Thomas Eager was pitching better than ever.
Training out of the home of his fiancée’s family in San Jose prior to Major League spring training in 2011, the former Cal Poly baseball standout felt it.
He was in great shape. His throwing mechanics were locked in. After four years in the minor leagues, the former fifth-round pick had even started throwing earlier than usual in anticipation of joining the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A team in Memphis, Tenn.
Then two weeks before reporting, he heard the most devastating pop in baseball.
Eager had a partial tear in his UCL, the elbow ligament commonly replaced by Tommy John surgery.
He and the Cardinals disagreed on whether he should have the surgery, and rather than waiting for his throwing arm to get worse, Eager decided to retire.
“People ask me all the time,” Eager said, “and I just tell them, there’s always that time in your life when you have a make a decision — you have to make a hard decision — and I went with the one that I felt was the right one. And looking back, I wouldn’t change it.”
Eager’s departure from professional baseball opened another door at Cal Poly. Mustangs head coach Larry Lee brought the former Merced High standout on as a noncoaching director of baseball operations in 2011 with the hope of grooming him into a future pitching coach.
Now married and graduated with a business degree, the future is now for Eager, who will replace Jason Kelly as the Cal Poly pitching coach next season after Kelly left to join the coaching staff at Washington earlier this month.
Since returning to San Luis Obispo, Eager was managing local accounts for a worldwide power tools company and helping out a local Little League organization as well as handling the secretarial duties as the Mustangs’ DBO.
But he was not far off from getting a chance to coach full-time. Eager interviewed for the pitching coach opening at Cal State Northridge over the summer. He was prepared to go elsewhere but said it was a dream come true to remain with his alma mater.
Cal Poly will receive a coach that’s short on recruiting experience but one who can speak from recent first-hand experience to players about what they’ll face in the minor leagues.
“I find it extremely beneficial,” Eager said of his four years in the Cardinals’ system. “I’ve been somewhere they want to go. It makes it easier, so when I talk, they listen to me because I’ve been there.
“The one thing I took from pro ball is just how to be a professional, how to carry yourself, how to prepare and what you want to do to succeed.”
Eager had a 15-21 overall record in the minors, compiling a 4.29 ERA and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He had a meteoric rise as a sophomore at Cal Poly, where he went 11-3 with a 3.43 ERA after pitching sparingly as a redshirt freshman the year before.
Rather than return for his junior season, he chose to sign with the Cardinals, who selected him 172nd overall.
A three-year varsity letterman at Merced High, Eager was a first-team all-Central California Conference selection as a senior and helped the Bears win a CIF-Sac-Joaquin Section divisional title as a sophomore.
Asked about his style, he cited coaching influences dating back to his days as a youth sneaking onto the batting cages at Merced College. Eager got instruction from Blue Devils coach Chris Pedretti at a young age. That continued with coaches Scott Winton and Lou Souza at Merced High.
He got Major League-quality instruction from former Cal Poly pitching coach, Modesto Nuts manager and current Colorado Rockies catching coach Jerry Weinstein.
He also pitched under Kelly and praised his Double-A pitching coach, former longtime MLB pitcher Dennis Martinez, for developing his mindset.
Eager keeps in touch with each former coach, perhaps leaning on Kelly as much as anyone.
“J.K. helped me out a ton,” Eager said. “I just want to keep the process going. He’s built an unbelievable staff. With the recruits for next year, there’s a really solid foundation. I have some fresh new ideas on some simple things, more of a big-league mentality on the mound.”