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Angels' Matt Joyce was driven to success by Dad's tough love

Since he was traded from Tampa Bay, his biggest critic and fan will have to watch games from long distance

The booming, baritone voice still rattles in the head of Matt Joyce some 15 years later, even after the son grew up to be a major league outfielder and All-Star.

"You've got to want it!" his father would say. "You've got to work at it! You've got to put the time in! You're swinging like a girl!"

It wasn't easy for Joyce growing up under the heavy hand of his father. Now he's the Angels' new left fielder, designated hitter and probable cleanup batter and expected to ease the loss of Howie Kendrick and Josh Hamilton.

Matt Joyce Sr., at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, was a Tampa-area softball legend who was nicknamed "Hammer" because of his power, and he often parented as if his son were a nail.

"To be honest with you, there were times when I hated him," Joyce, 30, said after a workout this week. "The game is frustrating enough. You don't need someone to tell you that you need to do better, especially your father."

Joyce, acquired in a December trade with Tampa Bay, still calls his father "the most competitive man I've ever met — I think he wanted it more than I did sometimes." The elder Joyce, 57, tried to instill that fire in his son, who waffled between resistance and submission.

"One day when I was 12, I grabbed an orange construction cone, tied one of his tarps to a tree and hit balls into it all afternoon," Joyce said. "He comes home — I thought he'd be proud of me — and says, 'What the heck are you doing? That's my good tarp!' I was like, 'You told me you wanted me to work hard!' "

Joyce cringed while his father screamed from the bleachers of his youth league and high school games. He could only imagine what other parents were thinking.

But there was another side to Matt Sr., the single parent who worked long hours as a truck driver and in construction but found the time and energy to cook meals, do laundry and monitor the homework of Matt and his older sister, Danielle.

He was a father who threw endless hours of batting practice and began calling his son "Slugger" when he was 10, "because ever since he was little, I wanted him to think like one," Joyce Sr. said by phone from Florida.

According to Matt, when he was a toddler, his mother packed him and Danielle into a car and drove them to New Jersey.

Matt Sr. obtained a court order, found a New Jersey sheriff to accompany him to her place and took the kids back, eventually winning the custody battle.

"I understand the sacrifices he made, now more than I did before," Joyce said. "He got up early and worked until late at night. He'd come home tired, sore, beat up, exhausted. Then you're trying to figure out the bills, the kids. … I'm sure it had to be very difficult. As a kid, you don't really understand that."

Joyce does not have his father's temper. He's not as demonstrative on the field, and he admits that when he was younger, he didn't have his father's drive.

But Joyce adopted the smooth left-handed swing from his father, which he has used to hit .250 with a .342 on-base percentage, .441 slugging percentage, 88 homers and 313 runs batted in over seven big-league seasons, the last six with the Rays.

"He's been a huge influence for me," Joyce said. "I have a lot of good memories with my dad."

Many of those came after Joyce finally stood up to his father toward the end of high school. Matt Sr. used to videotape all of his son's at-bats and replay them on their big-screen television. During one particularly critical review, Matt, growing bigger, stronger and more assertive, told his father to back off.

"He kind of bowed up to me and said, 'Dad, I'm not you, I'm me — I'm competitive, but I just don't show it the way you do,' " the elder Joyce said. "That was kind of a turning point."

Over the next decade, the elder Joyce went from critic to fan.

"He started to get it. He backed off and became my biggest supporter," Joyce said. "In the minor leagues, the big leagues, any time I'd go through a slump, he'd be the first to text me with words of encouragement, to stay positive.

"He's made such an adjustment and matured so much over the last 10 years. It's great to have that kind of relationship with your father."

Now, it will be long distance. Joyce Sr. is on disability because of a bulging disc in his back, making travel difficult.

"It's already feeling strange because spring training games have started, and he's not here," Joyce Sr. said. "I'm used to turning the television on at 7 p.m. and watching him play with the Rays. Now it's like, what am I going to do?"

If the elder Joyce can stay up for games on the West Coast, he'll be able to watch Matt hit fourth — at least, against right-handed pitchers — behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.

That will be as big a thrill for the son as it is the father.

"I've hit in the middle of the order for some pretty good Rays teams, but those are two of the best players in the game, they're freaks of nature, guys who will probably be in the Hall of Fame," Joyce said.

"It's hard to compare yourself and try to live up to them and do what they're doing. It's a matter of sticking to your strengths, playing your game, doing what you do well."

For Joyce, that means understanding game situations before he steps into the box, swinging at good pitches and driving the ball to the gaps. This season, he hopes to add hitting against left-handed pitchers to his strengths.

Joyce is a career .189 hitter against left-handers, but only 323 of his 2,182 at-bats have come against them. With Hamilton out because of a shoulder injury and likely suspension because of a drug relapse, Joyce will have a chance to be more than a platoon player.

"I think everyone understands that if you don't do something a lot, you're not going to be very good at it," Joyce said. "It's going to be tough [to hit lefties], but at the same time, I know I can do it. I've done it in the past.

"It's a matter of recognizing what pitches to swing at. If you have a better plan, a better approach, you'll feel more comfortable and have better at-bats. I'm eager to get a chance. I think it's going to be fun."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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