Imagine how many times Jace Todd has been left out because he has special needs. Dixon High’s baseball team has changed that by accepting the junior – so much so that Jace was the leadoff batter for the Rams in Monday’s game against Laguna Creek at Sutter Health Park in Sacramento. And once he hit the ball, there was no stopping him. Jace raced around the bases and was greeted by the Rams after scoring. Jace is special because the Rams think of him as one of them.
Wednesday is hump day and time to travel for Triple-A West teams such as the Sacramento River Cats. For Tacoma Rainiers manager Kris Negron, those 24 hours often provide enough time for the Vanden High School graduate to take a detour and go home to Napa before rejoining the team at its next destination.
When the Rainers head home Wednesday after six games in Sacramento, however, Negron will be on the flight with his players. The drive to Napa is a little more than an hour from Sacramento, so the 35-year-old Negron raced home Monday after the Rainiers scored twice in the ninth inning to beat the River Cats 6-4.
The game ended at 10:39 p.m., so it had to be well past midnight by the time Negron showered and hit the road. Negron joked before Friday’s game that he went home after the Rainiers’ 10-7 win Thursday and did not get to Napa until 2 a.m.
That was just in time for Negron to assist his wife Allison in feeding their sons, Johnny and Lorenzo. The twins were born in June and spent two weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Negron was anxious to return to the Rainers once his sons could go home, but the Rainiers’ parent club – the Seattle Mariners – told him to take a third week off to help Allison adjust to being a mother.
“I couldn’t think of leaving (Johnny and Lorenzo) while they were in the hospital. That was something I was dead set on,” Negron recalled. “The Mariners organization is amazing. They’re really big on family. They were open with me and told me to let them know if I needed more time.”
Tony Arenich, the Mariners’ Minor League Field Coordinator, filled in for Negron. The Mariners acquired Negron from the Arizona Diamondbacks for cash in August 2018. He appeared in 18 games with Seattle, hitting .207 with one home run and three RBI. Negron began the 2019 season with Tacoma and played in 82 games, hitting .310 and 12 homers and 61 RBI. His batting average was the highest at the end of a minor-league season in his career.
The Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Negron on July 29, 2019 because they were in need of a versatile fielder with Kiki Hernandez (sprained left hand) and Chris Taylor (fractured left forearm) on the injured list. Negron announced his presence with authority in Los Angeles by homering in each of his first two games.
Negron went from playing for a last-place team in the Northern Division of the Pacific Coast League to being doused with champagne after the Dodgers clinched their seventh consecutive National League West title Sept. 10. The Dodgers finished the regular season with a franchise-record 106 victories by winning their last seven games, including a 9-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants in the finale Sept. 29. Negron will never forget that game for one reason.
It was his last. Negron entered the game in the sixth inning, got an infield single in the seventh and then was replaced by Austin Barnes. That he managed to end his 14-year professional career with a hit was the perfect parting gift.
“We’re in San Francisco. My very last at-bat. It was just an infield single, but I had a feeling,” Negron said. “I was standing on first base. I could see all my friends and family in the stands. I just kind of knew right then and there. I could end my career on a single, so I thought that would be the way I ride off into the sunset.”
Retirement crossed Negron’s mind whenever he and Allison discussed starting a family. They have been together since meeting in 2005 at UC Davis. That would be Negron’s only year in Davis. He lost his baseball scholarship when he struck out with poor grades. Allison suggested he attend Cosumnes River College.
“We met only a couple of weeks before I had to leave Davis, so the timing wasn’t the greatest,” Negron said. “I tried to come up to Davis to see her as much as I could. With summer school and summer ball going on, she was by my side the entire time. She straightened me out. She was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Negron was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2006 and married Allison in 2010. He made his major-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds on June 6, 2012. He played in four games with the Reds before being sent to Triple-A Louisville. His season ended July 5 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee.
His best season in the majors was 2014 when he played in 49 games with the Reds. He hit .271 with six homers and 17 RBI. Adversity struck again in 2015 when Negron tore the labrum in his left shoulder and fractured his scapula. There were plenty of times when he wondered whether he would make it back to the majors. a
“It was the vulnerability,” Negron said. “A lot of times you think you’re invincible, especially when you’re younger. The game can taken away from you at any second. You have to play like there’s no tomorrow.”
More tomorrows are in store for Negron now that he has traded his glove for a lineup card. He impressed Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development, last year by running the team’s alternate training site at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
“Andy McKay took me under his wing. I knew I could learn a lot. I had a blast at the alternate site,” Negron said. “About halfway through, he asked me I was interested in managing at Triple-A. It was intriguing, so I decided to go for it.”
