Matt Packer's life was the good kind of surreal early in 2020.
Packer, a Bakersfield native, always aspired to take part in spring training with a Major League Baseball organization, even if he knew it would be a tough road to get there.
It appeared that road may have been closed off for good following a freak accident in his junior season at Miami (Ohio) University. While taking a swing, Packer blew out his patella femoral ligament, which knocked his kneecap out of place and ended his playing career.
Luckily, there proved to be another path to the professional ranks.
With his playing days well behind him, Packer found a new way into an MLB camp, securing a role as a player development coach with the Delmarva (Md.) Shorebirds, a Single-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
After being hired last October, he reported for his first spring camp in Sarasota, Fla. in January.
While it wasn't the path he originally envisioned, Packer says spending his days working with prospects like Ryan Ripken, son of Orioles legend Cal Ripken, proved to be a nice alternative.
“It was a lot of fun just being out of the field every day and just getting to be a part of it," he said. "You have a view of what professional baseball looks like. And I didn’t get to play it, so being out on the field every day with those guys was a lot of fun. I never thought it was a possibility of me making it to a Major League organization.”
Even if Packer had envisioned an alternate route into the pros, it would have looked a lot different that the one he took.
"I didn't want to be a coach," he said. "I thought I wanted to be an agent, maybe work in a front office."
Needing an internship to earn his bachelor's degree, he went to the IMG Academy in Florida in 2014 to take an administrative position, only to discover that no such position was available.
Still needing the credits to complete his degree, he accepted an open role on the coaching side, which, to his surprise, he "really feel in love with from the start." Packer impressed his bosses at IMG enough that they set him up with a graduate assistant position at Division III DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa. in 2015.
After two years at DeSales, he moved into an assistant role at D-II Post University in Waterbury, Conn., which he also held for two years.
Noticing that organizations were taking chances on coaches with no professional playing experience, Packer began seeking out pro jobs and quickly garnered interest from the Orioles, who brought him into the fold in Delmarva.
In the dugout, Packer had numerous duties in his first season, splitting his time time between the team's hitters, base runners and outfielders. He's also heavily involved in the analytics side, attempting to find creative ways to assess player data.
Though it was a major change going from a Division III college to the minor leagues in just five years, such major jumps have been par for the course for Packer throughout his time in baseball.
After hitting just .077 in his junior season at Stockdale High School, he put on considerable muscle going into his senior year and saw his average jump all the way to .321.
And following a disappointing freshman year as a player at D-III Chapman University in Orange County, he spent a year at Taft College before working his way to the D-I ranks at Miami.
Those who've worked with Packer say he's always had an unbreakable desire to improve at his craft, and are unsurprised to see him reach such height so early.
"Does it surprise me? Hell no, not one bit knowing that kid," said Stockdale baseball coach Brad Showers, Packer's JV coach in high school. "I knew if he got into coaching he'd be perfect because he was a sponge. He listened to everything we told him and he worked and he worked and he worked. And by the time that he stopped playing, it was the perfect thing to do to share the knowledge he learned.”
Sadly, opportunities to share that knowledge have been limited, as world events have made life surreal in a much more sinister way.
After being sent home from spring training in March, the spread of the coronavirus quickly put the Shorebirds' season in doubt. Unable to operate with no fans in the park, all minor league seasons were canceled in June.
With no games or practices to attend, Packer, who's back in Bakersfield, has maintained an active role within the organization.
Since the season ended, players and coaches have found ways to keep themselves sharp over Zoom, engaging in activities ranging from situational drills to a weekly Wednesday night book club.
"There's not a day that goes by where I don't have something to do," Packer said. "So that's definitely been nice."
Regardless of how busy these activities are keeping him, Packer admits they're a poor substitute for being in a clubhouse setting, and says his first season in the dugout can't start soon enough.
"It’s tough when you get these players texting you and they’re like ‘hey coach, I’m just dying to get back on the field, I just want to run the bases, I want to be in the clubhouse,’ things like that," he said. "So I’m definitely looking forward to that grind of the season with them. It’s going to be like back in college just riding the bus, long hours.
"That's going to be the best."