OAKLAND, Calif. — The roots of Luke Voit’s boisterous, barrel-chested romps around the bases, the Sammy Sosa-like crow hops after connecting on a home run and the forearm shivers that are vigorous enough to leave Popeye with bruises trace back to a bucolic setting — the expansive backyard of his home in Wildwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
It was there that Voit and his younger brother, John, along with their friends, would play so much Wiffle ball that their father scolded them for wearing out the grass along their basepaths.
It is where the two brothers, four years apart, balled, bawled and brawled.
The only concession Luke made came when they were both young: He let John stand up when they played football on their knees. But the trash talk was incessant, the fighting was intermittent and the competition was unforgiving.
That competitiveness has served the brothers well. In Luke, now 27, it forged a determination that carried him from overlooked college prospect, 22nd-round draft choice and spare part for his hometown St. Louis Cardinals to his current stage: a late-season revelation for the flagging Yankees.
Since being given a start on Aug. 24 for the slumping Greg Bird, Voit has hit seven home runs in 12 starts; five of them tied the score or put the Yankees ahead. “To see the Luke Voit show roll on — he’s been terrific,” Manager Aaron Boone said on Tuesday after Voit’s tiebreaking, eighth-inning home run helped the Yankees to a 5-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
In John, 23, the brotherly competition built a relentlessness that helped transform him from a defensive lineman with only one Division I offer into a team captain at Army, where he helped the Black Knights to a 10-3 record and victories over Navy and Air Force last season.
He graduated with a degree in engineering in May and will soon begin Ranger training.
“I always wanted to beat him and I’d always beat him up — same with the kids I grew up with,” Luke Voit said. “Sometimes I’d make him cry. It made him tough. It made me tougher, too.”
That toughness almost led him to football. When he entered Lafayette High School, Luke Voit envisioned it as a training ground to play linebacker in the Southeastern Conference. But two years in a row his season ended with a dislocated shoulder in an August scrimmage.
“On the second trip to the emergency room, he said it’s not worth it,” his grandmother Joan Voit said. “He was going to play baseball.”
The Kansas City Royals drafted Voit in the 32nd round after his final high school season, but he admitted that he was in no way prepared to sign a professional contract. He was planning to play at a junior college to try to improve his draft stock for the next year. But after the draft, the two catchers that Missouri State was counting on for the next season signed pro contracts. Missouri State Coach Keith Guttin called Voit, promised him some scholarship money after his first season and persuaded him to come to Springfield.
Voit impressed coaches there with his toughness — he once tried to play through torn ligaments in his thumb — but Boone has been charmed by Voit’s belief in his ability to hit. In a game rooted in failure, it takes a special strength to remain unshakable.
“He always thought he could hit,” Guttin said. “Those guys aren’t falling off trees.”
Voit said: “Nobody thought I was the best player in high school and then I got to college and it was the same thing. I was just kind of that average player. I never had the best stats, either. I think that’s what made me what I am. If I don’t have enough talent to compete at the same level, I’m going to outgrind them.”
The sting of not getting drafted as a college junior was eased when he was chosen by the Cardinals after his senior season. In their backyard, Luke and John had pretended to be Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols, and Luke had imagined what it would have been like to be David Freese, a Wildwood alumnus who became a World Series most valuable player.
“It’s rare to get to play for your hometown team, so it’s pretty cool — it gives you extra motivation,” said Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty, a teammate of Voit’s in St. Louis who now plays near his hometown, Pleasanton, Calif. “And the fans in St. Louis have a soft spot for the local guy. I think it was a big thing for Luke.”
Walking down the tunnel, into the dugout and out onto the field for the first time at Busch Stadium last summer did not quite feel real to Voit, he said. He had arrived at his locker to find a handwritten note from Freese, and about 70 friends and family were in the crowd. When Voit came up to pinch-hit in the seventh inning, he received a standing ovation.
He was promptly hit by a pitch square in the back. But it hardly mattered. “He ran to first base with the biggest smile on his face,” his grandmother said.
Among those in the stands was his brother, who was home for a brief summer break. The next night, John watched Luke hit a double in his first start, but he played sparingly over the week that followed. The last night John was home, Luke was back in the lineup. John watched him hit a double and drive in two runs, but when Luke came to bat for the final time, his younger brother pulled out his phone to record it.
“I remember sitting there thinking I know he’s going to do something,” John said.
Voit belted a 429-foot home run deep to center field, crossing home plate to chants of “Luuuuuke” and being summoned from the dugout for a curtain call.
In December, it was John’s chance to leave his brother with an enduring memory.
Luke was bundled up with his family, sitting in the second row in the snow at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, when John raced more than 40 yards downfield in the third quarter and dived to trip up Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, saving a touchdown. Army held Navy to a field goal on the drive and won the game, 14-13.
“It was like his Super Bowl,” Luke Voit said. “I got the same chills he got watching me play. It’s that mutual inner-brother brain wave.”
As he spoke, it was with what is becoming a familiar dint of enthusiasm — the one that has endeared him to teammates and even caught the admiring eye of at least one opponent. The Detroit Tigers’ Victor Martinez, who is 39 and nearing the end of his career, chatted with Voit when they met at first base during a game last week. Martinez encouraged Voit to keep enjoying his moments.
There seemed to be a recognition of Voit’s uncommon joie de vivre, a respect for the purity of a boy playing ball in the yard, which these days just happens to be a big-league ballpark.