June 09, 2016
Sometime a little past 7 p.m. tonight, Jason Groome’s life will take a dramatic change. He’ll be in the comfort of his own Barnegat, New Jersey home, away from the glare that's followed him the last three years. He'll sit there on the living room sofa in shorts and a t-shirt surrounded by family and friends, watching the MLB Network and waiting. Sometime a little past 7 p.m., the wave of anxiety may subside when the prospective Major League Baseball first-round draft choice reaches for his ringing cell phone.
And for a fleeting second, just before the Phillies possibly make him the top pick in MLB’s first-year player draft, the 6-foot-6, 220-pound left-handed pitcher from Barnegat High School on the Jersey Shore, he may go back there.
Bracing himself against the image of his dad Jason’s hands. They were gnarled and beat-up like they were put through a grinder. Working hands. Maybe he’ll remember the way his dad would get up on the gun-metal gray, frigid winter mornings, too tired to move, then slump in his chair once home, too tired to eat or watch TV. Maybe he’ll recall how the man who first put a baseball glove on him and taught him how to throw would get lost for days, driving a truck up and down the East Coast so he could live this moment.
“I really want to do this so my dad doesn’t have to work again,” said Groome, who could go anywhere among the top three picks, which in order, are the Phillies, Cincinnati and Atlanta. “I love playing baseball. I came back home to Barnegat to play baseball with my friends, but I’m also old enough to know the sacrifices my parents made to make this happen.
“There are just some things you don’t forget, like all of the work my dad does. He works 70 to 100 hours a week, mostly nights. Just seeing what he has to do every night — and he’s the one who told me to focus on what I have to do — that’s what always motivates me. I don’t want him to sit in the cold driving 16, 18 hours a night to Boston, Queens, and Newark. I don’t want him driving anywhere. It’s why I want to make this dream happen. You can call it a family dream. My dad sacrificed a lot to make this dream of doing what I love for the majority of my life. It’s going to happen and my parents are going to be the first ones I take care of.”
Over the last three months, Groome has been scrutinized, and clocked, and measured, and prodded every which way. He’s had grown men chasing him around New Jersey with radar guns in their hands, standing behind cyclone fences wearing the caps of every Major League Baseball team. It hasn’t been daunting at all.
In fact, Groome has been used to it since his sophomore year at Barnegat.
He started in 19 of Barnegat’s 22 games his freshman year, playing everything from first base to outfield, and pitching. But the bump in his progress came his sophomore year. It’s not a coincidence it’s also when Groome went from a 6-foot-1, 147-pound kid to growing two inches and adding 50 pounds. He was scratching 90 m.p.h. on the radar guns, fast enough to cause Major League scouts to come scurrying to Barnegat, a 45-minute drive from Philadelphia with a population of around 21,000.
“I had to get a little used to being that big at first; I was growing out of everything,” admitted Groome, who finished his senior year at Barnegat with a 1-3 record, with 1 save and ERA of 1.13 and 90 strikeouts over 39 innings. That excludes a 19-strikeout no-hitter in his second start of the season against Central Regional, which was forfeited because of a New Jersey state transfer rule.
“That’s where my velocity generated from. I loved to play any position. But I’d play all year round and my arm would never get tired. I long-tossed all year. I still like going out and long-tossing. When you add arm strength to growing inches and gaining 50 pounds, and then I was 6-3, around 195, that’s what led to the first time I was clocked in the 90s.”
Groome and his new imposing frame his sophomore year led Barnegat to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 championship, where he lost to Buena, 1-0. Where he didn’t lose was when he parlayed his sophomore success into a scholarship to IMG Academy, in Bradenton, Fla., his junior season.
He admits now that it was a tough choice to leave Barnegat in the first place.
“I remember telling (Barnegat) coach (Dan) McCoy — and it wasn’t exactly a friendly conversation — well, I’ll say it was shaky,” Groome said. “A lot of the guys who were going to be seniors didn’t like the move. But my thought was, here I had this opportunity to really put myself on the map. I asked anyone if they were presented with the same opportunity I had, wouldn’t they take it?
And put himself on the map is exactly what he did. Groome blew away everyone he faced for IMG. He went 5-0 with a 0.98 ERA. He struck out 77 and walked just nine in 43 innings. In one game, he struck out 19. Opponents hit a paltry .154 against him.
“The first thing that jumps out at you about Jason is his physical size and strength,” said Dan Simonds, Groome’s IMG coach. “To me, he was beyond his years in the sense of his work ethic, the way he approached his craft and his preparation. We laid out a plan for Jason and he followed it to a T, whether it was strength and conditioning, his development of secondary pitches, all the things he wanted to accomplish while he was here. He’s certainly special. The best I’ve seen as far as natural ability.”
