Yankees Magazine: The Road Taken

His entire life, Luke Voit has sought and seized opportunity, and that has made all the difference

March 7th, 2019
New York Yankees

There is a hole in the fence at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri, one that limber, slight young ballplayers have been squeezing through for years. Xanadu -- or at least the Lancers’ baseball field -- lies on the other side, the place to go for a few extra swings or late-night bullpen sessions. It’s the ultimate 10-cent crime, doing something you shouldn’t for the greater good; no coach would seriously get angry at a player sneaking through to get more reps in.

But what was a football player doing in there? ? Seriously?

If you asked folks in Wildwood to describe Voit, the words nimble and slight wouldn’t crack the top million responses. But then they also wouldn’t have said baseball player. This was not the kid you’d expect to see sneaking onto baseball fields as a high school senior.

From an early age, he had big dreams -- football dreams. The burly youngster saw himself as a linebacker dominating for some big-time SEC school. When he looked in the mirror, when he stepped on a field, when he towered over his classmates in the hallway, there was no doubt in his mind that he was destined for the football field. He was a born athlete, a naturally hard worker and physically gifted -- made for the gridiron.

Voit played other sports, of course -- baseball and basketball were his other two favorites -- but football was the focus.

Until it wasn’t anymore. It couldn’t be.

When the first dislocation and subsequent shoulder surgery happened, it was nothing more than a setback -- one more obstacle to climb over on the way to the top. Voit was still young, with most of his high school career ahead of him. But the second shoulder injury, the one he suffered almost exactly a year later in a scrimmage, forced him to re-evaluate.

“My whole thing was hitting people, and I couldn’t use my left shoulder,” Voit says a decade later, the Lafayette High football field visible just over that very shoulder. “You need that in football, so … that was it.”

For football, at least. This kid, he was a born athlete, remember? So if it wasn’t one sport, it would have to be another.

It was time for Voit to pursue a new dream. So, he found a different path to follow; a new opening to crawl through. He has never taken the front door and he has never ended up exactly where he intended, but all his life he has managed to keep finding those openings one way or another.

To friends and neighbors, it was only a matter of time.

“We always said that he never got a clear shot with the Cardinals, and that was frustrating for all of us to watch because we know what he’s capable of doing,” says Spencer Thomson, who coached Voit in a youth summer league. Thomson still works with him in the offseason at 314 Training Academy in Brentwood, Missouri. “So it was awesome to watch him get a chance to play every day and see what happens. He’s been like that at every single level … It was like, of course he would do that.”

For years, Wildwood residents have witnessed The Luke Voit Show, starring a hulking youngster who always managed to adjust to meet the great heights of his dreams.

“I remember we used to do team trivia and team bonding stuff,” Thomson says, “and we’d ask questions like, ‘Where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ He always said, ‘Playing in the NFL.’ He knew he was bigger and stronger than everybody, so he could play professional sports.”

After moving on from football and throwing himself into baseball, Voit proved his mettle on the diamond for the Lafayette Lancers, batting .486 in his senior year with six homers, 17 extra-base hits, an .892 slugging percentage and first-team all-state honors. But those stats didn’t come just because he was bigger and stronger. Voit may have been physically ahead of his peers, but in terms of pure talent, he knew there was more he would need to do if he wanted to stand out from the crowd.

“We weren’t always the fastest or the strongest, but we wanted to out-compete you,” Voit says, linking his younger brother, John’s, work ethic with his own. That meant committing to personal training sessions multiple times per week with Brian Fitzmaurice, starting at age 14. It meant going to the local batting cages four or five times a week on top of those training sessions and regularly scheduled practices. And -- sssh! -- there was also some of that covert work that involved squeezing through fences.

“He was always wanting extra work and extra hitting on the weekends,” says his Lafayette baseball coach, Steve Miller. “He lived right across from the school. I’m sure there were plenty of times he went through the opening in the fence to go hit.”

Voit hasn’t even a shade of regret about his light trespassing. It was what he had to do. Fitzmaurice says that determination is Voit’s No. 1 character trait. But it can also be his kryptonite.

“He has a tendency to internally criticize himself a lot,” Fitzmaurice says. “He bullies himself to push harder, work harder, do more. So when he has a setback, it’s like, ‘Hey man, let’s go, let’s do this.’

