Trayvon Robinson's dangerous road from South Central L.A. to the Mariners
Rookie outfielder who once dodged gangs and bullets is now an inspiration to inner-city youth.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Texas Rangers @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT
Trayvon fileAge: 24
Height: 5 feet 10
Weight: 200 pounds
MLB debut: Aug. 5, when he got his first hit and made a spectacular grab as he pinwheeled into the crowd in Anaheim.
LOS ANGELES — Andre Green stops the car on a busy curb outside the public-housing complex and points at the street-level apartment just beyond an iron gate.
This is where the former assistant baseball coach at Crenshaw High School used to pull up to take ninth-grader Trayvon Robinson to class, or drive him home after practice so he wouldn't walk the gang-infested streets. That began after a drive-by shooter opened fire on one of Robinson's friends near this same curb, spraying the family apartment with bullets as the wounded victim escaped into a neighboring unit.
"Trayvon and his brothers were inside and they hit the floor," said Green, 56, pointing to where Robinson lived. "They were lucky because they were in the back.
"I learned then, I'm coming to get my kid. I'm not going to let him get caught up here."
And Green never did. Whether helping Robinson cross rival gang territories separating his South Central home from the school, or using connections to get him the baseball exposure needed to leave this life behind.
But Robinson, 24, who made his major-league debut with the Mariners last month, never totally left these streets. The first major-leaguer from Crenshaw High since Darryl Strawberry in 1979 and a product of the local Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) outreach program often returns to ensure others know his story.
And with inner-city baseball participation by African-Americans dwindling the past few decades, the Robinson story has been noticed. He has become a symbol of hope for inner-city ballplayers here, as well as their coaches and mentors, thrilled to see their work can pay off.
Robinson, acquired from the Dodgers in a three-team July trade that sent Erik Bedard to Boston, tries not to get overwhelmed by expectations. He's busy enough on the field, hitting .242 with two homers, 11 doubles and some tough catches in an ongoing audition for Seattle's outfield.
"There's so much that can be running through my head at any given time," Robinson said. "You just try to manage it all."
His mother, Jackie Jenkins, raised Robinson and his brothers, Terrance, Jovon and Christopher, on her own. She pushed her sons — Trayvon is the second-youngest — into as many sports as possible to keep them from gangs, even serving as the Crenshaw High scorekeeper.
But she couldn't be there the afternoon of the drive-by shooting. Robinson was relaxing on his bed.
"They were shooting all erratic ... and the bullets went in my house," Robinson said. "That was pretty scary."
Robinson looked outside and saw the trail of blood leading to where his friend had sought shelter. The friend had been shot twice, but survived.
Avoiding violence was a reason Robinson's mother let him play at Crenshaw, knowing Green would help look after him. Green is now an assistant church pastor, but was once a street-brawling, three-sport high-school star.
Later, he devoted his street smarts and connections to helping young athletes get the sports guidance he'd never received. Convincing parents to send him baseball players wasn't easy, given Crenshaw High's strength in basketball and football.
There was also its darker reputation, having been featured in the 1991 movie "Boyz N The Hood," depicting South Central gang culture.
Green walks outside Crenshaw High's yellow-brick walls today, pointing out the batting cage where Robinson took his cuts. Posted signs with 1-800 numbers advise students to "report weapons on campus" or warn of video cameras for "security purposes."
"I told them that as long as they were with me, they were safe," Green said. "Nobody was going to mess with them."
Green took Robinson under his wing, having him speak to and teach local youth teams while just a teenager himself.
"Trayvon was one of our umpires when he first started out," said Craig Hackett, co-founder of Top Prospects, which offers subsidized baseball to local children. "He ran our annual baseball clinics for us and gave a lot of his time to our kids."
Like most black youths from his neighborhood, Robinson wanted to play high-school football. But Green convinced him he had too much baseball talent, having first seen him at age 9 at a St. Andrews recreation center in South Central.
Standing on the St. Andrews field, where he'd watched "a little baby-looking kid hitting triples and singles" years earlier, Green pointed to some nearby picnic tables.
"That's where the 8-Treys used to hang out," he said of a Crips-affiliated street gang. "This was their place back then."
Green couldn't keep the gangs totally away from Robinson.
