Jim Negrych got word last Friday. He had been promoted from Altoona, Pa. to the Pirates' Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis. Negrych was gathering his things in the locker room when the trainer came by with his travel itinerary.
"Do you want the good news or the really good news?" he asked.
"Just give me the good news," Negrych said. The trainer said he was getting $300 in travel money for the trip.
"That's good," Negrych said.
"The real good news," the trainer said, "is you're going to Buffalo to play next weekend."
Negrych was speechless. It was exciting enough to be one step from the majors. But within a week, he'd be living out a dream. As a boy, he had gone to games at the downtown ballpark with his father. Now the St. Francis graduate would be going home to play for the first time as a pro.
When he got to his car, Negrych called his father, Jim Sr., and asked if he had plans for the following weekend. His dad said he might drive to Altoona. His son said he should drop by Coca-Cola Field. His new team would be in town for a four-game series.
"My wife [Verna] and I were both dazed," Jim Sr. said Thursday. "I was ready to pass out. It was awesome, like a dream come true leading to the big event. I had to make about 50 phone calls. I'm still getting calls from people. We've got a big family. I've been waiting for this day since Jimmy was a baby."
About 50 of Negrych's family and friends were in the third-base stands for the Bisons' game with the Indians on Thursday night. His parents were there, along with his two sisters and his maternal grandparents (the Carusos of South Buffalo), various relatives and friends.
There was one notable absence. Anthony Negrych Sr., who often traveled to see his grandson play at the University of Pittsburgh and the minor leagues, died on May 23 at 93. Negrych, 25, took a leave from Altoona for the funeral and says his grandfather has been with him in spirit.
"There was a butterfly in Altoona that followed me around for three days when I first got back. It was creepy. Every time I played the field, it was sitting there. His strength and pride were instilled in me. He told me always to be strong, to be a solid figure people can look up to."
Negrych, a left-handed hitter, didn't let anyone down in his first appearance at Coca-Coca Field since a PAL game when he was 14. In his first at-bat, he blooped a single. In the sixth, he hit a two-run homer off Bisons lefty Pat Misch to break a scoreless tie. He went 3 for 4 in the 2-0 victory and is hitting .471 (8 for 17) after his first week in Triple-A.
He also made a big defensive play at second base, gunning a relay throw to nail the Bisons' Lucas Duda attempting to stretch a double into a triple. That's the sort of defense the Pirates need to see if Negrych hopes to make the big leagues -- the "big event" his father speaks of.
"The first thing he's got to prove is he can play some defense at second base," said Indians manager Frank Kremblas. "And that doesn't mean he has to play for the Pirates. There's 29 other clubs out there."
That's a blunt assessment of Negrych's status in the Pirate pecking order. They're loaded with young talent. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who was promoted to the bigs this week, is a huge power-hitting talent. Neil Walker, their rookie second baseman, is a former first-round pick.
Walker is 24. He is 6-foot-3, 208 pounds. Negrych, drafted in the sixth round in 2006, is 5-9, 170. When you're small and a low pick, you always have to prove yourself.
"You want to take advantage of your opportunities," Negrych said. "I'm not a Pedro Alvarez, where you know a big-league job is waiting for you. So I'm going to have to earn it and keep playing hard and keep working. You go from being a prospect to a suspect overnight in this game. So in order to make it, I'll always have to prove myself offensively."
Negrych has done it at every level. He wasn't a major prospect at St. Francis, but became the Big East Freshman of the Year at Pittsburgh. He was All-American as a sophomore and junior and finished second in career homers, RBIs and doubles at Pitt. In 2008, he hit .370 at Class A and was the Pirates' minor leaguer of the year.
There have been bumps along the way. Negrych suffered torn thumb ligaments one year, a torn oblique the next. Last year at Altoona, his season ended in July when he collided with his shortstop and underwent emergency surgery for bleeding in his lower abdomen. Two infections set in, causing him to lose 45 pounds.
At Altoona, he was the first hitter Stephen Strasburg faced as a pro. Negrych flew out.
"I got a hit the next time I faced him," Negrych said. "I faced him and he's supposed to be one of the best in the game. I've faced Daniel Bard, Andrew Miller. I played with Tim Lincecum in the Cape [Cod league]. So I've been around some pretty good players in my time.
"I've seen the best, and I'm pretty confident I can play with them."