“I think you have to be your No. 1 fan and your No. 1 cheerleader and not bullying yourself all the time. You have to make sure you’re your No. 1 advocate. For him that’s the thing, just being kind to himself.”

After completing a workout lasting more than two hours that includes sled-pulls of more than 600 pounds, 500-pound tire pushes and side planks while balancing 22-pound barbells, Voit concedes that Fitzmaurice might be onto something. But his dreams are too big for anything less than superhuman effort. He lost one on the football field; he isn’t about to let another dream die by refusing to go for that extra rep or take those extra swings.

“I don’t want to look back in 10 years and think, ‘I could have done this,’ or, ‘Maybe if I hadn’t done that,’” Voit says. “Whether you’re in the NBA, NHL, NFL, whatever -- I think a lot of guys get to that level and they can kind of get content. And I never want to be like that.”

When Voit graduated from Lafayette High in 2009, he had a choice to make. He had been selected by Kansas City in the 32nd round of the MLB draft, a dream for any aspiring pro. But after a strong senior season on the diamond and some serendipity, as well, there was another door available to him, an offer to improve his draft position while playing Division I baseball.

He was never supposed to be drafted, but he never thought he was destined to be recruited to play college baseball, either. Yet here he was staring down two yellow-brick roads, Dorothy Gale with muscles and ruby baseball cleats. He decided to attend Missouri State.

“I still talk to my parents and [my wife] about it, saying, ‘Man, what would my life be like if I had signed?’” Voit says. “I’m actually happy I didn’t. As much as you wonder about how maybe I could have gotten to do all these things at 22, at the same time I could have been out of baseball in three years. So, I think I made the right choice. … It was tough, but I don’t think I was mature enough to go into professional baseball.”

Instead, Voit suited up for the Bears for four years. In 2010, despite missing more than a month due to a thumb injury, he still finished second on the team in RBI, shuffling between catcher, first base and designated hitter. The next year, Voit earned Second-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors as a utility player after hitting .286 with six homers, 35 RBI and six steals. He improved again in 2012, when he was primarily used as a catcher, batting .298, crushing six homers and leading the team with 46 RBI. But the improvement in his game was buoyed by a mental transformation off the field.

“Luke was Luke’s own worst enemy, as many young players are,” says Keith Guttin, Missouri State’s head baseball coach. “He would get very frustrated after at-bats that he didn’t feel were good. He would try to do too much at times. These things are very common to young players. He was very fiery, and it didn’t come out the right way all the time, but he wanted to win, there was no question about that. I think at times he wanted to do too much; if our fence was 320 feet, 325 would have been just fine, but he wanted 625 with his home runs.

“He played baseball like it was football at times. But you knew what you were getting from him every day, you were getting his best.” 

Voit thought he knew about commitment; at Missouri State, he learned what it really takes to play baseball every day. The training, the work, the grind, all repeated the next day. He knew he had a future if he could harness his talent and settle into a routine, and he was desperate to prove himself.

The Cardinals took notice, and in 2013 Voit’s hometown team drafted him in the 22nd round. He had jumped 10 rounds since his first draft day, but waiting to be selected was still torture for the kid who was already on to his second and last backup plan -- it was MLB or bust.

“It was crazy because I didn’t even really talk to the Cardinals that much,” Voit says. “Obviously there were other teams that were interested, and they kept telling me certain rounds and those rounds would go by. … I remember thinking, ‘Is this really not going to happen? What’s going to happen? I don’t know what to do. Do I go back to school? Am I going to become a coach? I don’t know what’s next.’ But then my mom starts screaming, ‘You just got drafted!’ I yell, ‘By who? By who?’ Because I couldn’t watch anymore, I was getting so frustrated. And she goes, ‘You got drafted by the Cardinals!’”

Five years later, though, the excitement had worn off; the frustration was creeping back in. Voit had methodically worked his way up the Cardinals’ Minor League ladder, even debuting in St. Louis and cracking his first career home run at Busch Stadium with his brother watching in the stands. But he was blocked at his position by All-Star first baseman

Between 2017 and 2018, the Cardinals recalled Voit from the Minors four times, usually for short stints. When he was up, he was a role player, unable to get into the groove of a set routine.