Negron has no idea where he would be today without Allison.
“It definitely takes a special woman to deal with the lifestyle we go through. Baseball is tough, but it’s even harder on our significant others,” he said. “(Allison) means the world to me. Twin boys are no joke, but my wife is absolutely crushing it. I call her super mom. Without someone as strong as her, it would be impossible.”
Damon Minor did not make it to the bitter end of the Sacramento River Cats’ fifth consecutive loss. The hitting coach was ejected in the fifth inning Thursday, long before the Tacoma Rainiers scored three runs in the 12th for a 10-7 victory.
Frustration might have gotten the best of the 47-year-old Minor. At the time of Minor’s early departure, Tacoma starting pitcher Ryan Weber had retired the first 13 Sacramento batters to face him. Minor lost his temper after Jaylin Davis struck out on a foul tip to open the fifth inning. Heliot Ramos poked a single as Minor was making his way to the clubhouse to end Weber’s perfect start.
At least Minor was spared from being in the dugout when the game ended shortly after 11 p.m. With Jazon Krizen starting the bottom of the 12th at second base, Chadwick Tromp struck out and Steve Duggar lined into a double play to send home what was left of a paltry crowd of 3,799. The loss dropped the River Cats to 38-52 and solidified their hold on last place in the West Division of Triple-A West, 15 games behind the Reno Aces and 13.5 behind the Rainiers.
Triple-A teams were reconfigured this year into two divisions. There are 20 teams in the East and 10 in the West, which has five-team East and West divisions. The switch spelled the end of the Pacific Coast League, which began in 1903. The River Cats will forever have the distinction of being the last PCL champions in 2019.
First-year Tacoma manager Kris Negron is all too familiar with Triple-A. Of the Vanden High graduate’s 1,439 games in the minor leagues, 891 were at Triple-A. He played 170 games in the majors – 96 with the Cincinnati Reds, 30 with the Dodgers, 28 with the Seattle Mariners (Tacoma’s parent club) and 16 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 35-year-old Negron retired after finishing the 2019 regular season with the Dodgers. He did not make the postseason roster.
With Thursday’s victory, the Rainiers avoided their first four-game losing streak of the season. Losing streaks have hounded the River Cats all season. Their current five-game skid is their third of at least five games in 2021. They are striking out far too often, leading Triple-A West with 881, and walking far too many.
The River Cats issued eight free passes Thursday and lead all of Triple-A with 443 in 90 games. Their parent club, the San Francisco Giants, has issued the fewest walks in the majors with 317 in 121 games. There is nothing Minor can do about Sacramento’s lack of pitching control. He has more than enough on his mind these days with all the strikeouts.
With 12 strikeouts Thursday, the River Cats reached double digits for the seventh time in their past 10 games. They also had 12 on Monday when they came with four outs of being no-hit by the Salt Lake Bees. Mauricio Dubon singled with two outs in the eighth inning to salvage a modicum of pride for the River Cats.
Minor has his work cut out for him, but he will not be chasing players around the clubhouse with words of advice or invitations to the batting cage. Even with all the strikeouts, the former Giant can look on the bright side in that Sacramento’s .280 team batting average ranks fourth in all of Triple-A. The River Cats are third in runs scored with 565 and sixth in home runs with 139.
“The real valuable thing I learned over my career is what can translate here,” Minor explained. “Guys going up and down, being ready, those failures and successes, coming off the bench, learning how to play the game when you’re not playing every day. Those challenges I had back then (as a player) have helped me relate to the players now.
“As a hitting coach, you’re helping with more with the psychology of it. Some guys need you to come to them. With some guys, you need to want for them to come to you. You have to feel the player out and just be ready for when they need you. You’ve just go to talk to them and relate to them and realize they’re human.”
His own career did not turn out as Minor had hoped. He spent parts of four seasons with the Giants, hitting .232 with 13 home runs in 136 games. Not only he did struggle at the plate, but he was limited in the field after being a designated hitter in four years at the University of Oklahoma. He was a big reason why the Sooners won the national championship in 1994 by batting .298 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI.
Minor laughed when asked what advice he would have for a player such as himself. “I would tell him to get out of your head,” Minor said. “I would say you have to understand it’s a process. You can get frustrated. If you get in your way, then you’re battling yourself and the pitcher. It’s going to be a hard day if you do that.”