As they lay in their hospital beds last year, for different yet equally scary situations, the thought did cross their minds. Derek Hankins and Jim Negrych wondered if they would ever play baseball again.
The two Curve players endured bizarre health scares and have been able to resume their careers. They now know better than most pro ballplayers that they can never take the game they love for granted.
"Just to realize how fast something can be taken away from you, I think it opens up a greater appreciation for them to actually be able to go out and play a kids' game and get paid for it," Curve manager Matt Walbeck said.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
The Curve’s Jim Negrych (right)?is greeted by Shelby Ford during pregame introductions Thursday.
A 26-year-old reliever from Illinois, Hankins woke up several times in the middle of the night early last year thinking he was having a heart attack.
"It was very scary," he recalled. "It probably happened four or five times. I went to the emergency room, and they thought I was crazy."
The doctors couldn't find exactly what was wrong with Hankins, so all he could do was keep working every day to prepare for the upcoming baseball season. He struggled during spring training but was sent north with the Curve, who opened the season in Erie.
Hankins was summoned in relief with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning in the opener and struck out the only batter he faced. He did that despite being in excruciating pain.
"I was standing out there thinking, 'I just feel like sitting down,'" Hankins said. "I was in so much pain. I was crunched over pitching. It just felt terrible."
He told Walbeck and then-pitching coach Dean Treanor about the pain and was lifted from the game. The next day he went back to Florida to be checked by doctors.
Hankins' aunt had been having trouble with her gall bladder and was having the same symptoms as him. He knew that's usually a problem that affects older people, so he thought, "Me being a young guy, it just didn't make a lot of sense."
The doctors, however, realized that was indeed the issue.
"They checked me over and made sure that it was the gall bladder and wasn't something they could fix with just medicine," Hankins said. "I had every medicine known to man in me at that particular time, so the final decision was to take it out."
He had weighed 205 pounds, but the 6-foot-4 pitcher dropped to 171. That's when he started to wonder if his baseball career may be finished.
"There were a couple of days of doubt in there when we were trying to figure out what was wrong," Hankins said. "That was more of a question to me: What is wrong with me, and are we ever going to figure this out. And if we don't, then I probably won't be able to play again."
Everything worked out for Hankins after the surgery as he rehabbed for about a month, put the weight back on and returned to the Curve in early June. He appeared in 19 games, making nine starts, and had a 3-4 record with one save and a 4.42 ERA.
"I like Derek Hankins," Walbeck said. "I think he's the kind of guy that can give you all sorts of things as far as a pitcher's concerned. ... He throws strikes, and basically I know what I'm getting out of him. I just really respect the way he goes about his business."
Nothing has come easy for Hankins over the past few years. If the gall bladder ordeal wasn't enough, he has dealt with two other major blows - one personal, one professional.
The on-field incident occurred April 21, 2008 when he was pitching against Akron at Blair County Ballpark. Ryan Goleski drilled a liner that hit the pitcher in the upper-right rib cage.
"I got out there [to the mound], I was scared," former Curve manager Tim Leiper said after that game. "He was having trouble breathing; it was a little bit scary. But once he got his breath, I was greatly relieved."
Hankins was able to walk off the field and went to the hospital for tests. He wound up missing a month of action.
"It was a fluke thing," he said. "I had never been hit before in my entire career."
Speaking of fluky, in Hankins' second appearance back, he got hit by a comebacker in the buttocks. That one did no damage, but he certainly seemed cursed.
Hankins pitched decently throughout the 2008 season but finished 2-11. His respectable 4.54 ERA showed he was much better than the record showed.
Neither the gall bladder incident nor the rib injury had as big of an impact on Hankins as what happened to him in 2007. His father, Ron, died on July 16 that year of cancer at age 49.
"That's probably tougher than any injury, any physical thing you could possibly put in front of a person," Hankins said. "That never goes away. I still have the day-to-day struggle of missing talking to him on the phone."
His father was his coach and best friend, so he was hard on Hankins when he needed to be and loving and supportive the rest of the time.
"Huge, huge fan of mine," Hankins said. "From a coach to a fan, you couldn't ask for a better dad.
"I am the man I am today because of him."
Ron Hankins would certainly be proud of that man his son has become.
Negrych battles back
It was a simple groundball up the middle, but it nearly had drastic repercussions for Negrych.
Playing second base against Binghamton on July 27 last season, Negrych and shortstop Brian Friday collided chasing the grounder in short center field. Friday's knee hit Negrych two inches above his bellybutton, and while he shook it off to keep playing another half-inning, Negrych had to be hospitalized after the game.
"His injury was so scary," Walbeck said.
Negrych suffered a hematoma - a mass of blood in a tissue - and underwent emergency surgery the following morning at Altoona Hospital. The 25-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., native later caught two post-op infections that led to him losing 40 pounds, dropping his weight to 145.
Negrych told the Mirror a few months ago everyone was so worried because, "I looked like a skeleton."
That's when he worried if he'd ever play baseball again.
"Definitely when I got back from the hospital when I was 145 pounds it probably crossed my mind a couple times," Negrych said.
If he could get back to playing, he said the second concern was, "Would I be as effective as I was before?"
Negrych ate and ate to put the weight back on - he's now back to 190 pounds - and worked his body back into baseball shape. He said he got back to 100 percent physically about the end of January.
"The best part about everything that happened is just being able to put it all behind me and go out there and play," Negrych said.
"You take for granted going out every day and playing. And when you can't play, then you find yourself being more attracted to the game and wishing you were out there."
The injury may have had a negative impact on Negrych's career. The .307 career hitter, who batted .370 for Single-A Lynchburg two years ago, is no longer an everyday player for the Curve as he's now a utility man.
He batted .272 last season - low for him - but felt he could have impressed the Pirates more with a strong finish to the season.
"That last month I was hitting over .300," Negrych said. "So if I would have been able to have another month of just playing pretty good baseball, maybe things would be different. It's just that I've got to deal with the cards that are dealt right now and just bide my time and wait until I get back on the field."
That can't be too long for a hitter as good as Negrych, who will get his share of at-bats playing various positions. It's just a shame he's now in a backup role in large part perhaps because of an injury.
Still, Negrych is back to playing baseball for a living. So is Hankins. That fact alone, given all they've been through, is reason to be thankful.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.