There was a time when a surprise visit from a Rams running back would have gotten Luke Voit very excited. Growing up outside of St. Louis in Wildwood, Missouri, Voit spent his autumn Sundays consumed by Rams football. He was two weeks shy of his 9th birthday when future Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk led “The Greatest Show on Turf” to a 23-16 win over the Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.
But on a recent spring afternoon at Yankee Stadium, when Rams All-Pro running back Todd Gurley visited with CC Sabathia, Aaron Judge and some of the other football fanatics who wear pinstripes, Voit is unmoved. Sitting in the home dugout in his workout gear, fresh off another lift session in the Yankees’ weight room, the 28-year-old is all about New York -- and would rather not think about the Rams.
“It has nothing to do with him (Gurley); it’s Kroenke,” Voit says, referring to Rams owner Stan Kroenke, whose decision to move the team to Los Angeles in 2016 -- after stating publicly that he had no intention of doing so -- still rankles many Midwesterners. “I get it; I mean, the guy’s making a crap-ton more money. It just [stinks] as a fan because they lied to us.”
Voit is a passionate guy who doesn’t hide his emotions. He’ll slam his helmet down after a groundout. He’ll wrap a teammate in a bear hug after a home run. But he also understands that sports is a business, and there are some things you can’t control. And as he has quickly learned since being traded to the Yankees last summer, sometimes those business decisions that are out of your hands can work out for the best.
Rare is the player who gets drafted by the team he grew up rooting for. For an unheralded, under-the-radar guy such as Voit, the chances were astronomically low. But lo and behold, he had done enough at Missouri State for the St. Louis Cardinals to use the 665th pick in the 2013 draft on the local product.
Voit’s college statistics didn’t jump off the page; he hit just two home runs as a senior and never batted .300 in a season. But the Cardinals recognized in Voit some of the traits that have allowed him to flourish in New York. Fiery and fervid, Voit refused to be outworked by anyone. He was the Bears’ catcher for four years, earning All–Missouri Valley Conference honors three times and making the watch list for the Johnny Bench Award -- given to the top catcher in Division I -- twice. As a senior, he was named one of the team’s three captains.
Keith Guttin, the head coach at Missouri State since 1983, still marvels at Voit’s prowess in the weight room -- “If our lifting was three or four days a week, Luke lifted five or six” -- as well as his toughness. There was the game in which Voit injured his glove-hand thumb sliding into first while trying to leg out an infield hit. He was clearly in pain, but nevertheless tried to catch the next inning. It would turn out that the ligament in his thumb was completely torn and required surgery.
“He was ready to stay in the game,” Guttin says. “The position he played, the work ethic and the physical toughness were things that other teammates really respected about him.”
Despite the beating that his body took -- Voit also underwent shoulder surgery as a junior -- he looks back on his time as a catcher at Missouri State fondly. He credits Guttin and pitching coach Paul Evans with helping his development on both sides of the ball.
“Just learning how catchers and pitchers think made me a better hitter today,” he says. “You kind of know what’s coming next pitch or how to distinguish the sequence of what the pitchers are trying to do to you. It’s a chess match out there.”
Voit was a grinder, catching doubleheaders and playing through injuries, but he loved every second of it. He remains tight with the pitchers he caught, and he wouldn’t change any part of his college career. “I had a blast,” he says. “I had a chance to sign (with the Royals) out of high school, and I was like, ‘Nah, I’m going to go to college.’ Those four years, I will never regret. It was awesome.”
Being a catcher probably helped him get drafted, but when the Cardinals decided to move him to first base after his first year as a pro, “My body was like, ‘Oh, [heck] yeah. Let’s go,’” Voit says.
The position suits him well. Voit may be built like a John Deere, but he’s as friendly as a firefly, a self-described “Chatty Cathy” with opposing baserunners. Yet he admits now that he was more focused on his hitting as he climbed the Cards’ Minor League ranks. In 2016, Voit and Paul DeJong powered the Springfield Cardinals to a division title in the Double-A Texas League. The following season, Voit was hitting .322 for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and was tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 23 doubles when he got called up to the bigs on June 25.