But Groome was homesick.
“I was at IMG for six months. When they first threw that scholarship at me, I was stoked. Coming from New Jersey, we’re in the Northeast. Would anyone really see me? Then I got to IMG and it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to come back and play baseball with the friends I grew up with. It got pretty boring down there for a high school kid doing the same things six days a week. I felt weird seeing a new face every single day, and I was there for six months. I wanted to be with the guys I grew up with and bonded with.
“Plus, I wanted to get home and see my family. My parents only saw me a few times when I was down there. I have twin brothers who are 3. That made it even harder to leave. I could have stayed there if I wanted to, and I think things would have still turned out the same. But I can honestly say I made the right decision to come back home. I remember talking to Jeff (Randazzo, his adviser) about it. We were looking at Gloucester Catholic, and some other schools. And Jeff just said, ‘Why not just go back to Barnegat?’ They welcomed me back with open arms and here we are now.”
But it was clear to Simonds that Groome's heart was back in Jersey with his family.
"He’s very close with his little brothers," Simonds said. "When his family came to town, he lit up. Being away from his family was something he had to wrestle with a little bit when he was here. Jason matured down here and how he handles adversity will determine how far he goes."
Will that love of family work against him when it comes to his development? What if, say, he's drafted by a West Coast team?
"That’s going to be the biggest thing, still, dealing with the lifestyle of being a pro," Simonds said. "He’s going to be on his own. He’s still a little kid in a lot of ways, and that works in his favor in certain ways, but he’s going to need structure, direction and routine. That will expedite his route to the big leagues.
"If he does those things in a mature fashion, listen, it’s not going to be very long. I see the kid making a quick rise through a minor league system. In terms of what he can do on the mound, he’s not that far away now. There’s not too many kids 17-years old that are that advanced.”
Now the next stop for him, it seems, is the majors.
Some mock drafts have Groome going first to the Phillies, while others have him going third to the Atlanta Braves, who have shown considerable interest (when PhillyVoice spoke to him, a pair of Braves scouts were there after he worked out at the Maplezone Sports Complex in Garnet Valley, Delaware County, PA — and the Braves were there for the first time PhillyVoice spoke with him in February).
“I’ve been waiting a long time for June to come and it’s here,” said Groome, who allowed two or fewer hits in seven of eight appearances his senior year. “My dream has always been to play in the majors. I would sign if the Phillies drafted me. That would be a dream come true because it is so close to home. I’m 45 minutes from Citizens Bank Park. I pass it four times a week going back and forth from my workouts. That would be awesome if that happened. I got some advice from (fellow New Jerseyan) Mike Trout. He basically told me to just keep my head on my shoulders and don’t let this whole thing take me over. That’s what I’ve been doing.
“I’m trying to keep the bigger picture ahead of me — I want to help my mother and father.”
There was a recent twist, however, in Groome’s journey to the majors. On Monday night, Groome de-committed from his baseball scholarship to Vanderbilt and then committed to Chipola College, a junior college in Marianna, Florida. The reasoning is simple: If Groome isn’t picked where he feels he should go, he’ll attend Chipola in the fall, and be eligible again for the draft in 2017, since Chipola is a junior college. Players attending four-year college programs are not eligible until they’ve completed their junior years.
The standard criteria for Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft eligibility are:
• High school players, if they have graduated from high school and have not yet attended college or junior college;
• College players, from four-year colleges who have either completed their junior or senior years or are at least 21 years old; and
• Junior college players, regardless of how many years of school they have completed.
“Jason’s adviser, Jeff Randazzo, first spoke to me Monday night and asked me if we would be interested in taking Jason, if they were faced with a situation (where) the draft didn’t work, they didn’t want to wait three years before he was drafted again,” Chipola coach Jeff Johnson said. “They wanted to make sure if Jason went to school, that he would be able to be drafted next year. That was the major reason for the call. Jason and Jeff have a figure in mind and a set place in the draft that they’d like to go if he signs or if he is not going to sign.
“Jason committed to us. We all spoke Tuesday, myself, Jeff and Jason. I’ve been coaching 19 years and the draft is unpredictable. Whether Jason drops in the draft or not will be determined what he does after they get through those first five to 10 picks. I think the reason why they called us is they want a plan in place where he’s not sitting at a four-year school and waiting. If Jason is drafted in the right spot, that’s Plan A for sure. I suppose we would be Plan B.”