Pope getting an earlier than expected shot at managing
TRENTON — When chest pains forced Thunder manager Tony Franklin to the hospital just 20 minutes before last Thursday’s game, the team needed a skipper not only for that night, but more than likely for a small spell afterward.
The organization had more than a few choices at its disposal. In house, there were pitching coach Tommy Phelps and hitting coach Julius Matos, both of whom carry extensive experience with the franchise and its players.
The Yankees also could have shipped in one of their higher-ups, like Director of Player Development Pat Roessler or Torre Tyson, the organization’s defensive coordinator, to bridge the time until Franklin’s return.
The fact that they chose to forgo all of those options in favor of Justin Pope — the Thunder’s first-year bench coach and a man so young that he still has former teammates playing in the Eastern League — speaks volumes about how bright his future can be.
That fact wasn’t lost on Pope, who at 32 has gotten a taste of life in the big chair well before he expected it. And even though he’s grateful for the chance, there was one underlying factor that concerned him.
“I had fear of being a pitcher and working with position players, admitted Pope, who pitched for eight seasons in the minor leagues, including parts of three with the Thunder. “That’s what my biggest fear was, of these guys looking at me like, ‘This guy’s a pitcher, what’s he know? I’m not going to listen to him,’ and not getting any respect.”
He’s won three of his first four games at Trenton’s helm, and the offense has scored 17 runs in that time, so he’s got to be doing something right.
Thunder outfielder Austin Krum sure thinks so.
“He’s done a great job. I’ve been talking to some of the guys behind Pope’s back — he’s ready for this spot somewhere. He’s going to be a manager somewhere someday. ... Every move that we’ve made so far since Skip’s not been here has been the right move in my mind,” Krum said.
Franklin is expected to be away at least until this weekend’s homestand with Portland, and possibly until the team’s road trip to Reading next week.
In his stead, Pope has done everything that Franklin would have done. That includes filling out lineup cards, positioning fielders, deciding when to send or hold runners, and making the call on when is an appropriate time to bunt.
That last decision, Pope says, was at the center of his toughest moment so far as a skipper.
In the ninth inning on Sunday, with Melky Mesa on second, Jose Pirela at the plate and the Thunder trailing by a run with nobody out, Pope had to decide whether to have Pirela lay down a bunt or let him swing away.
The decision, obviously, had implications which meant the difference between taking three of four from Binghamton or sending the Thunder on the road to Erie with consecutive losses.
After giving him one chance to swing, Pope called for the bunt, which Pirela pushed beautifully up the third-base line. Addison Maruszak followed with a walk, and Krum capped the win with a two-run triple into right-center field.
“If something happens, he lines out and Mesa gets doubled up, that’s our inning right there,” Pope said, explaining the process by which he came to his decision. “Let’s play it safe, bunt him over, we’ve got two chances to get him in.”
One thing Pope has learned, from when his transition started in the Yankees instructional league back in September, through the first few weeks of watching and learning from Franklin, up until his cameo at the top, is that minor league managers have one goal bigger than their team’s won-lost record.
Above all, they are judged by the number and quality of players they deliver to the big club. You can produce bus league championships every year, but if the talent on those teams can’t stand the pressure in the show, then your tenure with the organization won’t last very long.
“We’re all here for the same reason: To get these guys better, and to hopefully get them to the big leagues,” he said. Not everybody’s going to get to the big leagues, and the guys who don’t get to the big leagues maximize their ability and their potential so they can look in the mirror when they’re done playing and be like ‘Hey, I gave it my all, it just wasn’t meant to be.
“That’s what I did. I didn’t get to the big leagues, but I knew I gave it everything I had, and I can look myself in the mirror. ... Hopefully, maybe this is my calling. ’”