Jim Negrych is 28 years old and has been toiling in the minor leagues for eight seasons now. He has been chasing a dream for at least two decades, going back to his Little League days in Orchard Park, his four years at St. Francis High, his three seasons at the University of Pittsburgh.
Negrych has paid his dues and then some. He knew every bump in the road between Williamsport, Pa., and Mahoning Valley in Ohio, and beyond, while playing in the New York-Penn League. He played for the likes of the Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League and the Lynchburg Hillcats in the Carolina League.
You can’t help but pull for a guy like him. He has played 772 games in the minors, all with the idea that he would someday play in the major leagues. Ideally, he would become an everyday player and collect the paycheck that comes with it. In fact, he would forever sleep peacefully if he played a single game in the big leagues.
That’s what makes Ryan Braun’s 65-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs so maddening for Negrych and other clean players who, so far, have fallen short of their goals. Other players cheat their way to fame and fortune or break rules to stay there. Braun is the latest caught up in scandal. Alex Rodriguez again is on deck.
“It’s a little frustrating if you’ve never been there,” Negrych said Thursday before landing on the disabled list and sitting out the Bisons’ game against Columbus. “It’s the same for everybody that’s in the minor leagues. You’re hanging around and trying to get established up there, and then you see guys’ names that pop up.”
Last year, Melky Cabrera was leading the big leagues with a .346 batting average when he was suspended for 50 games for using performance-enhancing drugs. We don’t need to rehash every big leaguer connected to the use of steroids or human-growth hormones. You’ve heard about Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens.
Next week, it could be somebody else.
“And it goes all the way back to the draft,” Negrych said. “It doesn’t matter when guys take it. They could have taken it in college and got paid out of the draft. They get drafted high, which is just as important as getting up there because you get more opportunities. You try not to think about it. You try not to let it affect you in any way.”
Yet, it does.
Negrych was placed on the disabled list after injuring his left Achilles. He looked exhausted before the game Thursday. You can’t help but wonder if the 5-foot-9, 185-pound second baseman’s body is starting to break down. He was terrific in April and May and was still batting .332 through June before hitting .185 in July.
Performance-enhancing drugs boost strength, but they also help athletes recover from the punishment that comes with playing every day. They enable players to quickly get back into the weight room for more preventative maintenance. Would Negrych have avoided injury if he used them? Would he have kept his hot bat? Nobody knows for sure.
“I’m not a big guy, so it wouldn’t help me, anyway,” he said. “It’s never even crossed my mind. But it’s been a part of this game for quite a long time.”
Obviously, the penalties aren’t stiff enough.
More suspensions are certain to follow in the coming years. Too much money is at stake, and the ramifications of getting caught aren’t enough to scare away many players. Or they think they’re immune. Or they believe they can beat the system. Or they rationalize that others are doing the same thing.
“If someone were to say, ‘I’m going to give you $10 million, but you’re name is going to be tarnished a little bit,’ what would you do? That’s why guys are doing it,” Negrych said. “The repercussions don’t meet the reward. The reward is still better than the punishment. You could get 50 games with no pay, but you still have $55 million on the contract. ‘Well, I’m going to take my $55 million to the bank.’ That’s the thinking.”
“For a person like me, it will be hard for me to even get a million dollars in this game. It’s not worth it. I have things that I’m worried about. The side effects scare me. At some point, I’m going to try to start a family. I know some of the side effects affect your ability to have kids or the kids don’t come out as healthy as they should. That scares me.”
Still, it continues at the highest level.
Braun was named National League Most Valuable Player in 2011. From a distance, he was viewed as a great player and respectable human being. It was before lies started rolling off his tongue with disturbing ease. He was defiant after he was accused of using illegal substances. He beat the rap after finding a loophole.
Now, he’s apologizing through shallow, distant statements without facing tough questions. His teammates in Milwaukee have been forced to answer for him because he’s nowhere to be found. You can only hope that he’s working the phones and apologizing to every person who ever helped him.
Regardless, the issue will dissipate with time or, more likely, until another player, such as A-Rod, becomes the scandal de jour.
Braun will return with seven years and $113 million remaining on his contract. The Brewers are left paying him money that was invested with the idea that he was clean. There’s no telling how he’ll perform without pharmaceutical assistance. With deferments, he’ll collect a paycheck until 2031.
Players will continue looking for ways to beat the system. Here’s hoping baseball’s hierarchy will someday find a solution. Maybe teams will be allowed to void contracts with players caught using banned substances. Maybe lifetime bans are in order.
Negrych has come to accept that the issue will never go away. He has other plans. He’s engaged. He’ll continue living clean. And he’s still pursuing a lifetime dream.
“It might be more upsetting 15-20 years down the road if things don’t work out,” he said. “It’s a little upsetting when you see guys that had to cheat and weren’t any better than I was. They had to cheat, got lucky and got up there. It’s not so much the Ryan Brauns that get caught that makes it so frustrating. It’s the guys who don’t get caught.”