Voit spent most of the remainder of that season with the Cardinals, batting .246 with four homers and 18 RBI in 62 games. But 43 of those games came as a replacement; three-time All-Star Matt Carpenter handled most of the starting first baseman duties.
The 2018 season had Voit shuttling up and down between St. Louis and the Minors. In July, he was in Las Vegas to face the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate when Memphis manager Stubby Clapp removed him from the lineup. Voit’s buddies joked that he had hit the Strip too hard the night before and was being punished, but the slugger was hopeful that he was headed back to The Show. Clapp said he was waiting for more information but that Voit might be going somewhere, so he instructed him to go coach first base rather than play it.
“I go out and coach for the first two innings, and then I’m running back in with some of the guys’ stuff, and my manager goes, ‘Dude, you just got traded to the New York Yankees!’” Voit recalls. “I was like, ‘Holy ----!’ And it ended up being pretty sweet, man. All of a sudden, I’m playing in Fenway at Boston a couple days later, and you never would have thought it. That’s how I got back up to the big leagues.”
The things Voit can control, he attacks like nobody’s business. For a 7 p.m. game, Voit typically leaves his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey, early enough to arrive at the Stadium by 1. He’ll grab a bite to eat, then hit the gym for 60 to 90 minutes. Next, he hits in the cages before heading outside for batting practice. After BP, meetings to go over scouting reports, a sauna session or an occasional massage, Voit soaks in the hot tub for precisely six minutes. From there, he showers, suits up for the game, stretches and hits some more in the cage.
“I always hit with the machine before I come out, whatever the pitcher’s best breaking ball is -- slider, change-up, curveball, whatever -- and there we go,” Voit says. “Lights, camera, action.”
The dedication and work ethic stem from his father, Lou, who took over the family business, Cemsac Chemicals, from Luke’s grandfather. Even today, whenever Lou travels to watch Luke play, he’ll try to make it into a work trip by finding some business opportunity to explore. Lou taught his two sons -- Luke’s younger brother, John, was a football captain at Army and is now in Ranger school -- the importance of staying fit and eating right from a young age.
Those lessons have helped Voit blossom into what Yankees manager Aaron Boone calls “a frontline hitter in this game.” When Voit is going good at the plate, he controls the strike zone and hits for power to all fields. The results have been All-Star worthy: After leading the American League with 14 home runs from Aug. 24 through the end of last season and nearly crushing another one in the AL Wild Card Game -- settling instead for his first career triple -- Voit made his presence felt immediately this season with a three-run homer on Opening Day. He blasted eight round-trippers through the team’s first 26 games, and his 31-game on-base streak to start the season was the longest by a Yankees hitter since Derek Jeter’s franchise-record 53-game season-opening streak in 1999.
While Voit’s towering homers and clutch RBI garner most of the headlines, his defense has become noteworthy, as well. He had a few miscues in 2018, occasionally ranging to his right on balls that he should have let the second baseman handle, and he still has plenty of room for growth, but the strides he has made in the past year are plain to see.
This past offseason, for the first time, Voit dedicated an equal amount of attention to improving both his defense and his hitting. He traveled to Tampa, Florida, in December to work one-on-one with Yankees infield coach Carlos Mendoza, who prescribed him a robust package of drills.
“I worked on getting into a good position for every pitch, timing the ball off the bat, small things like that,” Voit says. “We did cone drills, speed-agility stuff to get a little quicker with that first step. I got big into lacrosse balls off the wall, bouncing them in different directions to work on hand-eye stuff. And then, the baseball part of consistently working on my backhand, making sure of my feet. I think that was the biggest thing -- my footwork was kind of bad. I would get crossed up and maybe that ball that was three or four feet to my right I wasn’t getting to. Now I’m getting to it with ease.”
That work put Voit ahead of the curve when Spring Training began, and he now carves out time for perfecting his glove work, footwork, groundballs and throwing before every game.
“He has gotten better, and all the credit to him because he puts in the work on a daily basis,” Mendoza says. “We saw the improvement when he first showed up in Spring Training. That’s something that we’re very pleased with, and we’ll continue to work on.
