Baseball’s best prospects. A brand new league. And a fresh (but familiar) face at the helm.
When Triple-A baseball emerges from the lowest lows of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of Tacoma Rainiers baseball will look vastly different than it did pre-virus. New manager Kristopher Negrón will lead a club loaded with players who haven’t competed in nearly two years. And they’ll play in a league that didn’t exist when they last took the field. If things weren’t interesting enough for Negrón, 2021 will be his first season as a manager at any level… and his first year as a dad.
Negrón brings a wealth of baseball and life experience to the Rainiers clubhouse, a place he became familiar with as a player in 2019. Despite being just 35 years old, players and coaches can respect a journeyman who battled injuries and anxiety to scrape out a 15-year pro career. As a player, he got a first-hand look at how six organizations operate, and he has 416 more Major League plate appearances than most people on the planet.
He is a living example that success does not follow a linear trajectory. So, how did Kristopher Negrón go from playing for the Rainiers, to being handed the manager’s office keys just 18 months (and one global pandemic) later?
First steps to the pros
Negrón was born in Willingboro, New Jersey to a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father. Dan and Mary were both athletes as kids and huge baseball fans which wore off on Kristopher and his older brother, Daniel.
“They put my brother and me in every sport you could think of,” Negrón said. “Baseball, basketball, football, track, even roller hockey. That just translated into athleticism.”
Baseball was an easy sell to Kristopher, who spent most of his childhood in California, but whose parents had both lived in New York. He grew up a Yankees fan in a time when all they did was win. Like most Major League clubs during the 90s and 00s, the Yankees roster became bolstered with stars from both the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, like Jorge Posada and Alex Rodríguez.
In high school, Negrón played baseball, was a slot receiver in football, and ran the 300 meter hurdles in track. He chose the 300 meter hurdles because it was one of the last events at a meet, meaning he could finish baseball practice and still hustle to the track in time for his race.
“Sometimes they would let me run in my baseball gear,” Negrón said.
Adversity finds Negrón at UC Davis
Eventually the versatile athlete honed in on baseball, which took him to the University of California, Davis. He was just a few miles from where he grew up, but the transition wasn’t as smooth as Negrón hoped.
“It was the first time I was on my own,” Negrón said. “I was playing well, and then the academic workload caught me off guard. When I got in smaller discussion groups I was just hit with anxiety and panic, partially because I was not prepared. I stopped going to class because I was panicking.”
By spring, Kristopher lost his scholarship because of his grades. He was on the fence about trudging through summer school to earn it back.
“I was in my own head. I was so nervous about it happening all over again, grappling with the anxiety of it again, and how it would affect me on the field.”
With the support of a young woman he’d recently met named Allison, he decided to transfer to Cosumnes River College, a JUCO in Sacramento. There, his new girlfriend helped him stay on track in the classroom. On the diamond, it was his head coach, Tony Bloomfield, whose tough love kept Negrón grounded.
“He instilled in me to embrace where I’m at,” Negrón said. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about having been Division I. You’re not too good for this level. You’re here, so you have to take care of business if you want to get drafted.’”
Negrón did just that, and the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 7th round of the 2006 Draft.
He had struggled, asked for help, made an adjustment, and was still able to achieve his goal. A worthy bit of wisdom for any manager to share with his players.
15 years and six organizations later…
Drafted in ’06, traded in ’09. Free agent in 2015, and again in ’16. Traded for the second time in 2018, and once more in ’19. Through plenty of detours, Kristopher Negrón racked up 1,609 professional games on his journey. But just like his college experience, there were plenty of bumps along the way.
The most significant setback came in 2012 with the Triple-A Louisville Bats, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate.
“There was a ball hit in the gap in Indianapolis,” Negrón recalled. “I was running for it, tried to plant my leg and completely blew out my knee. ACL gone, meniscus torn.”
The physical rehab required to make it back from an ACL injury is a grind. But it was the mental recovery that stunted Negrón’s return to the high-octane speedster that his game was built on.
“2013 was just a rough year,” he said. “I had a knee brace on, and mentally I was not the same player. Reality had kicked in that I wasn’t invincible, and now I had the odds stacked against me. The knee surgery really made me feel vulnerable.”
A serendipitous moment helped Negrón break through his mental block. A blessing in disguise that happened in Puerto Rico when he was there for the 2013 Winter League.
