season as the Yankees’ everyday first baseman, is hitting .260 with nine homers and a team-leading 27 RBI. He’s coming off the third-longest on-base streak in the past 75 years by a Yankee, reaching base in 42 consecutive games.
“He’s a guy who controls the strikezone and hits the ball with authority,’’ Boone said. “You swing at strikes and you’ve got power to all fields like Luke does, you are going to be successful.
“That’s all we’ve seen him do since he’s gotten here.’’
It just took a whole long longer than Voit, 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, ever envisioned, and on a whole different side of the world than he imagined.
Voit grew up in Wildwood, Mo., where future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols has a home, and was drafted in the 22nd round by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, where his childhood hero, Mark McGwire, once played. He attended the same high school as 2011 World Series hero David Freese and former Philadelphia Phillies home-run king Ryan Howard.
He soared to the big leagues in four years, playing 62 games in 2017, but the Cardinals had no spot for him a year later. First base was filled by Matt Carpenter. The bench was filled with players who could play multiple positions. He was stuck in the minors.
“It was so frustrating,’’ said Voit. “I have a house back home, my family is in St. Louis, and I felt like I was letting everybody down. I was letting everything get into my head. My confidence was way down. I had to lean on a couple of guys just to get through it.’’
One happened to be Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly, who was blocked by nine-time All-Star Yadier Molina, until he was traded over the winter in the Paul Goldschmidt deal. They were teammates and roommates for five years, starting in 2013 when they played their first professional games at Class A State College in the New York-Penn League. Kelly was their third baseman. Voit was the catcher.
“We played together at every level, and even had our lockers next to each other,’’ said Kelly, one of the groomsmen in Voit’s wedding. “We were always talking, telling each other, 'Come on, man, keep going. We can do this.’ It was such a grind because we wanted to get to the big leagues and stay. And it wasn’t happening. We had to pick each other up.
“It was definitely a test.
“And we passed it.’’
Voit’s life dramatically changed the evening of July 28, 2018. He was in Las Vegas when he was taken off the field in the middle of a game. He was traded to the Yankees for relievers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos.
“It was so weird,’’ Voit says. “I grew up a Cardinals fan, and got to play for my dream team, and then all of a sudden I’m freaking traded to the New York Yankees, and on the phone with (GM) Brian Cashman, who tells me I’m going to get an opportunity to play.
“I’m a Midwest guy one day and wake up in a concrete jungle the next.’’
The opportunity lasted 12 days. Voit had three singles in 16 at-bats, and was back in the minors, playing nine games at AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre, before being recalled once again.
This time, to stay.
“When they called me back up,’’ Voit said, “I was like, 'All right, dude, this could be your last opportunity. Just be yourself. Don’t try, to do too much. And have some fun.
“I got a few hits, hit a few homers, and then rest is history.’’
Voit hit .353 this rest of the season with a major-league leading 14 homers and 33 RBI in 34 games, including seven homers in his final 11 games. In the playoffs, he became the first Yankee since 1932 to produce at least two RBI in each of his first two games.
He became an overnight folk hero.
“It was crazy, I couldn’t even ride the subways anymore,’’ Voit said, “without people recognizing me, or running up and screaming my name. I even tried wearing a cap and sunglasses. That didn’t work either.’’
He thought he would be incognito when he and his wife stopped at a local Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz., on the Yankees last trip, only to be stopped, and having more than 30,000 fans screaming “Luuuuuke,’’ when he stepped to the plate at Chase Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“It is crazy, it doesn’t matter where I am, and I’m recognized.’’ Voit said. “It’s amazing how many people just love the Yankees. The Luke chants are just as loud on the road as at home.
“Obviously, being in New York, you’re on national TV about every night, and if you have some success, everybody loves you.’’
Voit, who was supposed to be Greg Bird’s backup at first base, beat him out for the starting job in spring training, and hit a three-run homer in his first at-bat of the season. He was the American League’s Player of the Week on their West Coast trip, and his 31-game on-base streak to open the season was the longest to open a season since Derek Jeter in 1999.
“It’s been great, but I know things can change in a hurry, too,’’ Voit says. “It’s not like St. Louis, where they love you no matter what. If you struggle, it changes. I’ve seen CC (Sabathia) booed. I saw Aaron Judge get booed. If you have a bad game, they’ll let you know about it.
“Hey, it’s New York. They expect greatness. They have 27 world championships, so I get it.
“And I wouldn’t change it for the world.’’
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