Pope begins carving new path to the majors

Justin Pope is the Thunder all-times saves leader with 58 (Photo by Beverly Schaefer)

This feature also can be found in Saturday’s Times of Trenton and at nj.com

Justin Pope was prepared to call it a career after ending the 2008 season on a high note with 10 saves and a 2.23 ERA for the Phillies’ Double-A affiliate in Reading.
“But because I finished so strong the Phillies said they wanted me at Triple-A (in 2009) and that they had big plans for me,’’ said Pope, the all-time Thunder saves leader with 58. “My heart was telling me to shut it down, but I decided to re-sign. Then, with a week left in spring training, they released me.’’
Although just 6-foot and 180 pounds, Pope’s right arm was so promising the St. Louis Cardinals selected him with the 28th overall pick in the 2001 draft _ 10 spots before David Wright went to the Mets in an amateur talent pool that included Joe Mauer (No. 1), Mark Prior (2), Gavin Floyd (4) and Mark Teixeira (5).
Only Pope, a first-team NCAA All-America at Central Florida University, never made it to the major leagues. In fact he appeared in just 28 games above Double-A.
With his appointment to the Thunder coaching staff Wednesday as one of manager Tony Franklin’s three assistants, the 31-year-old Pope has been afforded the opportunity to start his big league journey anew.
“My time as a player is over,’’ Pope said. “But I can honestly say I can look myself in the mirror and I am more than happy with how my career went. Everybody wants to get to the big leagues, but I didn’t and I am perfectly okay with that. I have a new goal now and that is to get there as a coach, but along the way help other guys get there by maximizing their abilities.’’
The Yankees saw coaching potential in Pope as far back as 2007, so they dangled the carrot before sending him back down to Trenton from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre late that summer in a move that effectively ended his chances of reaching the major leagues.
“While rehabbing an injury with the Phillies in Clearwater (Fla.) back in 2008 I started to find myself enjoying just watching the game and thinking about things I would do in certain situations,’’ Pope said. “Not just watching, but really observing. That’s when I knew I wanted to coach and I didn’t want to play anymore. That’s when I made the call to the Yankees.’’
Although former Thunder players such as Kevin Reese and Andy Cannizaro have returned to the organization in a scouting capacity, and Eric Schmitt has positioned himself as the right hand man of minor league boss and Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, Pope is the first to return as a Double-A coach.
After cutting his teeth with the Yanks’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2009, Pope was dispatched to short-season Staten Island of the NY-Penn. League in 2010.
“I love baseball; I’ve played it my entire life and I knew I wanted to stay around the game,’’ Pope said. “The Yankees offered me a coaching position after the 2007 season, but I said ‘no’ because I wanted to play for one, maybe two more years and get it all out of my system. I didn’t want to look back and regret anything.’’
Pope still is not sure what role he will have on the Thunder staff.
With the popular and successful Tommy Phelps in charge of the Trenton pitchers, Pope is looking to become a sponge and digest all aspects of the game _ everything from outfield positioning, to hit-and-run scenarios and lining up cutoff men.
“One thing I did try to do as a player was pay attention to the whole game,’’ Pope said. “There is always something to learn in baseball. The day you stop trying to get better, or stop learning, is when people go right past you. If I am going to get where I want to go as a coach I have to learn and get better every day. It is so many little things.
“I really enjoyed my time in Trenton, so when they told me that is where I was going to be I was ecstatic. It’s a great place to play and I have always been really comfortable around Tony, even during my short time there in 2007. I just feel really lucky and very fortunate to be back and working toward a whole new set of goals.’’

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