“The day before the first game, my knee brace broke,” Negrón said with a smile. “I had been cleared to play without it, but I had been too scared. Now I had no choice. I played and I was fine; it didn’t hurt. I never looked back.”
By 2014, he was back in the big leagues for 49 games, a career-high in a single season. He added 43 MLB appearances with the Reds in 2015, and made it back to The Show with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers from 2017-19.
The final Pacific Coast League season ended 18 months ago. At the time, a 33-year-old Negrón was wrapping up his playing career with the Dodgers. He started the year as a veteran presence and utility defender for the Rainiers. He also batted his way to an impressive .310/.396/.503 slash line. The Mariners called him up in July.
Negrón was eventually traded for the third and final time of his career, and put on a great show for Dodgers fans. He slugged home runs in each of his first two games and collected hits in 9 of his first 11 contests.
From field to front office to field again
Fast forward to Nov. 2019 when Negrón announced he was hanging up his cleats. The Mariners wasted no time getting his experience and leadership back on payroll. They hired him as the Assistant to Director of Player Development.
What would his new job entail? In the end, it didn’t matter. The pandemic erased any sense of the job description before Negrón even got his cleats wet.
Just a couple weeks after the Mariners assembled in Arizona for Spring Training 2020, they were sent right back home for The Long Nap. When Negrón and company returned to T-Mobile Park in July, things had already changed.
Negrón helped out at Seattle’s Summer Camp (AKA Spring Training 2.0) before joining Director of Player Development Andy McKay in Tacoma. There he would work with a handful of coaches to instruct 30 prospects and MLB-ready athletes.
Last summer, Cheney Stadium was the “Alternate Training Site” for the M’s, which involved 60 days of practices, bullpens, drills and scrimmages at R House.
As an elite baserunner, plus defender, and well-traveled journeyman in his playing days, Negrón brought loads of insight both on and off the field.
Off the field, he shared a hospitality suite with McKay, repurposed as a socially distanced two-man clubhouse. Through conversations in their penthouse suite and Negrón’s devotion to getting prospects like Jarred Kelenic better each day, McKay and the organization saw what they needed from the charismatic Negrón.
By summer’s end, he was fully vetted for Tacoma’s manager vacancy.
2021 isn’t any less wild
Between the time when Negrón learned of his new gig and now, the world of baseball has continued to evolve. The PCL is no more and the Rainiers now compete in the 10-team Triple-A West. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of the Triple-A season from April to May. We’re all still wearing masks and don’t know how many fans will be in the stands for our now delayed Opening Night.
All of that to say that managing the Tacoma Rainiers on the heels of a once-in-a-century global health crisis might not even be the most exciting thing that happens to Negrón and his family in 2021.
He’s currently back in Arizona for the first time since Spring Training came to a screeching halt a year ago. The always supportive Allison who he met at UC Davis is now his wife who is carrying their unborn twins back home in California while Kristopher is away.
Before Negrón finishes his rookie season as manager, his family will have doubled in size and he’ll be presumably making corny jokes and tucking his t-shirts into his jeans. It’s just a dad thing; it can’t be prevented.
This year is jam-packed with firsts for Negrón. But over the last two decades, he’s always found a way to surmount a challenge. He’ll have a talented staff with diverse experiences and coaching styles to support him. Leading what is arguably baseball’s best player development system doesn’t hurt either.
Take all of that and add the fact that he gets to do it all in Tacoma. It’s a place that Kristopher is familiar with and – like everyone who comes here – fell in love with in no time.
“Tacoma has become a second home,” he said. “I love it. I love the city, the people, the front office. I’m comfortable there. And I know my way around; I’ll already have my routine. I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
The last 20 years have taken our new skipper on a wild ride. Like the rest of us, 2020 should’ve been the craziest year of his journey. Instead, 2021 will be even more hectic, in the best way. Even though this isn’t his final destination, for now, Kristopher Negrón is right where he wants to be.
We R Tacoma
About the Tacoma Rainiers
The Tacoma Rainiers are the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. The Rainiers are a member of the Triple-A West, which begins its inaugural season on May 6, 2021. Tacoma has been a Mariners affiliate since establishing the Rainiers moniker in 1995.
The most up-to-date news and notes about the Tacoma Rainiers and Cheney Stadium can be found at WeRTacoma.com, or by following the Rainiers on Twitter (@RainiersLand), Instagram (@tacomarainiers) and liking the team on Facebook.
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