Former Cal Poly baseball standout Matt Imhof will be back in the Mustangs’ dugout this spring, where he’ll serve as an undergraduate assistant pitching coach on Larry Lee’s staff.
The 23-year-old Imhof, who was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies during the second round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft and received a signing bonus of nearly $1.2 million, is making the transition to coaching far sooner than he expected.
A 6-foot-5, 220-pound left-handed pitcher, Imhof sustained a traumatic injury to his right eye during a postgame training accident this past June. The former All-American who was a key member of Cal Poly’s 2014 NCAA regional team, underwent two surgeries following the injury and his right eye was removed by Dr. Wendy W. Lee at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami.
Wednesday morning, ESPN.com published an in-depth, first-person account of Imhof’s life-altering accident and how he came to the decision to re-enroll in classes at Cal Poly in order to complete his degree in business finance. He also announced his official retirement from baseball in the essay.
Following a Florida State League road game with the Class A Clearwater Threshers, Imhof began working with resistance bands inside an athletic training room. He was completing the fifth repetition during the second set of his third exercise when he felt the tension break.
“It’s a surreal moment; the moment you realize you’re screwed and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it,” Imhof wrote on ESPN.com. “I saw a flash of silver and then felt the metal hook smash into my face. Everything went numb as I hit the ground screaming. I could feel the warmth of the blood running down my face and taste it in my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to move and look around, but my vision was blurry.”
Trainer Mickey Kozack took Imhof to the hospital, but when doctors realized the severity of the eye injury, he was sent to Miami to visit “the leading eye hospital in the country.”
Kozack was unable to make the trip, so Imhof was on his own.
Doctors explained Imhof would never see out of his right eye again. Even with some of the top surgeons in the world working to reconstruct his eye, it was likely a second surgery would be necessary to have the eye removed.
“I’ve never felt as alone as I did in that moment; my world had been completely shattered,” Imhof wrote. “Not only had I lost half my vision, but now I was going to look different too. You tell yourself to plan for the worst and hope for the best, but when they told me that, the last little bit of hope I had was gone.
“I felt like the person who walked into that training room in Brevard County was not the same person sitting alone in this hospital room,” Imhof continued. “Everything I thought I knew, everything I had planned for myself, was gone. Baseball, my future, my vision, all of it.”
After the second surgery was complete, Imhof said he was angry, depressed, confused and scared. He felt like a lifetime of work, becoming one of the highest drafted players in Cal Poly history, had been taken away in an instant.
“The real Matt Imhof died in that training room along with his future,” Imhof wrote. “The only thing that defined me now was an injury.”
Imhof credits Dr. Lee for helping turn his perspective. He had suffered a life-altering injury, not a life-ending one. She said “anything that was possible for you before the accident is still possible for you now.”
It took some time, but eventually her message took hold.
Imhof had to relearn how to walk down stairs, how to drive and even how to play catch. Navigating large crowds proved difficult with a new field of vision, and he would run into other people on his right side.
“I mostly avoided public places in the initial months after my injury because everywhere I went people looked at me with the same sad, confused look,” Imhof wrote. “I could feel the pity through their stares and I hated it. It made me feel weak that I was letting strangers’ perceptions of me dictate how I chose to live my life.”
Imhof said he was blessed to play the game he loved for 18 years, and it opened many doors along the way. He believes baseball, through all the trials and tribulations on and off the field, prepared him for that life-altering moment.
While many people hoped Imhof would make a comeback, he put those ideas to rest and announced his retirement Wednesday morning. He thanked his family, friends and many supporters, reminding them “you’re stronger than you think.”
“Although I am stepping away from playing the game,” Imhof wrote, “baseball will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Head coach Larry Lee, who will begin his 15th season at Cal Poly later this spring, said having an assistant coach with Imhof’s credentials will benefit the Mustangs right away.
“It’s good because he was in the program at a period when we were very successful,” Lee said. “When someone of his stature has information, the players listen.
“I think he’s been able to put the playing aspect out of his mind and I think he’s enjoying where he is at this part of his life,” Lee continued. “He’s making the most of a very unfortunate accident, but he has a lot of self confidence. He carries himself very well. He’ll be just fine.”