It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment that Jason Groome transformed from talented high school pitcher to one of the best amateur prospects in the country, but J.M. Gold recalls the day it dawned on him.

A 15-year-old sophomore at the time, Groome carved up Jackson Memorial High School – one of the perennial powers in the Shore Conference and the program for which Gold is the pitching coach – in an Ocean County Tournament semifinal game.

It was a different kind of game than the ones scouts and onlookers have grown accustomed to watching Groome pitch in recent years: he struck out only six, but he did not walk a batter, rolled up nine groundball outs and needed only 84 pitches to pitch a two-hit shutout. A season-low in strikeouts did not diminish what Gold saw that day.

“You could absolutely tell,” Gold said of Groome’s first-round potential. “He was able to throw all three pitches for strikes whenever he wanted. He pitched to contact and got weak contact, which, for a 15-year to not be afraid of contact is impressive. I remember talking to (Jackson Memorial head) coach (Frank) Malta after the game and saying, ‘This kid is going to be a nuisance.’ He was everything we heard about and then some.”

Since Groome exploded onto the national scene over the subsequent 12-to-18 months – a period that included his initial commitment to Vanderbilt as well as his ascension to the No. 1 prospect according to many in Thursday’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft – the Barnegat left-hander has reached a level of pre-Draft hype that Gold can relate to. That’s because Gold was the last Shore Conference pitcher to generate this much buzz while still in high school.

As Groome waits to hear his name called on Thursday night, Gold can’t help but hearken back to June of 1998, when the Milwaukee Brewers made him the No. 13 overall pick out of Toms River North in the First-Year Player Draft – about two-and-a-half months before Groome was born. There have been Jersey Shore area natives who have been drafted higher than Gold, but they were not drafted out of high school and did not as closely resemble Groome’s situation.

Before he became the pitching coach at Jackson Memorial, J.M. Gold (left) was the top high school pitcher in the country back in 1998. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)
Before he became the pitching coach at Jackson Memorial, J.M. Gold (left) was the top high school pitcher in the country back in 1998. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

“It definitely brings me back,” Gold said “I tend to follow things this time of year, at least for the last 10 years or so. I’ve kept my ears to what is going on, but it definitely feels different with the local stories and seeing what Jason Groome is going through.”

The most noteworthy contrast between the two Ocean County fire-ballers is the absence of social media during Gold’s experience. Groome was sparsely known outside of N.J. during his sophomore year, gained notoriety pitching at IMG Academy as a junior and blew up over the summer when videos of him pitching began to surface on Twitter and YouTube with far more frequency. By the end of August, even casual baseball fans began to hear Groome’s name as a potential No. 1 draft pick in 2016. Whether or not Groome was actually ready to experience the hype surrounding him, he was aware it was coming.

“The crazy thing is, everything is out there with Groome coming in as the number one guy in the country,” Gold said. “Every pitch he throws, the velocity was reported on Twitter or on one website or another. I don’t even think we had a computer when I was in high school.”

Gold was not quite as prepared to see what he saw in his first start of the high school season. He was first noticed by a handful of college and professional scouts toward the end of the junior year, during which he topped out at 91 miles-per-hour with his fastball. Over the summer, more and more scouts began to check in on him and by opening day of the 1998 high school season, Gold was considered a top-10 pitching prospect in the country. Despite that distinction – perhaps because of a lack of social media, a far less mainstream draft and a general unfamiliarity with the scouting process – Gold was not expecting the turnout that showed up to watch him face Middletown South that April afternoon.

“I noticed colleges and some pro guys showing up over the summer,” said Gold, who committed to St. John’s prior to his senior year. “I knew that I was getting some attention, but it didn’t really dawn on me until that first game senior year. Coach (Ted) Schelmay told me there were a lot of people coming to watch and I just kind of shrugged it off like, ‘Okay.’ Then I got to the field and started warming up, and there were 50-to-60 scouts lined up to watch me throw in the outfield. It definitely threw me for a loop, but once the game started I was pretty good about locking in on pitching.”

With the sea of scouts looking on, Gold did not disappoint and his star only grew over the next two months.

“I was throwing with my brother after the game and he said to me, ‘You know you hit 96 on the gun?’” Gold said. “Of course, I had no idea. I think Baseball America had me as the number six high school pitching prospect in the country going into the season and after that game, I got bumped up to number one.”

Once Gold’s stock took off, his experience began to merge with what Groome has experienced this year. He said there were times he felt like people were trying to knock him off his perch, if not out of animosity, then out of a hope to find the flaw in his formula.

“I’m intense and loud as a coach, but I was as quiet and as mellow as it gets when I pitched,” Gold said. “I didn’t pay attention to who and what was there. I loved to pitch, I loved to be in control and I didn’t pay attention to behind the backstop. My parents did a good job with me. I didn’t get too high when things were good or too low when they weren’t.”

Groome can probably relate after having to sit out 19 days after being ruled ineligible by the NJSIAA as well as seeing the word “makeup” evoked over and over again in mainstream evaluations of his draft stock. It is especially applicable now that speculation is running rampant following his de-commitment to Vanderbilt, his decision to skip the Draft in Secaucus and silence from his camp – all of which has happened in the past three days. While none of that has changed what the industry thinks of Groome’s actual talent – he was rated the No. 1 player available on the latest rankings – it has greatly changed the perception of how likely it is that teams can meet adviser Jeff Randazzo’s asking price (reportedly $4 million) and whether or not teams want to risk using a pick over a player who might well opt for junior college over signing a contract.

