ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Busch Stadium is only 30 miles from his childhood home in Wildwood, Missouri, but it took Luke Voit 26 years to make it there. Really make it there.
The journey, like any meaningful quest, was fraught with peril.
There was the torn ligament his freshman year at Missouri State. There was the torn labrum his junior year the derailed his draft chances despite a strong offensive campaign.
There was the 22nd round selection by the Cardinals in 2013, a slot which usually relegates a player to being a minor-league roster filler.
Then there was a position change, moving him from catcher to first baseman. Any one of those obstacles can kill a career- many promising players have been stalled by less- but Voit proved indomitable.
Sunday night, his journey reached its rewarding end; he was standing at his very own locker inside Busch Stadium.
“It’s what I’ve been waiting for since I was a little kid, man. Growing up, you know, being a Cardinals fan, coming to Busch every year, I don’t know, I’ve been shaking since last night, it’s a great feeling,” he said.
It was an amusing sight, watching the baby-faced grin of a boy crown the mountainous frame of a man.
Voit, 6’3 and 225 pounds, made his hay as a bruiser, battering baseballs at every level during his ascension. His home run totals have steadily risen, and his power reached its (latest) peak in 2016, when he tweaked his swing in an effort to get more loft.
“Just to help my launch angle and create more power, which has helped with my doubles and the home runs,which as a first baseman you need, so it’s helped out a lot,”he said. “It’s honestly one of those things that just clicked. Started doing it in the cage and then all of a sudden, boom it happened, so kind of cool.”
Voit won the Texas League Home Run Derby in 2016 and finished the season at Double-A Springfield with 19 homers, creeping ever closer to the image of his favorite player, legendary slugger Mark McGwire.
“He was my guy. I copied his stance when I was little, same little twirl he had at the plate,” he said. “I mean, he hit moon shots, that’s what you want to do as a little kid, so when I was in the backyard that was my guy.”
He kept it rolling in Memphis this season, belting 12 bombs and doubling 23 times. He also ranked 10th in the PCL in average (.322), and fourth in OBP (.406).
He’s a complete hitter, and has been knocking on the door of the major leagues for some time now. His patience in the box has translated well, as he watched several players hop to the bigs ahead of him. He watched calmly as Magneuris Sierra leapt from High-A to the Cardinals. He stayed the course when his Memphis roommate, Paul DeJong got called up not once, but twice.
“That was more motivation for me to go up there,” he said.
His dream, the one he’d nurtured since his days as fellow-St. Louisian Ryan Howard’s bat boy at Lafayette High School, was just four hours up Interstate 55. The only hurdle left was getting the phone to ring.
Three nights ago, he suffered one final false start. Triple-A manager Stubby Clapp called Voit into his office, and the young sluggers hair stood on end. This is the moment, he thought.
“He just kind of pulled me aside when no one was looking and it was about a base running error,” he groaned. “He just had to ask me a question and I was like, ‘oh my gosh.’”
The next night he was back in Clapp’s office. After a joke came the six words every ballplayer yearns to hear.
“You’re going to the big leagues.”
It was Voit’s turn to pick up the phone.
“Mom and dad, girlfriend, my brother. So cool, a lot of crying, a lot of happy thoughts, it’s been awesome,” he smiled.
He spent a sleepless night readying himself for Busch, a stadium he’d primarily seen from the seats. The last time he was backstage was when he signed with the team four years ago. The last time he was on the field was a scouting showcase in which he remembers feeling too slow.
“I remember running a really bad 60 time,” Voit said with a sigh, his disappointment washing away as his eyes drifted to the retired jerseys hung around the clubhouse.
He didn’t yet have a nameplate for his locker- heck, he took an Uber from the airport- but he was a major leaguer all the same; all 30 miles of that journey now conquered.
“It’s the coolest thing, it’s a childhood dream. It’s the best thing ever,” he said.