One of the most important areas of a successful pitching staff is the knowledge and experience of the pitching coach. For the RiverDogs, they have one of the best in the game. Justin Pope was a first-round draft pick by Saint Louis back in 2001 and spent plenty of time around the game that gave him the experience he has showcased in both his season's with Charleston.
Pope has always had baseball in his blood since a kid. He grew up on five acres in Lake Worth, Florida and at age seven, helped his dad put a baseball field in their yard. It started out as a BMX track for a while until Pope's interests shifted towards baseball. It was the size of a little league field, 250ish towards the fence and Pope's little league team played on it all the time. "We literally spent every single day in the back yard doing something with baseball. My dad was our little-league coach so we could have the team come over to the house and practice. Even days that it was raining, if it wasn't a down pour we would be out there doing something" said Pope.
College choice was tough for Pope when the time came. He grew up a huge Miami Hurricanes fan which made it almost a no-brainer when it came to college choice. After receiving a call from the University of Central Florida and initially turning them down, Pope's father convinced him to check out the school since he was going to be in the area for a baseball tournament. UCF had made him an offer to pitch and play the infield verses Miami's offer to just focus on pitching. Those became a huge factor in his ultimate decision. "I fell in love the school (UCF). They were having a new stadium being built and they were going to let me play the field and pitch. After the visit, I went home and slept on it then I woke up and my heart was telling me to go to UCF. I told my dad and he was completely shocked because he thought I was going to go to University of Miami and it worked out to be a really good decision."
After his sophomore season with UCF, Pope played in the Cape Cod League for summer ball. While there his pitching improved all around. He also pitched every fifth day and played the field. Batting wise, he ended up hitting around .200 which helped him decide to turn his focus towards pitching. That decision proved to be successful in his junior season at UCF. That year Pope set a new NCAA record for most consecutive innings without allowing a run as he posted 38, snapping the previous record of 35 originally set by Major League Phenom, Roger Clemens. "I actually didn't know what was going on until the night before the game. Our head coach was on a local talk show on the news and for some reason I was flipping through the channels, stopped on that channel and I saw Jay Bergman (head coach) on TV so I was listening to him and that's when they mentioned that I was about five innings away from breaking the record. Going into that game I knew what was going on, so after each inning I just kept counting down. After the final inning I knew it but I kept it to myself. Then after the game, coach Bergman announced it so it was a really cool moment"
In 2001, Pope was taken in the first-round (28th overall) by the Saint Luis Cardinals. He was part of a huge draft class that included Twin's Joe Mauer, Cub's Mark Prior, and Ranger's Mark Teixeria, just to name a few. " Looking back on it now, I wouldn't say may talent is what got me taken in the first round but it was my hard work and work ethic and my competitiveness. When I was on the mound I competed like it was my last game I was going to pith forever. I made sure that in between starts I worked my tail off so when it came time to pitch I was ready to go."
His first full season of baseball was spent in Peoria, IL with the Peoria Chiefs in the Midwest League as the Class-A affiliate for the Cardinals. He made and appearance in 12 games, all being starts and he got to pitch to Current Cardinal Phenom and future Hall-of-Famer, 18 year old, Yadier Molina. "He was so good. Even at 18 he was ahead of everyone else. He always cared how the pitchers did. He cared maybe more than the pitcher did of how that pitcher did. If a guy gave up a home run he took it more personal than the pitcher did. You trusted him. As a pitcher, when you can trust a catcher with everything, it makes pitching a little easier. "
After just three seasons with the Cardinals organization, Pope got traded to the Yankees in 2004 and began his career in High-A Tampa and Trenton in that same season. "It was a gut check you could say. I felt like they (Saint Louis) gave up on me a little bit because I was having an up and down year that season that I got traded. It was a little nerve racking because you didn't know what to expect going into an organization." He continued to move up the ranks in the Yankees farm system throughout the next four seasons alternating between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton.
In 2007 Roger Clemens made an appearance in Scranton for a game on a rehab assignment while Pope was in the bullpen for the RailRiders. "I remember him getting after it in the weight room before he pitched. It was pretty cool though. Going back to when I was in college and I broke his record to having him come and make a rehab start. It was really cool to talk to him and bring that (Record) up. It was fun to see him go about his business and his routine before he pitched."
The Phillies gave Pope a chance after he became a minor league free agent going into the 2008 season. He was assigned to Double-A Reading for the season and saw action in 36 games. Following that season, Pope decided to retire from playing the game to coaching and became a coach in the Yankees farm system despite having an offer from the Mets to become a closer for there High-A team. "It was tough. The Yankees signed me to a player-coach in 2009. They gave me a year to feel my way through the coaching situation. You never think you career is going to end as soon as it does. I defiantly would have like to play a few more years."
2016 was Pope's first season with Charleston and he led the team to a league-best 3.06 ERA and setting a franchise record with 1,183 strike outs. He was also named to the All-Star team and became the first RiverDog coach to be named to a postseason All-Star team since the construction of the new stadium in 1997.
This season is his second season with the RiverDogs and he has put together the league's most dominant bullpen. It features a group of guys with great personality's that all get along and have built off each other. "For me team chemistry is the biggest thing. You can have the most talented team in the world but if guys don't play together and don't get along, it's tough to win. You can have a team that doesn't have the greatest amount of talent, but if they get along in the club house and off the field and pull for each other, those guys will play much better than a team with a lot of talent that doesn't get along."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.