Hamilton native James Pugliese pitched a month for Puerto Rican winter ball team Santurce. He returns home this month, after a stint playing in the Chicago Cubs organization, to attend Mercer County Community College.

James Pugliese got an education the past eight years while playing professional baseball, but now is ready to return to the classroom. The Steinert High School graduate, who was released by the Chicago Cubs organization last May, is not ready to give up on his baseball aspirations, but hopes to complete his associate degree at Mercer County Community College while playing this year for the Somerset Patriots in the independent Atlantic League.

The 26-year-old Pugliese, a right-handed pitcher, is studying at Mercer to get a degree in exercise science, which he hopes to receive in the fall. He then plans on transferring and continuing school for a degree in physical education.

“This opens the door to being able to play baseball professionally and continue pursuing school,” Pugliese said. “It’s a win-win. I’ll be living in Hamilton, and it will be nice to be playing close to home. That will be a lot of fun.

“I’m just going to take all these opportunities and continue playing for as long as I can until financially it’s not a good move. You never know what could happen. You’re playing for one team, but at the same time you’re playing for every team in the league and even outside of that. You never know what can happen.”

Down the road, Pugliese would enjoy coaching. He already has given pitching lessons for seven years.

“I just want to help kids and teach them what I know,” Pugliese said. “I think I could bring a lot to the table.”

Pugliese was planning to return to Mercer for classes in early February, following a stint playing winter ball for Santurce in Puerto Rico. He arrived in Puerto Rico in mid-December and during the regular season pitched 3.2 innings, striking out four while allowing no hits or walks. The league’s playoffs began in January, with a spot in February’s Caribbean Series on the line. The league champion from Puerto Rico has won the past two Caribbean titles.

“I’ve been doing pretty well,” said Pugliese, who was committed to returning to New Jersey at the end of January for school regardless of his team’s outcome in the league playoffs. “I’m enjoying it. It’s been a lot of fun, especially the nice weather. This is just getting my name out there, showing I’m available for a (major league) affiliate and still playing. If that doesn’t happen, it’s just a good experience to be able to continue playing baseball at a high level in another country.”

Pugliese’s travels during his professional baseball career have taken him across the U.S. and twice to the Caribbean. His experiences in meeting people from around the world have been priceless.

“I’ve learned so much, being with different people and coming to understand different cultures, different religions, just everything,” said Pugliese, who over the years has become fluent in Spanish. “There are so many things that a college or living in just one area isn’t going to be able to teach you. For me, being able to experience all this through baseball, it just goes to show how much a sport of any type can do for somebody. It’s been very enjoyable.”

Pugliese was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 draft by the Cubs following successes that began as a member of three World Series teams for Nottingham Babe Ruth and continued at Steinert and, for one season, at Mercer. He advanced as high as Double-A with the Cubs organization, compiling a career record of 29-24 with a 3.42 ERA. He appeared in 186 games, making 48 starts, and registered 10 saves.

Following his release in May, Pugliese landed with the York Revolution in the Atlantic League. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder went 5-1 for York with a 2.29 ERA. He pitched 35.1 innings and had 36 strikeouts while walking only nine.

“It’s flown by,” Pugliese said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything. It was such a good experience, no matter what happened.”

The Somerset Patriots, who play at 6,100-seat TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, are looking forward to having Pugliese with them, rather than pitching against them, this year. Opening Day is April 26, and the season concludes Sept. 22.

“We are proud to be joined by James this upcoming year,” Somerset Patriots manager Brett Jodie said. “Pugliese brings some versatility to our pitching staff, as he can start and relieve. He was extremely effective out of the pen with York last year in a variety of roles. He’s a New Jersey kid that pounds the zone with strikes and will be a great addition to our clubhouse.”

From the clubhouse to the classroom, Pugliese is just focusing on the road ahead.

“This is a good move for me and my career,” he said. “Now I’m full swing into school and baseball. I’ll make it work. No more slacking when it comes to school.”

He then added with a laugh, “So less sleeping in.”

A small tradeoff when waking up to a win-win situation.