He could close his eyes and hit his throwing partner in the chest. That still came natural. The accident had not stripped that. Then Matt Imhof opened his left eye — his only working eye — and tried to catch the baseball.
He knew he had to decide where the ball was headed and when to close his glove with half of the information he had before. He knew he had no shot if the ball came straight at him. The white orb was more of a blur than before. It looked choppier.
“I don’t catch it all the time,” the former second-round pick said. “I used to play baseball, and I can’t catch it.”
The Phillies had paid him more than $1 million to live his dream. That promise had deteriorated into a constant stream of doubt about his place in the game. Baseball is cruel. It planted him in that exact moment — a humid night in June 2016, a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean, facing a wall inside a nondescript concrete structure that broke apart when he tugged at an elastic exercise band attached to a metal hook.
Two months after the metal smashed his right eye, he called an old pitching coach. They met at a field in California.
“It was more therapeutic than anything else,” Thomas Eager, the coach, said. “I think he just wanted to play catch because he wanted to see if he could still play catch.”
The game had carried him this far. He had to know.
There were 629 people who attended the June 24, 2016, game at Space Coast Stadium, now a vacant ballpark, and Matt Imhof should not have been among them. It still bothers him. The Phillies drafted Imhof from Cal Poly with the 47th pick in the 2014 draft. They paid him a $1,187,900 bonus. He was considered a polished college pitcher who could zoom through the depleted Phillies’ system because he was lefthanded, and he could throw strikes. He projected, at least, as a bullpen piece. He had a shot.
“But I dug myself into such a deep hole without trying to ask for help through the mental struggles of baseball and overcoming failure,” Imhof, 23, said last month near his home in Fremont, Calif. “I had never dealt with failure on that wide of a scale before. It broke me to an extent. That’s the thing I think about most. If I wouldn’t have let it get so bad, maybe I wouldn’t have been in that situation entirely. I wouldn’t have been in Clearwater.”
His progress stalled, he repeated high-A Clearwater in 2016. He was relegated to the bullpen by June. He was no longer a prospect. The lessons, supplied in 20-pitch bursts every two or three days, were indecipherable.
“I didn’t believe in my ability any more,” he said.
The game teased him once more, like an unexpected gift. He fired 10 pitches, nine for strikes, in a scoreless inning at Space Coast Stadium. “About [expletive] time,” his manager, Greg Legg, told him afterward. Imhof pitched without overthinking. He finished the night with his normal routine, which included some arm stretches.
“I threw the ball where I wanted to again,” Imhof said.“It was a building block.”
It was the last game of his career.
For six weeks, a patch covered the hole that was his right eye until the wounds healed and the ocularist could install a prosthetic. He did not roam far from his parents’ house in suburban San Francisco. People looked at him in a different way. He felt insecure. “Like a freak,” Imhof said. He hated it. He hated the idea of having to explain the incredible misfortune that placed him in that spot at that moment.
“I had to convince myself I was entirely the same,” Imhof said, “when I clearly could look at myself and realize I’m not the same.”
He wrote a 373-word caption to an Instagram photo, posted six days after the accident, that showed him lying in a hospital bed with a large bandage over his right eye. “Even though I suffered some bad luck,” he wrote, “I’m not dead.” It went viral.
There was no lawsuit. His medical costs were covered. But the exercise band was manufactured by someone. The hook was assembled by someone and inserted into someone’s wall. Someone should pay. That is what people told him.
“And I get that feeling,” Imhof said. “I had that feeling. But, sometimes, bad things just happen, and it’s no one’s fault.”
When he disappeared into the den adjacent to the living room, his parents assumed he spent the hours distracted by video games. They always called it the “Matt Cave” because that is where he escaped the world when the greatest pressure was throwing strikes.
He wrote pages and pages of his thoughts. He wrote about how the injury made him feel. How mad he was. How sad he was. What baseball meant to him — then and now. What he wanted to do with his life. He showed the words to his parents, a retired construction worker and a fifth-grade teacher. He submitted an essay to ESPN.com that announced his retirement from baseball last January.
“Everything I thought I knew, everything I had planned for myself, was gone,” he wrote. “Baseball, my future, my vision, all of it.”
His mother, Kris, pushed him to express more. He was blessed with insight. He should share it.
“Honestly,” she said, “nothing like baseball prepares you to deal with stuff like this. It just does. We always said, all through his baseball career, that baseball makes you cry. It just makes you cry. It’s just that kind of sport.”
Imhof traveled Europe this summer, his first full summer without the game. He saw the Sistine Chapel. Big Ben. The Vatican, the Eiffel Tower, and the Mona Lisa. He saw where the Berlin Wall fell. He saw the Alps.
“I was going to be a real-world person,” Imhof said. “This is what I would do. I wanted to experience some things.”
He graduated from college with a degree in business finance. He delivered a motivational speech to a business symposium in California. He toasted his older sister, Hannah, at her wedding. He accepted a job at a wealth management firm in Henderson, Nev., that will start this month.
He went to a baseball game.
He stood on the field, behind ropes, before Phillies batting practice at AT&T Park in San Francisco last month. One by one, his friends gravitated there. Andrew Knapp. Aaron Nola. Rhys Hoskins. Mark Leiter Jr. — his teammates in the minors, some picked in the same draft class as him.
He, at 6-foot-5, towered over the other fans around him. He snapped photos with his phone. He wore a retro Phillies hat from Mitchell & Ness and cocked it backward. His thick-rimmed glasses hid the hints of trauma. He bought a beer. He sat with a friend in Section 115, a dozen rows behind home plate. A Cubs scout had the ticket next to him. They relived their playing days. He bought another beer.
“You get drawn back in pretty quickly,” he said, a fan now. “Oh man, I can feel the intensity of a 3-2 count in a four-run game with Rhys up. I feel it.”
He awoke the next morning. Some days begin with positive thoughts.
Some do not.
“I fight it every day,” he said. “Most times, I win.”
Before, he dreaded that internal conflict.
“That came from baseball. If I couldn’t have success in baseball, it used to drive me to my core,” he said. “Now, I realize the true sign of greatness is the overcoming of the struggle.”
The games of catch continued at the end of August 2016, a less certain time. His old pitching coach told Imhof he needed to return to Cal Poly. The answer — baseball or not — lived there. Imhof texted his parents, who were at Glacier National Park in Montana. They reached the visitors’ center and regained cell service. The texts spilled into Kris’ phone all at once. “I’m going back to school,” Imhof said. She felt confident.
“Then we knew he had a purpose,” his mother said. “He’s going to get his degree. That was it.”
Imhof, during those dark weeks tethered to his parents’ house, read a book called When Breath Becomes Air. It was written by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
“He was always trying to find the meaning of life,” Imhof said. “He tried to find it by battling death. Then he only realized what it was when he, in turn, had to battle death himself.”
Accident or no accident, Imhof would have faced a baseball crisis. He had not performed. The game is taken from everyone. If he could only understand then, he said, what he understands now.
“Man, I would have been unstoppable,” he said. “But I wasn’t ready. And I couldn’t do it.”
That was baseball’s last lesson.
When he re-enrolled, the game waited for him. Larry Lee, Cal Poly’s baseball coach, offered a volunteer coaching job. Reluctant at first, Imhof accepted.
He provided mental guidance to the young roster. He sat in the bullpen during games, and he found an escape between classes. He still loved the game. He played catch with the college pitchers. Sometimes he caught the ball. Sometimes he couldn’t.
It did not matter.