Photo by Ian Billings
Jefferson P. Nolan
At the end of each game, the Cal Poly baseball team takes a knee on the outfield grass and listens to its skipper.
The team hears about the good, the bad and what needs to improve. But when head coach Larry Lee sends the ballplayers to the showers, the pitching staff sticks around. There is more to hear and more to learn, and it’s all thanks to pitching coach Thomas Eager.
Hands thrown in the air, words spewing from Eager’s mouth, the Cal Poly pitchers see a fire ignite in their coach’s eyes each time they meet.
“It’s infectious,” starting pitcher Joey Wagman said. “It rubs off on everybody, and as much as he wants us to succeed, we want to succeed for him.”
At first glance, most people in the stands at Cal Poly baseball games mistake the 27-year-old for a player. And as it’s only his first season as a pitching coach, their assumption is reasonable.
In fact, he used to pitch for the Mustangs and — more recently — in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league organization. Eager may not be a veteran coach, but he knows what it takes to succeed as a ballplayer.
With his help, the Mustangs pitching staff has accumulated 438 strikeouts and has only allowed 13 home runs, the best in the Big West in both categories.
And for the Mustangs, it’s been all about pitching this year, Lee said.
“(Pitching) is the main reason we’ve been successful this year,” Lee said. “If you look at our scores and look at the amount of one-run, two-run ball games we’ve played, you can understand how valuable pitching is. (Eager) has done a terrific job in working with our pitchers on mechanical issues and mindset issues. He has a total mindset of being a competitive pitcher and being able to compete at this level.”
Eager developed that mindset eight years ago at Baggett Stadium.
Recruited by the Mustangs out of Merced High School, Eager redshirted his freshman year as a relief pitcher. It wasn’t until his redshirt sophomore year that the righty reliever began to see the results he wanted.
In his 2007 season, Eager accumulated a record of 11-3 with an ERA of 3.43. He struck out 99 hitters and was awarded first-team All-Big West Conference honors.
After his breakout season, scouts began to take notice. He was drafted later that year in the first round by the Cardinals, and he finished his professional career playing four seasons of minor league baseball at the Double-A level.
However, he learned he needed Tommy John surgery (ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction), life as Eager knew it had ended.
“When I got hurt, coach Lee said to me that he thought coaching may be something I’d want to do,” Eager said. “I jumped on it, and I haven’t looked back. Some of these guys ask me if I miss playing, but I just tell them that I’ve never once regretted my decision. I love what I’m doing. That’s where I compete now, through these guys.”
After the former pitcher threw his last inning in the Cardinals’ organization, Eager found a way to surround himself with the game he loves. Returning to San Luis Obispo, Eager took the position of Director of Baseball Operations for the Mustangs. Even though it was only a desk job, Eager began to absorb the different aspects of the game.
“It was just me getting familiar with how the organization ran, all the ins and outs,” he said. “It wasn’t so much the baseball side, but what it took for Cal Poly baseball to run on a day-to-day basis. It really opened my eyes and helped put things into perspective.”
And when former Cal Poly pitching coach Jason Kelly accepted an offer to serve as the pitching coach for Washington this past June, Lee made a critical decision.
“It was tough,” Lee said. “I hated to see (Kelly) go. He had become very good at what he did, but over the last couple of years, Tom has been around the program. For me, the No. 1 priority for our pitching coach is being a quality teacher. I knew that although he was young and in the very early stages of becoming a coach, he was somebody I could help mold into what I thought would be the best fit for us.”
Only working a year and a half as the Director of Baseball Operations, the young coach found himself at the helm of a squad of veteran pitchers. For Eager, it was a dream come true.
“Baseball, to me, was always what I wanted to do,” Eager said. “The development is so rewarding, and it’s something I never thought of until coach Lee said that coaching would be great for me. I’m just grateful he gave me the opportunity to live my dream.”
The job is a dream that Eager’s wife Jenna — who he met during freshman year in Santa Lucia Hall — can see every day before he heads to the baseball diamond.
“This is where I want to be,” Eager said. “I think my wife is mad at me because I have a smile on my face when I leave and when I come home every day. I tell her I have to go to work, and she tells me it’s not work.”
While the former reliever’s days on the bump may be over, the player-turned-coach has never stopped competing. And after four years of professional baseball, he understands the pressures of the mound. Before each pitcher takes center stage, he reminds them of his philosophy: compete, but keep the game as simple as possible.
“I tell them when they’re about to pitch that ‘They’re just trying to ruin your day. Don’t let them ruin your day,’” Eager said. “When you’re on the mound, you can be whoever you want and you can do whatever you want. If you have an arrogance, that cockiness, and a belief in yourself, then you’re going to be successful.”