Thursday May 9, 2013 | By:Michael J. Petro | Sports
St. Francis graduate Jim Negrych leads the International League with an over .400 average in his first season with the Buffalo Bisons. (Photo courtesy of MILB.com)
Ask most anyone at St. Francis and they’ll tell you the daily chatter around the high school, especially its athletic department, usually involves the morning inquiry, ‘How did Jimmy Negrych do last night in the game?”
This season, the reports are usually quite good. In his first season playing in Buffalo as a minor leaguer, Negrych is receiving an enormous amount of notoriety not only in his hometown but also around the entire International League as one of its top hitters and a potential call-up to the Major Leagues.
But Negrych isn’t just the Red Raiders’ graduate making good as a professional baseball player who’s the subject of water cooler talk around St. Francis. He’s also someone who actually remains very present at the school in Athol Springs.
As the 28-year-old prepared for his seventh season as a professional baseball player — and what’s become a torrid hitting year so far playing for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, he was sharing his knowledge and experiences with some of the student-athletes at his alma mater.
While Negrych’s contributions on the field are more clear now than ever in his professional career, his importance at St. Francis is bigger than the just the reputation he’s built as one of the athletic stars who graduated from a high school known for producing elite players, coaches and management.
Negrych was back this past winter at St. Francis as an assistant coach with the varsity basketball team. He helped out a few years ago and was back and involved more than ever as fellow Red Raider graduate and friend Brain Ferris took over in his first full season heading the program.
He was still at the high school regularly to coach just a few weeks before heading off to spring training with the Bisons’ Major League affiliate, the Toronto Blue Jays.
“You get a chance to work with kids and get away from baseball a bit and see something else which helps clear your mind,” Negrych said. “That was fun and a learning experience for me. It’s always good for the kids to be able to interact with and see the mind-set of someone who’s playing a sport at a high level.”
In addition to bringing all of those experiences to the student-athletes of St. Francis, Negrych also represents better days for the basketball program. He and Ferris never won a Monsignor Martin title but were part of teams that competed with the league’s elite. In recent seasons, the Red Raiders have struggled to do the same.
Who better to help change the culture and teach what it’s like to be successful than Negrych, who at 5-foot-9 was never the biggest athlete but he was always the one who found a way to excel.
“The biggest thing is that the kids can look at him as a pro athlete, someone who played big-time Division I and got recruited and knows what it takes and the work ethic to be successful,” Ferris said. “They can take from him and look in awe of his accomplishments. He’s not the biggest guy but you don’t need to be the size of A-Rod to make it.”
Ferris added that Negrych has been extremely helpful with analyzing film, teaching defense, preaching physicality and handling much of the conditioning for players. He’s the type of coach who gets out on the floor to reinforce what’s being taught.
“Jim makes a lot of sacrifices to be here with us,” Ferris said. “He schedules his offseason work around helping us.”
In a time of more sports specialization, Negrych has actually stressed to the student-athletes at the school the importance of being well-rounded and playing multiple sports. In fact, Negrych played football and was a point guard in basketball, in addition to starring on the baseball team. He still played football as a senior with a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh for baseball.
“I’ve always enjoyed St. Francis — it’s a comfortable feeling over there,” said Negrych, who noted he sometimes runs into fellow former St. Francis athletes like Buffalo Sabres’ Patrick Kaleta and Washington Redskins’ Doug Worthington at the school. “The best decision my family ever made for me was sending me there. I don’t know if I would have been the athlete or person that I am now if I didn’t go there and get the knowledge athletically and the development from a boy to a man.”
The athletes he coaches can look at Negrych not only as a role model who’s excelled but one that’s shown patience and resolve in making his way to achieving his ultimate goal.
The Bisons signed Negrych in the offseason after he was an all-star last year with the Syracuse Chiefs. It’s his fourth organization after being originally drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006. But, boy, has he ever taken advantage of his latest opportunity.
As of the weekend series, Negrych led the International League with a .420 average with 34 hits, including nine doubles, in 21 games. The left-handed batter scored 20 runs and has three homers with 13 RBI hitting at the top of the order. Negrych even hit for the cycle this season, which he said was a memorable and surprising accomplishment since homers and triples are a rarity for the contact and gap hitter.
There’s been clamoring around the local media, and of course at St. Francis, for Negrych to get his shot with the Jays, especially since the big club has struggled so mightily to start the season. However, that is far from Negrych’s focus. He said he’s been around long enough to know it is out of his hands and the only thing he could do is focus on what he does on the field.
“I’ve been doing this for a while, so it’s easy to block that stuff out,” said Negrych. “There’s nothing I could do to change that. I just have to keep playing well. If I get concerned about that stuff, then this is going to go down hill. I’ve got to be productive here for my teammates. My mind needs to be here. If it’s not, I don’t know how that’s going to play out.”
Negrych worked hard in the offseason, training downtown with Bob Bateson at Body Blocks and on baseball specific techniques, like his swing, at New Era Park on Lake Avenue. He made a couple of adjustments to his swing in spring training, which seem to be paying off.
“I’m really trying to keep my path to the ball good and swing at good pitches,” he noted.
Negrych also started working to add some more power last season and though he may never be a home run hitter, it’s helped him contact the ball harder and find more gaps.
His job in what’s been a deep lineup for the Bisons is to get on base and let the power hitters in the middle do what they do best. Negrych also credits pitching and defense and situational hitting for the success of Buffalo, which sits in first place in the North Division.
“We feel really good about this lineup, it doesn’t matter who’s in there,” said Negrych, who even as the league’s top hitter has not been in the lineup everyday. “We know we have the opportunity to throw in fresh bodies and give guys breathers here and there. If we keep getting on base and the big guys keep driving us in, we should be alright.”
Being back in Buffalo full-time has been an enjoyable experience, but winning ball games has made it even more special.
“It’s great to see him be successful in Buffalo,” Ferris said. “It’s huge for him and for us as a school. Some of the guys and coaches have already been out to see him play. It used to be like a reunion when he came back to play here. Now that he’s back in Buffalo, he was just in the other day signing memorabilia. He’s played so well; he’s like a big celebrity now.”
But even as the baseball season and his career are in full tilt, Negrych can’t help but still think about what can be done to help turn around the basketball program at his alma mater. He looks forward to getting back to lend a hand.
‘We’ve got to get some more wins and put that team back on the map,” Negrych said. “With the way Canisius, Timon and St. Joe’s have played basketball, we need to be competitive again back at that level, and I’m sure Brian is the guy to do it.”