Barnegat ace Jason Groome. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)
Barnegat ace Jason Groome. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

That brand of speculation is not new, but compared to Gold’s day, it has been pushed into hyper-drive.

“I can’t imagine what it would have been like having every little thing picked apart," Gold said. "Now kids have phones, so he probably can’t help but read about himself. It can make your mind go a little crazy. Dealing with the circus atmosphere, people wanting to see imperfection, to find that chink in the armor, and then to deal with NJSIAA stuff and still perform like he did – if any team is wondering about his makeup, I think they got a pretty good snapshot.”

Now that Groome is not travelling north to Secaucus for the Draft on Thursday, he will spend the night at home with his family, which is the experience Gold remembers – except without the option of watching the draft on television. While Gold simply went about his day with family and friends at his Toms River home until the call came in, Groome will have a chance to actually watch each pick unfold while anticipating that the next words out of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s mouth could be his own name.

Gold, meanwhile, didn’t hear his name called over the internet. As a matter of fact, he did not even hear about his selection from anyone in the Brewers front office. A New York Post reporter called his home and asked for his reaction, and that was the moment Gold found out he was a Brewer.

“It was a pretty wild day,” Gold recalled. “This Week in Baseball was at my house. My coach, family, my principal at the time – they were all there. We had a bunch of food, my friends came over and we hung out, swam in my parents’ pool. It was fun.”

While the draft has changed a good deal in the last 18 years, Gold recalls experiencing a similar predicament to the one Groome is facing Thursday. According to Gold, his adviser, Dave Pepe, told him the Minnesota Twins were planning on drafting him with the No. 6 pick, but a signing-bonus-driven shuffle centered around J.D. Drew – who was picked No. 5 by St. Louis – changed the complexion of the top 10 and Minnesota opted, instead, for Arizona State left-hander Ryan Mills. Although he slipped to No. 13 overall, Gold was still the first high school pitcher taken that year.

“I remember being pretty calm,” Gold said. “My dad was feeling it more than I was. He asked me, ‘How can you stay so calm right now.’ I just said, ‘It’s baseball. It’s supposed to be fun. When something happens, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.’”

However common the experiences that Gold and Groome have shared to this point, both hope that their paths diverge going forward. Gold signed on June 18, 1998 and experienced some success at the lower levels of the Brewers system before elbow and shoulder problems began to hamper him and ultimately cut his career short before he could reach Double-A.

“My regret is the Brewers tried to change some things about my mechanics,” Gold said. “My injuries might have happened anyway, and I was trying to show everyone that I was coachable, but I wish I had resisted a little bit more and done things the way I always had.

“My advice to (Groome) is he’s drafted where he’s drafted for a reason. Just continue to do what you’ve done. He’s going to come across a lot of coaches, there are going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and it’s important to take bits and pieces and use it to work to get better. Don’t be satisfied. Don’t be complacent – this chapter is over, so turn the page.”

Jackson Memorial pitching coach J.M. Gold congratulates Brandon Janofsky after the junior's one-hitter in the Group IV final. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Jackson Memorial pitching coach J.M. Gold congratulates Brandon Janofsky after the junior's one-hitter in the 2014 NJSIAA Group IV final. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Since injury ended his pursuit of a Major League career, Gold has made his mark in the coaching ranks and that has given him new perspective of draft day. While he can certainly relate to Groome’s experience, he will watch Thursday with great interest as one of his former players will likely hear his name called. University of Virginia catcher and former Jaguar standout Matt Thaiss is projected to be selected on day one of the draft and could very well be a first-round pick.

If Groome is following in Gold’s footsteps, Thaiss is following his actual lead. Gold set Thaiss up with his same adviser from 1998 and has stayed in close contact with his former player, particularly since Virginia was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament this past weekend.

“Matt is so even-keeled and level-headed,” Gold said. “He has always had a plan, he doesn’t get anxious or worry and just kind of goes about his business. Seeing him do it for a team that won a National championship and to see him become one of the top guys and leader there was kind of cool.”

Gold even advocated for Thaiss, insisting that any talk of him having to move from behind the plate to another position as a professional is premature.

“The guy you always hear catchers compared to is Yadier Molina and if that’s the level that you’re going to compare every catcher to, then yeah, Matt’s not that,” Gold said. “But do I think he will better than a bunch of the Big League catchers I watch once he gets in somebody's program? Definitely.”

Leaning on Gold’s experience has been valuable to Thaiss, who was already drafted by the Red Sox in the 32nd round in 2013. Groome has not had the same contact, but the two did cross paths once more this March when Jackson Memorial hosted Barnegat in a scrimmage.

“I heard about him, how he was a high pick and he just came to me while I was throwing in the bullpen to wish me luck,” Groome recalled. “He told me to enjoy it and not to pay too much attention to what people say or write. It’s good to hear advice from people like that.”

While the meeting and the message were brief, Gold hopes that its simplicity will resonate. It is the kind of advice that Groome has heard over and over again for the last two years of his life. It’s not often, however, that he has heard from someone else who actually lived it.

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