BARNEGAT, N.J. -- A small hamlet in southern New Jersey with a growing population of roughly 20,000 people, Barnegat Township has never seen anyone quite like Jason Groome.The 6-foot-6 left-hander, ranked No. 1 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Draft Prospects list, might be one of several players being considered at the
BARNEGAT, N.J. -- A small hamlet in southern New Jersey with a growing population of roughly 20,000 people, Barnegat Township has never seen anyone quite like Jason Groome.
The 6-foot-6 left-hander, ranked No. 1 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Draft Prospects list, might be one of several players being considered at the top of this year's Draft. But he's a once-in-a-lifetime type in these parts.
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It's easy to tell that's how Groome is regarded. Students wave to him when he walks down the hall at Barnegat High School. There are constant requests for Groome's time, like the local supermarket asking if he could come for an autograph session to help announce a special. A marquee matchup against Tyler Mondile of nearby Gloucester Catholic was turned into a charity event, drawing more than 6,000 people and raising over $32,000. Groome was mobbed, first by media, then by autograph seekers -- kids and adults -- and he lost the game, 1-0.
"It's been really exciting, with everything that happened, just me coming back home," Groome said. "My family's loving it, I'm loving it. I just made the right decision coming back."
Groome spent his junior season honing his craft at IMG Academy, a multisport training and education complex in Bradenton, Fla. The competition and the instruction were clearly better there, but Groome felt a pull to come back north. You can take the kid out of Jersey, but you can't take the Jersey out of the kid.
"Besides the Florida weather, there was nothing [driving me] to go back to IMG," Groome said. "I went there for six and a half months. I did what I needed to do. I got bigger, faster and stronger, but I just felt it was only right coming back to Barnegat."
Groome might have known in his heart it was a good decision. It was cemented the first day he walked back into his high school, a prodigal son returned. Groome had wanted it to be a surprise, and the reaction he got erased any lingering doubts he may have had about coming back.
"I only had told a couple of my close friends and I told them not to tell anyone," Groome said with a smile. "I wanted to walk back into school and see everyone's faces. They were all like, 'Oh my God, you're really back!'"
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Not that it's all been a storybook homecoming. Shortly after Groome's season started at Barnegat, on the heels of a 19-strikeout no-hitter, he was given a 30-day suspension for a transfer violation regarding his move back home from Florida. It resulted in his high school team having to forfeit the two wins it collected in his starts, including the no-no.
Groome didn't win the showdown with Mondile, but he clearly shook off whatever rust there may have been from the layoff and showed why he is a top-of-the-Draft talent in front of a ton of evaluators. His fastball reached 94 mph and sat at 92, and he showed perhaps the best breaking ball in the Draft class, especially in the latter stages of the game. This was nothing new, as Groome excelled several times on the summer showcase circuit, cementing himself as a top Draft prospect.
Hailing from a spot that's less than a baseball hotbed, Groome wasn't sure just how good he was until he got the chance to compete against others from around the country before his junior year.
"Probably end of my sophomore year, at the end of the summer after playing in the Area Code Games, I knew I was pretty good," Groome said. "Then once the spring started last year, I saw all these pro guys coming, I thought I had something special. I'm just going to keep doing it."
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Groome has some specific ideas on just how he wants to keep doing it. Or, more specifically, how quickly. He'd like to follow the path set by Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. A fellow big lefty with good stuff and command coming out of high school, Kershaw made his big league debut at age 20.
"Obviously, he's a lot better than me, but I like to model myself after him," Groome said. "I want to be one of the youngest. In my second year of pro ball, if I sign out of high school this year, I'll still be 19. I'm looking to climb the leagues and get to the big leagues as quickly as I can."
Tell Groome that's perhaps an overly ambitious goal and he may nod knowingly, but he also knows setting those kinds of benchmarks is what fuels him.
"It just makes me work that much harder," Groome said. "If I'm out there executing everything that I can and everything is going well for me, I don't see why I can't get there in that amount of years."
First person: Groome talks life as top Draft prospect
Groome wants to do all of it -- go high in the Draft, make it to the big leagues and excel once he gets there -- for his family. His father, Jay, is a truck driver and fish grader. His mother, Danielle, and Jay are currently also raising Groome's twin 3-year-old brothers, and Groome is well aware that this next chapter could be a life-changer.
"I just want it to all work out for me and the sake of my family," Groome said. "They sacrificed so much, so it's only right that I give back, because they put me in this position.
"I can't wait until Draft day, because it's going to start the next mile marker in my career. Once I get there, I just hope to stay there as long as I can, [give] my brothers a great foundation, send them to school. I want to put my parents up in a new house, because they've busted their tails to get me where I am. To me, it'll mean the world to me, because I'll know all the hard work paid off."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.