SARASOTA, FLA. — — The Kieron Pope that Dave Trembley remembered had "a great arm, could run like the wind, had light-tower power" and frequently launched batting-practice home runs that short-hopped the side of the dining hall or landed in the parking lot at Twin Lakes Park.
The Kieron Pope that Trembley saw late last October and nearly reduced the Orioles manager to tears took slow and uncertain strides on a treadmill and seemingly needed the help of minor league medical coordinator Dave Walker just to stay upright.
"What a physical specimen this guy was, but here he is on the treadmill, at the lowest speed it can be on and not on an incline, and he's struggling to walk," said Trembley, who coached Pope in instructional league in 2005 and 2006. "He had to hold the side rails on the treadmill. It just broke your heart for what this guy once was and you just have to imagine what he's going through to just try and get back and regain life skills. We're not talking about baseball skills. We're talking about life skills."
When Trembley took the one-hour drive from St. Petersburg to Sarasota last October and dropped in on some of his former players, the Orioles had lost 12 consecutive games and rumors of his dismissal continued to swirl. When he left the club's minor league facility to join his team at Tropicana Field later that day, Trembley concluded that his and his team's tribulations were "pretty minuscule" compared with the battle Pope was fighting to get healthy and resuscitate a baseball career that held such promise.
On April 3 of last year during a minor league spring training game at Twin Lakes Park, Pope, a multitooled outfielder once considered one of the Orioles' better position prospects, was trying to beat out a ground ball to shortstop. As he crossed first base and took a couple of steps beyond it, Pope snapped his right femur, a bone that extends from the hip to the knee joint and is one of the longest and strongest bones in the human body.
Pope collapsed to the dirt, and what followed was a scene that assistant director of player development Tripp Norton described as "sobering" and "scary." Pope was told by a couple of teammates that the sound of his bone breaking was audible in the clubhouse, which stands about 150 yards away.
"They said it sounded like a broken bat, and guys told me that it made them sick to their stomachs," Pope said. "It was the most pain I've ever been in. It's probably one of the toughest days I've had in my life. I remember it, but I'm just trying to get over it."
For Pope, that grueling and seemingly never-ending process, which included three different surgeries, has accelerated this spring as the 23-year-old is working out daily at the Orioles' minor league facility, taking batting practice and catching fly balls.
He still hasn't been cleared to play in games, but he's hoping that day is near.
The mere thought of playing again, along with routine acts like putting on his uniform and joking with teammates has Pope walking around Twin Lakes Park with a wide smile.
"I think getting hurt helped me in a way," Pope said, a bracelet with the word "Faith" dangling from his right wrist. "It made me hungry. I want it so much, I want it so bad. That's how I'm looking at it now. I'm trying to look at the positives from the situation."
Injuries and adversity
Pope had already fought through a couple of injuries, though none matched the severity of the one he suffered a year ago Saturday. A sophomore on the East Coweta (Ga.) High School football team, he cracked his left femur when a player rolled out of a pile and into his leg. Two years later, he was drafted by the Orioles in the fourth round of the 2005 draft as scouting director Joe Jordan was intrigued by his power. At 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds and with the broad shoulders and thick legs of an NFL safety, Pope certainly looked the part.
He was named the Orioles' 10th-best prospect after 2006, but his 2007 season ended when he needed surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Pope struggled in 2008, hitting .232 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs while striking out 139 times in 383 at-bats for Single-A Delmarva.
However, he arrived at minor league spring training last year confident that the injuries were all behind him. That remained the case until the afternoon of April 3.
Pope is convinced that his injury was caused by the uneven infield surface at Twin Lakes Park. The fields, which came under scrutiny last spring when several other organizations refused to send their minor leaguers to the facility to play the Orioles, have since been redone. Orioles officials say they don't believe Pope's broken femur was caused by the field conditions, but there is no way to be certain.