"The gang life, the hustlers, the thugs, the peer pressure of all the negative stuff was right in front of me," Robinson said. "It got there. Ninth grade in high school, they tried to get me. I know a couple of guys tried to get me. A bunch of guys wanted me to sell drugs and they'd put money here. But I said, 'Nah, I'm good.' I stuck to sports and started to get real serious."
At Crenshaw, his intensity and brooding were sometimes dismissed as poor sportsmanship. But Johnny Washington, who grew up in South Central and knew Robinson, said he was just hard on himself. They later teamed in Class A with the Dodgers, where Washington served as a player-coach.
Washington, now a minor-league hitting coach for the Dodgers, said coming from the same school as Strawberry caused Robinson to try to live up to the name.
"He wanted to be great, too, even in high school. He didn't want to be that guy with all that talent who could have made it but didn't."
John Young remembers when Green brought Robinson to his RBI program's summer league to play. Young founded RBI in South Central on a $25,000 grant from Major League Baseball in 1988, watching it spawn 200 chapters for 175,000 children worldwide.
He wasn't that impressed with Robinson at first. But after Green took him around to work with local youths, Young noticed "more maturity" to go with the talent.
Young founded RBI after seeing fewer inner-city kids playing baseball because of cost. He was dismayed by the scarcity of African-Americans compared to when "it was the sport to play in the black community."
The RBI program charges just $25 to play a full season. Young said his goal was never to put more blacks in the majors. But Robinson making it there is something all RBI coaches and kids can take pride in.
"Trayvon was an inner-city kid from Crenshaw," he said. "That's exactly who it was made to help."
Robinson honed his skills playing in spring for Crenshaw, then RBI summer ball. Green took the next step in winter, driving Robinson, then 15, to Jackie Robinson Baseball Field in Compton, where Class A and AA pros staged offseason workouts.
Today, the field is a dirt lot surrounded by a fence, awaiting a long-needed renovation.
"He was just a kid," Green said, pointing toward center field. "But he stepped in there and hit a ball clean over the 410-foot sign."
Robinson remembers feeling intimidated by the older pros. But once he held his own, his confidence and ability surged.
The Dodgers drafted him out of high school in the 10th round in 2005, shipping him to their Gulf Coast League affiliate in Florida. His confidence was tested again his first full pro season in 2006, when he struggled to learn to switch-hit.
One day, Robinson got a call from home. His best friend, Ben, had been shot dead in a carjacking attempt. Devastated, Robinson left to attend the funeral. Then, he told the Dodgers he'd had enough and wasn't coming back.
After a few days, he changed his mind.
"Ben wouldn't have wanted me to quit," Robinson said.
Robinson struggled to find a baseball identity. He'd been a speedy, base-stealing type, but his coach, Washington, saw the massive, 35-inch bat wielded by the player he'd dubbed "Bam-Bam" for his untapped power.
He convinced Robinson to stand taller in the box in 2009. Robinson hit a career-best 17 homers in Class A and AA that year. He blended his speed and power the next two seasons, topping out this year with 26 homers in AA and AAA.
As a big-league career loomed, Robinson was ever-popular at local baseball fields, appearing alongside Dodgers major-leaguers to spread the message of hope to kids.
He spent the 2009 offseason in Compton, working out mornings at the new Urban Youth Academy weight room and field. Then, he'd hang around afternoons to coach players in the subsidized baseball programs he'd once played in.
"It's very hard for African-American kids just growing up in these areas, never mind to play baseball," said James Bishop, facilities coordinator at the academy. "And when they see him, they see somebody just like them who went through the same things."
Even Strawberry was thrilled "another Crenshaw Cougar" had made it.
"It was tough back then, but I think it's a lot tougher now for a kid to make it from those neighborhoods," Strawberry said by phone. "When I was coming up, you had me, Chris Brown, Eric Davis, Chili (Davis), Ozzie (Smith) all playing there around the same time. We all worked extremely hard to get where we did, but the attention was there and people knew about us.
"To do what he was able to do, is something he should be proud of. It's a real accomplishment."
Robinson's former coach, Washington, said his friend can be funny, once he lets himself relax.
"It almost seems like he's carrying the whole city of Los Angeles on his back," he said. "He wants to make everybody proud."
But Robinson says he can handle it. He enjoys connecting with inner-city players, hoping to "give back" some of what he never had until high school.
"It was an adventure growing up," Robinson said. "But I don't regret any of it. It's made me a better baseball player, and it's for sure made me a better person."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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