PHOTO CAPTION: The apartment (left) where Trayvon Robinson grew up in South Central LA. When he was in ninth-grade, a drive-by shooter sprayed the apartment with stray bullets. The intended target, a friend of Robinson’s, was shot twice but dropped his bicycle at the curb, ran past the iron gate and darted down the alley in the photo until he escaped into a neighboring unit. He survived the attack.
Don’t miss our newspaper story this morning on Trayvon Robinson and his journey from the streets of South Central Los Angeles to the big leagues with the Mariners.
Robinson is the first graduate of Crenshaw High School to make it to the big leagues since Darryl Strawberry back in 1979. Back then, baseball was still a big part of the black community, but the numbers of such players participating in the game were already beginning to decline.
PHOTO CAPTION: Although Crenshaw High has worked to restore its reputation since the days it was featured in the 1991 movie Boyz N the Hood, it’s tough to miss the signs posted all over about reporting weapons on campus.
We contacted Strawberry for the story and he told me it was tough to make it out of South Central back in those days, but still easier than it is today. Back then, Strawberry was playing alongside other future major leaguers like Crenshaw High teammate Chris Brown. The area also had other up-and-comers back then like Eric Davis, Chili Davis, and Ozzie Smith. They all emerged together and plenty of MLB attention was drawn towards the Los Angeles inner city. There was a much bigger support network back then as well, geared towards funneling talented young players on to the correct elite path they’d need to take.
That’s the biggest difference between then and now.
Now, a child with enormous baseball talent still might not get spotted in time to be set on the right course to a college scholarship or even a pro career.
“I think everybody gets stereotyped in those neighborhoods,” Strawberry said. “I don’t think the scouts go into those neighborhoods as much as they used to.”
Baseball is less popular than football or basketball in the inner cities and more and more players who might have had a chance to take their baseball to the highest levels are not choosing the right paths.
Some of them play football and basketball because they love it more than baseball, which isn’t the problem. Where it starts to go wrong is when the kids pick other sports over baseball because of peer pressure, mass marketing, the high cost, or the lack of infrastructure. They can wind up denying themselves better enjoyment and a better future.
“We weren’t bad kids,” Strawberry said. “We wanted to play baseball. I just don’t think they do as good a job, especially now, of going out and finding those special players in those neighborhoods.”
Strawberry told me he thinks marketing has a lot to do with inner city kids now choosing basketball and football over baseball. He thinks the NBA and NFL do such a good job of marketing inner city stars withing these neighborhoods that the kids who live there never think of playing baseball.
He was very impressed by what Robinson had accomplished and wanted me to pass him the phone to congratulate him. Unfortunately, Robinson had ducked inside the clubhouse at that particular moment. He didn’t come back out until the very moment when the team’s pregame stretch was beginning.
Timing is everything.
Robinson’s timing was a lot better in all other aspects. He’s in the big leagues only six years after graduating from Crenshaw High.
But he had plenty of help getting here, which is what our story is about.
There was his assistant baseball coach at Crenshaw High, Andre Green (pictured above) who watched Robinson as a 9 and 10-year-old at the St. Andrews Recreation Center in South Central (photo below), a baseball field less than 50 yards from a popular meeting spot for the 8-Trey Gangsters — a Crips-affiliated street gang whose members were implicated in the 1992 beating of trucker Reginald Denny during the Rodney King Riots.
Robinson did not grow up in a peaceful neighborhood. His mother, Jackie Jenkins, raised her four boys on her own, with help from a grandmother and an aunt. She pushed her boys into all the sports she could so they wouldn’t be recruited by gangs.
Green worked to persuade her to send Robinson to Crenshaw High, despite its sometimes unsavory reputation. He’d tell parents his players could get those same 3.0 GPAs as the kids in other schools and that he’d help look after them and make sure they didn’t get hassled by gangs and drug dealers.
Robinson’s mother, after talking it over at length with Robinson, let him decide and he did indeed go to Crenshaw High.
After a drive-by shooting sent bullets spraying into the family’s apartment, Green began dropping Robinson off every night after school. He’d pick him up times too. Robinson had to cross numerous rival gang territories between the school and his place, so it was safer not to do it on foot.
Green also helped introduce Robinson to the right people. He got him workouts at Jackie Robinson Baseball Field (above) when he was 15. That’s where the local Class A and AA prospects used to work out.
He got him into the local Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) summer program. It wasn’t enough to play high school ball. If you want to get noticed, you have to play in the summer, preferably for all-star and travel teams. Robinson’s family could not afford that, but the RBI program allowed Robinson to have that type of experience and exposure for the cost of $25.
John Young, the founder of the entire RBI program, which now has an estimated 200 chapters and 175,000 participants around the world, had started it off right there in South Central. He saw Robinson and wasn’t all that impressed right away. Robinson didn’t even make the program’s all-star team. But Green kept pushing him to take a closer look at Robinson’s multiple “tool” skillset. Finally, he was converted.
It just shows you how fragile the line is between making it and being overlooked.
Robinson clearly has the skills to be in the big leagues. But back then, at a critical point in his career path, it was not immediately obvious that he should be set along that elite path.
It takes more than just gaudy high school numbers for a player to get drafted. It takes exposure and word-of-mouth. It takes being in the right places at the right time.
Unless there are people around to help get you there, it’s easy for players to fall through the cracks.
And Green, the coach who helped get Robinson started, knows how that system works. He knows all about contacts and connections and favors.
Back when Robinson was still playing for him in high school, he helped him earn extra money by umpiring weekend games for Top Prospects, a local baseball organization that offers heavily-discounted play to any child who can make it to their fields — regardless of where they live or which baseball territory they’d normally get registered in.
PHOTO CAPTION: A Labor Day tournament for 8-year-olds staged by Top Prospects, an organization providing subsidized baseball to children from anywhere in Los Angeles who want to play it. Trayvon Robinson umpired games here while in high school and later staged baseball clinics for the children.
The program is for kids 8-to-12, both boys and girls. Robinson later began giving the players coaching tips and organizing clinics for them.
This work served two purposes. First, it helped make Robinson more mature. Helped keep him serious and focused on baseball and out of trouble.
And also, it helped teach him to give back. Helped further the infrastructure in the community and continued the cycle of development. Now, when Green and others need a major leaguer to come and help show others there is a way out through baseball, they can hit speed dial and get a bona fide major leaguer on the phone.
Robinson never turns their calls away. Why would he? He might not be where he is today if not for them, his mother and a whole bunch of others who took the time.
When Robinson was put on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster in 2009, he spent winters working out every morning at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, using their weight room and field. In the afternoon, he’d stay behind and help coach the kids who played there in subsidized programs.
PHOTO CAPTION: James Bishop, who helps run the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, said Trayvon Robinson never hesitates to return to his old neighborhood to help kids now playing financially-subsidized RBI baseball just as he once did.
Again, just another example of how the cycle keeps regenerating, in positive fashion.
Sometimes, talent just isn’t enough. Everybody needs help.