“It’s such a cool feeling when you make it to the big leagues,” he says. “When I first got called up, I was playing because one of the guys had a nagging injury and the All-Star break was coming up, so I played and I did really well. I was feeling really good, like I had a chance, but then I got back for the second half and was a bench player.

“You want to help them win, but you kind of have your hands tied because you can’t write the lineup and put your name in it every night.”

With his career stalled and no openings to crawl through, Voit wasn’t sure what to do next. He was technically where he wanted to be, but at the same time not exactly there. He was an MLB player, kind of. He had reached his goal, sort of. 

Then the phone rang.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had Voit on his “watch list” for about a year prior to making a deal for the first baseman on July 29, 2018. Yankees scouts saw metrics that predicted Voit could be an impact player, especially considering how hard he hit the ball. They evaluated the adjustments Voit made at each level and in his big league stints, recognizing his ability to get even better. They identified him as a hard worker.

“He became a radar player to follow,” Cashman says. “So if we could secure him in the right deal, we would go for it.”

During a busy trade season, Cashman made the swap just ahead of the deadline, sending and  to St. Louis in exchange for Voit and international bonus pool money. Those who were unfamiliar viewed Voit as added depth to the Yanks’ roster. He was eager to prove those folks wrong. Maybe a little too eager.

In early August, Voit appeared in five games, hitting just .188 with a .235 on-base percentage. He was sent to Triple-A, where he thrived in seven games for the RailRiders.

“It was scary at first because New York City, I was only there a couple times and it’s huge, and you know how crazy Yankees fans are and the success they want,” Voit says. “They know they’re the best, which is intimidating at first, but I just told myself to be me and go up there. And obviously I think I tried to do too much the first time I was up there, and it bit me in the butt. But you live and learn, and I got another chance, thankfully, and I didn’t look back.”

The Yankees recalled Voit on Aug. 21, and from that point on, he never looked back. Seizing his shot, Voit forced himself into the everyday lineup by hitting .353 with 31 RBI and mashing those 14 home runs in the final weeks of the season. Each time the big first baseman launched a ball deep into the Bronx night, the fans at Yankee Stadium fell more and more in love with the giddy, grinning, spiky-haired man-child trotting around the bases and bashing forearms with his teammates. Chants of Luuuuuuke rained down with regularity.

Voit’s play earned him starts in each of the Yankees’ postseason games in 2018, including the American League Wild Card Game against Oakland at Yankee Stadium in which Voit hit a triple that he initially thought was a home run, leading to a memorable mad dash around the bases that delighted the Stadium and the guys in the Yankees’ dugout.

To most, it seemed that Voit had finally made it. He had taken the long path from Wildwood to the Bronx and had earned the adoration of Yankees fans. But starring in New York was never where he was supposed to be. Some still think it isn’t, or at least that it won’t be. He knows that people wonder if what they saw in 2018 was real. So there is a lot of ground left to cover, a lot more left to prove. And the golden opportunity that lies before him inspires Voit to work even harder.

“I never was supposed to make it to the big leagues in the first place,” he says. “I wasn’t supposed to get drafted out of high school or college. I wasn’t the first rounder or the guy that got a bunch of money, was always in the media or was a top prospect. I never really had that, and it might have made my life a little bit different if I did. But just like the commitment I put into everything I’ve wanted to do, it just makes me who I am. And even though I’m in New York now, I’m not going to change the way I am just because I’m in the big city and in the spotlight. I’m going to just be me, which a lot of people saw and I think they liked.”

Voit has big goals. He wants to be a team leader. He talks of winning a Gold Glove, making an All-Star team, and of course, winning a championship. “That would be unbelievable,” he says. “It would be like, I don’t know, going to heaven. That’s how I feel walking up to Yankee Stadium -- it’s like walking up to the gates of heaven. It looks like the Roman Empire. To do it in that city, the legacy would be unbelievable. And the guys we have on that team, most of them are coming back, so it will be an incredible experience because we’ve built great friendships. It would be kind of like Christmas morning -- it’d be something where you wake up every morning so excited.”

So settle in, because for Voit, there has never been a shot he wouldn’t take or a risky path he wouldn’t follow. What comes next, no one knows. But it’s safe to say that Voit will be squeezing his massive frame through every minuscule crack he can find to get where he wants to be. Yankee Stadium may not be where Luke Voit expected to land, but it finally feels like he’s right where he belongs. And these days, he gets to walk through the front gates.