by Dan Cleary
PITTSTOWN, NJ---Ken Gregory had a decision to make. The biggest one of his young life. A choice that would alter the course of his promising baseball career, one in which he had established himself as one of the top high school players in New Jersey.
The superstar first baseman/outfielder had just graduated from Immaculata High School in Somerville, N.J. in June of 2006 and he had to decide whether to play baseball at one of the top collegiate baseball powerhouses in the Northeast in Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. or begin his journey of realizing his dream of playing in the Major Leagues by signing with the Texas Rangers, who just drafted him in the 26th round of the First Year Player Draft.
Pretty heady stuff for a kid who just received his high school diploma and turned 18 just three months prior. But the shrewd teenager also had another card up his sleeve and he made up his mind in early July.
"I was hoping to play pro ball after being drafted. But after I got drafted I knew I had the option of going to Seton Hall, signing with the Rangers or going to a junior college and getting a chance to get drafted again in a year or two," recalled Gregory, a sweet-swinging 6-foot-2, 200-pound lefty.
"I talked it over with my family and we thought the best decision for me was to go to a junior college. It was a tough choice. It was tough telling (Seton Hall coach Rob Sheppard) him, but he understood. I felt I had a responsibility to him. But I had to do what was best for me."
And that choice has worked out perfectly so far for the Pittstown, N.J. resident and Jack Cust Baseball Academy alumnus. Gregory recently completed his freshman campaign at national junior college power St. Petersburg College (Fla.) of the Florida Community College Activities Association. The Titans went 37-17 overall and shared the Suncoast Conference championship with Manatee Community College with a 17-8 mark.
Gregory, who is projected by many, including the Rangers, who lost their rights to him after this yearís draft, to be a first baseman in the pros, played left field for the Titans. He hit .323 (61-for-189) with 36 RBI, six doubles, a homer and 32 runs scored en route to being named First Team All-Suncoast Conference.
"After I made my decision, it was easier for me to just concentrate on playing baseball. I heard about St. Petersburg from a scout, and my father I visited, and we really liked it. They have a great program and a great coach," Gregory said.
Gregory was not selected in this yearís draft and he said it would have taken a real good financial deal for him to sign if he was selected again. So he said he was happy to be heading back to St. Petersburg in an effort to raise his stock for the 2008 draft. Gregory and the Rangers could have agreed to a deal any time after he was drafted in what was called "Draft and Follow," an option formerly only open to players who played at the junior college level or opted not to play college ball. Players who attend four-year schools are not eligible to be drafted until after their junior year. Major League Baseball eliminated the "Draft and Follow" option this year.
"It has been a great experience and I really enjoyed the competition," said Gregory of his first year of playing college ball. "It was absolutely a step up. We were one of the top junior colleges in the nation all season. The pitchers I faced were good and the coaches taught me a lot about baseball and how to get ready for pro ball."
Gregory said the biggest adjustment for him was getting used to the quality pitchers he was facing on a game-by-game basis.
"I didnít have a problem getting used to the speed. The thing is you donít get too many quality pitches to hit. If a pitcher is hitting his spots, you are not going to get a hit. Where in high school, you can get a pitch to hit even with two strikes."
Gregory felt he belonged at that level of baseball and he said he didnít have any single defining moment of feeling he was not over his head. But he received a confidence boost when he spoke with his coaches.
"They told me where I could go in the draft if I continued to work hard on the things I need to get better at," said Gregory, who helped lead Immaculata to the Somerset County crown in 2006 and hit .425 for the Spartans (22-4) and their highly-successful coach Tom Gambino. "But also having a good season overall helped my confidence."
And St. Petersburg coach Dave Pano knows of what he speaks when it comes to evaluating talent. Pano also coaches in the Toronto Blue Jays organization and has been with the Jays for the last six years. He was the manager of the Jaysí Appalachian League Class A rookie ball affiliate in Pulaski, Va. in 2005 and 2006. Pano also was a scout for the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates. He is currently the hitting instructor for the Gulf Coast Blue Jays, and in his 10 years at St. Petersburg, he has had 53 players drafted.
"Ken had a solid year, he worked very hard on his game," said Pano. "He started out very strong, had a little slump, then he came on strong again at the end of the year. He is a pleasure to coach because he is good on and off the field and he is a strong student.
"He needs to get stronger and that will help his power numbers. He should be one of the most highly recruited junior college players in the country come next year. We think if he improves his power numbers and gets a little more consistent offensively, then he could be a very high draft pick in June of 2008. Iím a pro guy, so I like when guys sign, but he will also be heavily recruited by D-I (NCAA Division I) schools, too, because he is a good student. He has a lot of opportunities ahead."
Gregory said he wants to enhance his chances of being drafted high by becoming as versatile as possible on the diamond.
"Iíll play anywhere they need me - outfield, first base - it doesnít matter to me. I hope the more positions I can play will give me a better chance to get drafted and then move up the ladder."
Gregory began his journey up the baseball ladder when he was a little boy. His parents, Ken and Laurie Gregory, had just bought their house in Pittstown. But after little Ken caught the "baseball bug," it was time to put up a batting cage on the side of the house.
"I would go in there all the time and sometimes I didnít want to come out," joked Gregory. "My parents have been great and they have always been there for me. They have done everything to help me and they also keep me level-headed and grounded."
Gregory said his parents were a great source of support when he suffered a nasty compound fracture of his leg early in his high school days. He thought his baseball career was over before it even started.
"That was scary. Going through something like that makes you appreciate everything you take for granted, like walking. It makes you appreciate everything and everyone around you each day," Gregory said.
This summer, Gregory will be spending each day working on his game playing for the Glen Falls Eagles in the New York Collegiate Baseball League, one of the premier wood bat summer leagues in the Northeast.
"It is very important for me to play in a wood bat league. It teaches you how to hit and you have to earn all your hits. Iíve played every summer in a wood bat league. It will definitely help you get ready for pro ball."
Another great season at St. Petersburg should have him ready for pro ball, but it will also put him in the position yet again of having to make a major decision about his baseball future. But that is old hat for Gregory, and after going through it once, he knows exactly how to handle it. If Gregoryís freshman season is any indication of what the future holds, he is sure to make the right choice once again.
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