Joe Ferreira was as happy as anyone in the Brampton Royals baseball organization when Zach Pop was traded to the Blue Jays last week.
Ferreira remembers Pop as a fun-loving big kid whose path to the majors began with the Royals, before moving on to the Toronto Mets, Ontario Blue Jays and then the University of Kentucky. Now that he’s a major league Jay (Toronto drafted Pop in 2014 but didn’t sign), Ferreira hopes his former cleanup hitter will inspire a new generation of local kids.
“With Zach being here again and the neighborhood kids seeing him here, it could get more kids to play baseball,” he said.
Pop is from Brampton and played hockey defense growing up. While he had the size and natural talent, he learned that hard work in the gym plus a no-nonsense, total commitment to understanding the game was the ticket to the big leagues.
It all started with a firm foundation.
Ferreira’s son, Eric, grew up with Pop, playing T-ball and sleepovers. The teammates were like family, with Pop joining in on the chores. He would often line the fields before games and run across the street from the park after games to buy Freezies at the local corner store.
Pop, now 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds at 25, was always one of the biggest kids on the team. As his talent blossomed, he was naturally the center of attention.
“One year, we played a team that was up a year, in a tournament in Niagara Falls,” Ferreira said. “They thought they could intimidate us; they had their ace in the bullpen before the game. We laughed, because they hadn’t heard Zach warm up…
“When he started throwing, the sound, the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove, you could see the other coaches going, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble here.'”
Frank Fascia, president of Brampton Minor Baseball and a board member of the Ontario Baseball Association, also remembers Pop as a teenager as “a big kid… when you think of one of those quintessential WHL defenders, that’s right. what Zach looked like. When you shook hands with him, it was like shaking hands with a wrestler, and he was only 15 years old.”
Pop started out as a first baseman, but the Royals quickly realized how hard and heavy his pitches were. That’s when Sean Travers, part of the coaching staff when Pop joined the Ontario Blue Jays, an elite team that is also the former home of Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano and Cleveland Guardians first baseman Josh. Naylor decided it was time to talk.
“I don’t think he liked what he had to say,” Travers said. “The first time in my office, I said, ‘I don’t think you’re a hitter. I think you should first get fit and learn the game.’ As we progressed, I think he respected that.”
When Pop moved on to pitching, there were growing pains as he tried to separate himself from all the other kids with size and talent. That process wasn’t as easy as hitting a ball a mile or throwing heat at a young age.
“He wasn’t too excited about being a pitcher,” Travers recalled. “It was the same when Romano played for us. (Romano wanted to be a receiver). But from what I saw of Zach, he traded his whole life to get to his goal. Now you look at him, you see how hard he works, and he’s totally transformed… He could be one of the best players in form out there.”
The transformation led him to become a reliable right-hander in the Miami Marlins’ bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 18 appearances this year in his second MLB season. But he had to work a lot to get to this point.
“At 16, 17, everyone was looking at him because he could throw 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 being the ‘big guy’ and he had to protect it. Eventually he had to get to the point where he didn’t care what other people thought of him… If you want to do unusual things and be great, you can’t do ordinary things.”
When Pop left the Ontario Blue Jays, he was 18 years old and pitching in his ’90s and ’90s. All of his coaches agree something changed in Kentucky. He started throwing a wet 98-mph heater and an equally beefy slider that he still uses in the majors.
The tough love of becoming a pitcher was paying off. While his stats weren’t where he wanted him to be — Pop had a 5.21 ERA in his sophomore season in college — the evidence was on the radar as he hit triple figures.
“I imagine there were tough times for the family,” Travers said, recalling that Pop’s parents, Sheldon and Judy, weren’t thrilled with the suggested change at first, either. But they helped him through a difficult process.
“When Zach wasn’t doing things the way he wanted to in Kentucky, his dad was on the phone and helping his son. Now, I think if you look back to those days with Kentucky, Zach wasn’t going further when he was there, but he’s probably gone further than anybody on that team now. Zach found out.
During the pandemic, when most baseball facilities were closed, Pop relied on his Ontario connections. He performed at several local camps and worked with pitching coach Mike Steed, a Beamsville, Ont. he native now with the Atlanta Braves A-ball team in Augusta.
When Pop first hit 100 mph with the speed gun in Kentucky, word spread and his phone lit up with messages from his old friends at the Brampton Royals.
That’s when Pop was drafted in the 23rd round by the Blue Jays. Eight years later, after establishing himself as a dependable reliever in the Marlins organization, his hometown team acquired him for a shot at the World Series.
“It’s very special to be able to come home and see my family and play for the Blue Jays.” Pop told MLB.com after the trade broke down.. “I have a lot of friends, a lot of people supporting them right now.”
The Blue Jays’ next homestay begins Friday against the Guardians.
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