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 big, fun-loving kid whose path to the majors began with the Royals, before moving on to the Toronto Mets, Ontario Blue Jays, then the University of Kentucky. Now that he’s a big-league Jay — Pop was drafted by Toronto in 2014, but didn’t sign — Ferreira hopes his former cleanup hitter will inspire a new generation of local kids.
“With Zach back and neighborhood kids seeing him here, it could get more kids playing baseball,” he said.
Pop is from Brampton and played defensive hockey growing up. While he had the size and the natural talent, he learned that hard work in the gym plus a total, no-frills commitment to understanding the game was the ticket to the big leagues.
It all started with a solid foundation.
Ferreira’s son Eric grew up with Pop, playing T-ball and having sleepovers. The teammates were like family, with Pop joining in on the chores. He often lined up the courts before games and ran across the park after games to buy Freezies at the local convenience store.
Pop — now six-foot-four and 220 pounds at 25 — has always been one of the bigger kids on the team. As his talent blossomed, he was naturally the center of attention.
“One year we played against a team that was a year ahead, in a tournament in Niagara Falls,” Ferreira said. “They thought they could intimidate us; they had their ace thrown into the bullpen before the game. We started laughing, because they hadn’t heard Zach warming up…
“When he started throwing, the sound – the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove – you could see the other coaches going, ‘Oh oh, we’re in trouble here.'”
Frank Fascia, president of Brampton Minor Baseball and board member of the Ontario Baseball Association, also remembers Pop as a teenager as “a big kid…when you think of one of those prototype WHL defenders, that’s what Zach looked like. When you shook his hand, it was like shaking hands with a wrestler, and he was only 15 years old.
Pop started as a first baseman, but the Royals quickly realized how hard and heavy his throws were. That’s when Sean Travers, who was on the coaching staff when Pop joined the Ontario Blue Jays, an elite team that is also the former home of Jordan Romano, closer to the Jays. , and Cleveland Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor, decided it was time to talk.
“I don’t think he liked what I had to say,” Travers said. “The first time in my office, I said, ‘I don’t think you’re a hitter. I think you have to get in shape first and learn the game.’ As we went on, I think he respected that.
When Pop switched to throwing, he had some growing pains as he tried to separate himself from all the other kids with size and talent. This process didn’t come as easily as hitting a ball over a country mile or throwing heat at an early age.
“He wasn’t too excited about being a pitcher,” Travers recalled. “It was the same when Romano was playing for us. (Romano wanted to be a receiver.) But from what I saw from Zach, he changed his whole life to get to his goal. Now you look at him , you see how hard he works and he is totally transformed… He could be one of the best players in form.
The transformation led to him becoming a dependable right-hander in the Miami Marlins bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 18 appearances this year in his second season in MLB. But he had to make a lot of effort to get there.
“At 16, 17, everyone looked 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 awesome, you can’t do fluent things.
When Pop left the Ontario Blue Jays, he was 18 and pitching in the early to mid-90s. His coaches all agree that something has changed in Kentucky. He started throwing a 98 mph radiator with sink and an equally sturdy slider that he still uses in the majors.
The tough love of becoming a pitcher was paying off. Although his stats weren’t where he wanted them — Pop had a 5.21 ERA in his sophomore varsity season — the proof was on the radar gun when he flashed triple digits.
“I can imagine the family has been through some tough times,” Travers said, recalling that Pop’s parents, Sheldon and Judy, were also not keen on the change initially suggested. But they helped him through a difficult process.
“When Zach wasn’t doing things his way in Kentucky, his dad was on the phone helping his son. Now, I think if you think back to those days with Kentucky, Zach wasn’t going the farthest when he was there, but he’s probably gone further than anyone else on this team now. Zach understood.
During the pandemic, when most baseball facilities were closed, Pop relied on his connections in Ontario. He showed up at several local pitches and worked with pitching coach Mike Steed of Beamsville, Ont. native now with the Atlanta Braves A-ball team in Augusta.
When Pop first hit 100 mph on the speed gun in Kentucky, word spread and his phone lit up with messages from his former Brampton Royals pals.
It was around this time that Pop was drafted in the 23rd round by the Jays. Eight years later, after establishing himself as a reliable reliever in the Marlins organization, the hometown team acquired him for a World Series shot.
“It’s pretty 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. “I have a lot of friends, a lot of people are supporting them right now.”
The Jays’ next homestand begins Friday against the Guardians.
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