Zack Pope’s Journey From Big Kid in Brampton to Guys Bullpen

Joe Ferreira was as happy as anyone from the Brampton Royals baseball organization when Zach Pope was traded to the Blue Jays last week.

Ferreira remembers Bob as a big, fun-loving kid who started his way into the majors with the Royal Family, before moving on to the Toronto Mets, Ontario Blue Jays and then the University of Kentucky. Now that Jay is a big league—Bob was drafted by Toronto in 2014, but hasn’t signed—Ferreira hopes the former cleaning officer will inspire a new generation of local kids.

“Having Zack here again, and seeing kids in the neighborhood here, could get more kids to play baseball,” he said.

Pop from Brampton and played hockey while growing up in defense. While he was of natural size and talent, he learned that hard work in the gym as well as an overall no-nonsense commitment to understanding the game was his ticket to the major leagues.

It all started with a solid foundation.

Eric, Ferrera’s son, grew up with pop music, playing T-ball and sleeping. Teammates were like family, with Bob joining in on the housework. He would often line up the fields before games, and run across the street from the park after games to get Freezies at the local corner store.

Pop — now six feet four, 220 pounds at the age of 25 — has always been one of the biggest kids on the team. With his talent blossoming, he was naturally the center of attention.

“One year, we played against a team that was a year ago, in a championship in Niagara Falls,” Ferreira said. “They thought they could intimidate us; they had their aces go and throw at the bulls before the match. We started laughing, because they didn’t hear Zack heat up…

“When he started throwing, her voice—the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s gauntlet—you could see the other coaches go, ‘Ah, we’re in trouble here. “

Frank Vasya, president of Brampton Minor Baseball and a board member of the Ontario Baseball Association, also remembers Bob in his teenage years “as a big kid… When you think of one of those typical WHL defenders, this is what Zack looked like. When I shook hands with him, it was like a handshake. A wrestler, and he was only 15 years old.”

Bob started out as a first baseman, but members of the royal family quickly realized how hard and heavy his throws were. That’s when Shawn Travers — part of the coaching staff when Bob joined the Ontario Blue Jays, an elite team that was also the former home of Jays Jordan Romano and Cleveland Guardians number one baseman Josh Naylor — decided it was time to chat.

“I don’t think he liked what I said,” Travers said. “The first time in my office, I said, ‘I don’t think you’re malicious. I think you need to get back in shape first and learn the game. As we go, I think he respected that.'”

When Bob turned to merchandising, there were growing pains as he tried to separate himself from all the other kids of his size and talent. The process didn’t come as easy as hitting a ball a mile, or throwing heat at a young age.

“He wasn’t overly excited about being a marksman,” Travers recalls. “It was the same when Romano played for us. (Romano wanted to be a catcher). But from what I saw in Zach, he changed his whole life to reach his goal. Now you look at him, you look at how seriously he worked, and he’s totally changed… He could be One of the best players in shape out there.”

"It's so special to be able to come home and see my family and play for the Blue Jays," Pop told after the trade was broken.

The transformation led to him becoming a reliable right-winger for the Miami Marlins Bullpen, scoring a 3.60 ERA through 18 appearances this year in his second MLB season. But he had to put in a lot of work to get to this point.

“At 16 and 17, everyone looked at him because he was able to throw so hard. But when he looked in the mirror he wasn’t satisfied, so he had to find himself,” Travers said. “He had this image of him being the ‘big guy’, and he had to protect it. In the end, he had to get to the point where he didn’t care what anyone else thought of him…if you wanted to do unfamiliar things, and be cool, You can’t do things commonly.”

By the time Bob left the Ontario Blue Jays, he was 18 years old and throwing in the mid-’90s. All of his coaches agree that something has changed in Kentucky. He started throwing a 98 mph heater with a sink, and an equally powerful slider that he still uses at major companies.

The hard love of becoming an archer paid off. While his stats weren’t where he wanted him to — he had a Pop ERA of 5.21 in his sophomore season — the evidence was on the radar gun when he flashed triple digits.

“I can imagine the family went through tough times,” Travers said, noting that Bob’s parents, Sheldon and Judy, were also not fascinated by the initially proposed change. But they helped him through a difficult process.

“When Zack wasn’t doing things the way he wanted in Kentucky, his dad was on the phone and he was helping his son. Now, I think if you look back at those days with Kentucky, Zack wouldn’t have gone further when he was there, but he probably went further. Than everyone else on this team now. Zach discovered her.”

During the pandemic, when most baseball facilities were closed, Bob relied on his connections in Ontario. He has appeared on several local fields and worked with performance coach Mike Stead, a member of the Beamsville, Ont. team. A native now with the Atlanta Braves football team in Augusta.

When Bob first hit 100 mph with a speed pistol in Kentucky, word spread and his phone lit up with messages from old friends in the Brampton Royals.

At the time, Bob was drafted in the 23rd round by the Jeez. Eight years later, after establishing himself as a trusted savior in the Marlins organization, his hometown team earned him a shot at the World Championships.

“It’s so special to be able to come home and see my family and play for the Blue Jays,” Pop told after trade break. “I have a lot of friends, and a lot of people support them now.”

Jays’ next home starts Friday against the Guardians.

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