The biggest news regarding this year’s draft broke a couple of weeks ago when we learned that Barnegat High School (N.J.) left-hander Jason Groome – a strong candidate to become the No. 1 overall selection in June – was temporarily suspended for violating a transfer rule.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association requires that any athlete who transfers schools without changing addresses must sit out the first 30 days of the season or half of the team’s total number of games. According to multiple media reports, the NJSIAA found Groome violated that rule when he transferred to Barnegat for his senior season after spending last year at IMG Academy in Florida. In other words, because his parents didn’t move with him to IMG – which is a boarding school – he didn’t provide the “bona fide change of residence” as outlined in the NJISAA’s bylaws. Because of the ineligibility ruling, Barnegat forfeited both games in which Groome has pitched, erasing the 19-strikeout no-hitter he threw on April 11. He’s eligible to return to action this week.
For a second, let’s not consider why parents would be expected to move with their children to a boarding school. Let’s also not consider how this transfer rule is in place to prevent the gaining of an athletic advantage, and that Groome was transferring back to the school where he played his freshman and sophomore years to play a final season with his hometown friends. And let’s also not question why the NJSIAA doesn’t allow an appeals hearing under the rule. You can find other media outlets exploring these issues at length, with the majority opinion coming down on the side of the player. Instead, let’s focus on the timing of the suspension, which is at least unfortunate, and at most suspicious.
Conversations I’ve had with industry sources ultimately led a few of them to ask one similar question: Why now? Groome has been attending Barnegat since the fall, and his transfer was being reported by media outlets in July. Surely, the thinking goes, someone at the NJSIAA was both familiar with Groome’s high profile and also aware that he had transferred back to Barnegat long before he ever took the mound for the first time in early April. I asked NJSIAA spokesman Mike Cherenson what prompted the governing body to start looking into his eligibility three weeks into the baseball season.
“It may have been some of the articles that talked about him transferring, and at that point [the NJSIAA] realized that there was never a transfer form sent to the association,” he said. “From what I understand, it was an article that brought the transfer to the attention of the organization.”
He added, “It’s important to note that the NJS system requires self-reporting. The schools have an obligation to report any transfer – no matter what the transfer details are – to the NJSIAA, and this transfer was never reported. So it was only through an article that indicated he had transferred that it was brought to the attention of the association… There are 280,000 student-athletes in New Jersey, 433 schools. And there’s a staff of six or seven associate directors at the NJISAA… They’re not scouring all the newspapers trying to catch people who are transferring. They just happened to have noticed it. The member schools have an affirmative obligation to report transfers.”
Barnegat acknowledges that it didn’t report Groome’s transfer as it should have. Head baseball coach Dan McCoy told me, “We misinterpreted the transfer rule that’s within the NJSIAA rulebook. Jay’s going to sit out 30 days, and he’ll become eligible for our 13th game, according to what I’ve been told. Jay won’t miss any time; we’re going to do intrasquad games so he gets his pitch count up and keeps progressing… It’s water under the bridge, and we’re going to accept what the sanctions are and move forward.”
Considering the system relies on self-reporting from schools and the small staff at the NJSIAA, it’s at least possible that no one at the association knew Groome had transferred until a staff member stumbled upon a news article in April. But that may be a hard sell to Groome’s advisor, Jeff Randazzo, who offered a statement to several news outlets claiming the NJSIAA was “fully aware” of the transfer. Here’s an excerpt of that statement:
“Jason and his family fully support rules that exist to protect the integrity of the competition under the high school league to prevent any school or student athlete from gaining an unfair advantage due to a transfer; however, that is not the case here. Jason is a homegrown Barnegat kid, his parents are full-fledged residents and taxpayers. Jason attended Barnegat HS for his Freshman, Sophomore and first half of his Junior Year before leaving for IMG in the Spring. After 4 months at IMG, Jason and his family felt it was important he came back home and finish his senior year with his family and friends at Barnegat. He was not recruited back, he asked to come back
“The NJSIAA has been fully aware of Jason’s return home, yet now arbitrarily and unilaterally decides to impose and enforce the so-called “transfer rule” three weeks into the baseball season? For the NJSIAA to have no avenue of appeal for Jason to show that the facts of his circumstances do not violate spirit or intent of the rule seems to violate the due process one would expect all students to be entitled to exercise.
“We can’t help but question the motives and intent of the people involved executing an agenda to maliciously effect a 17-year-old kid and his teammates. The lack of common sense on the behalf of the NJSIAA is a disgrace!”
He also suggested to Phil Anastasia of the Philadelphia Inquirer that a “bitter coach or bitter somebody” may have alerted the NJSIAA.
It’s understandable why Randazzo would question motives; there are many people who stand to gain something by maliciously affecting this particular 17-year-old kid. I wanted to ask the advisor to elaborate on his statement as it concerned the draft, but an email to his agency wasn’t returned.
Some folks in the industry reacted to the suspension wondering if there wasn’t a deliberate attempt to dim Groome’s star. Multiple sources speculated that a team picking below the Phillies, who hold the No. 1 overall selection, may have alerted the NJSIAA to the transfer hoping that the suspension would bring down his draft stock. I hear, for example, that multiple clubs in the past few months have contacted Randazzo about Groome sitting out a period of time in the spring so that Groome slips to their draft position. I’m also told, by multiple sources, that Randazzo’s handling of Groome has rubbed some folks in the industry the wrong way. Most of the content of most of the conversations I had was shared off the record.
On the record, the timing of the suspension was interesting to everyone with whom I spoke. The questions asked by Dan Simonds, the baseball director at IMG Academy (the school from which Groome transferred), are the same questions that others are asking.
“I was kind of in shock when I first heard about it,” he said. “How does this just get discovered now? You’ve got probably the highest-profile player in the whole country, and how that’s not discovered right off the bat… It’s a shame that the kid now could potentially be affected… With the transfer, a lot of people knew that he was coming back. It was in a lot of publications – a lot of people knew he was returning for his senior year. So why does it go that far where he starts the year and now he’s ineligible?”
A popular reaction from other media has been to criticize the transfer rule and the bureaucratic nature of youth sports in general. Sure, it’s possible that this had nothing to do with anyone in the industry and was simply a bitter parent or jealous coach tattle-taling. Or maybe the NJSIAA really does have such little manpower that it only became aware of one of the state’s highest-profile transfers in years through haphazard internet browsing nine months after it became public information. But for those who understand what greases the draft machine, they wonder if the suspension is everything that has been been publicly reported and described. The timing is at least curious enough to suspect differently.