“That’s the type of guy he is. He wants to get better. He wants to be a complete player, and he knows that defense is a huge part of the game. He’s been doing pretty good offensively, but he knows that there are some things that he needed to work on, and he’s put in the work.”
The difference isn’t readily apparent on TV, but examining Voit closely in person reveals a more nimble and active defender. When he’s not holding a runner on, he moves into position as the pitcher gets set. As the pitcher then goes into his delivery, Voit bounces twice, ever so slightly and lightly, on the balls of his feet before crouching down into fielding position.
“I just want to be consistent; a consistent big leaguer,” Voit says, ticking off the names of teammates who do everything they can to stay on the field and help the Yankees win ballgames. “My goal is to be the best first baseman I can be, and maybe in baseball.”
This year, Voit routinely handles scorching ground balls, and at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, he has shown impressive flexibility in stretching to scoop throws to first. That time spent in the gym isn’t all about staying strong; Voit is committed to avoiding the injured list if he can.
“When I’m at the field, I never want to sit down, I always want to do something to take care of myself,” he says. “I could go on and on with all the stuff I do, but, it’s just, I’m coming out here to perform at my best at all times, and I don’t want a hamstring or a shoulder bothering me. Not saying you can’t play through that stuff sometimes, but I want to feel 100% because when you don’t feel right, then it gets in your head and you start thinking about it, and then you blame it and maybe have a bad week, and then you start making excuses, and I don’t want to make excuses for my body because I know I can control that stuff.”
It has been an adjustment, going from the familiarity of the Cardinals organization to the concrete jungle that is New York. The big ol’ pickup truck that Voit loved to take off-roading in the winter didn’t really fit on the crowded streets of the Big Apple, so he sold it and got a subway card. He still has love for his hometown -- his Yankee Stadium at-bats are always preceded by the sounds of St. Louis rapper Nelly -- but little by little, the city has started to grow on him.
He never thought he would attend a Broadway show, but Voit saw The Book of Mormon and enjoyed it. He discovered that, on a random Tuesday night, he and his wife, Tori, could have dinner at Del Frisco’s and then go out on the town without having to think about closing times. And now that they’re in New Jersey, it’s the best of both worlds: Driving through neighborhoods past car dealerships and strip malls kind of feels like home, and with no traffic Voit can get over the George Washington Bridge and into the players’ parking lot below Yankee Stadium in under 15 minutes.
Of course, nothing feels better than hearing “_Luuuuuke_” every time he does something big. New York has fallen in love with Voit, and even on the road he hears it from Yankees fans. At home, they come in to the Yankees team store asking for Voit’s No. 45 T-shirt, which is now displayed second, between Judge’s No. 99 and Giancarlo Stanton’s No. 27.
“I appreciate all the love, man; it’s awesome,” Voit says. “It’s something you dream about and kind of strive for because that means you’re doing something right. If you’re not doing very well, they’ll give it back to you, but, trust me, I expect the best out of myself, too. This game’s hard enough, and you’re going to have bad times, but before, during, after (the games), just walking around the streets of New York or Chicago or wherever, they seem to recognize me, and it’s pretty cool. I never thought it would be like that. It’s crazy, man. It’s super cool.”
New York has been so good to Voit that he’s thinking about pledging a new NFL allegiance. His football Sundays haven’t been the same since the Rams left St. Louis, but he’s still hooked on the sport, and he has taken notice of the moves that one local team has made in recent months.
“I’m actually thinking about latching on to the Jets,” Voit says. “They got Le’Veon [Bell] now, and I like the draft picks they got. I saw they’re playing the Browns on Monday night, and we have an off-day that day. I’m going to try to go. I want a team because I love football. All I do on Sunday -- I’ve got two TVs mounted on my wall -- that’s all I do is watch football. I’m obsessed.”
The conversation soon ends, and Voit stands up from where he has been sitting in the Yankees dugout. Gurley is still mingling and posing for pictures on the field, but Voit heads down the short flight of steps toward the double doors leading to the batting cage. Boone has given him the night off, but there is business to attend to, work to be done. His dream of being an everyday big leaguer has come true in New York, and he has no interest in looking back.