Trayvon Robinson used baseball to escape dangerous neighborhood

SARASOTA, Fla. — Right around the time major league teams first began taking notice of a talented young outfielder playing at Crenshaw High in South Central Los Angeles, a harsh reality check came for Trayvon Robinson.

The Orioles outfielder was in the 10th grade when his mailbox started to fill with questionnaires from big league clubs, inspiring hope in a place where young men are far more likely to become gang members than major league baseball players.

Then, one day, shots rang out from outside his family's housing complex. A drive-by shooting had targeted one of Robinson's classmates outside, and stray bullets streaked through his apartment.

None of his family members were struck, but seeing those holes in the wall served as a blunt reminder that he needed to get out.

"That was frightening," Robinson said. "It was scary, but I knew for sure I had to turn up after that. I had to find a way to get my family out of that. It gave me a little more perspective on life."

Robinson, a 25-year-old outfielder acquired from the Seattle Mariners this offseason in exchange for second baseman Robert Andino, says he's never had anything given to him. Everything's a fight where he's from, whether it's getting jumped walking home — as he said he was months before the hometown Dodgers drafted him in 2005 — or battling to get out of the rough-and-tumble life of his neighborhood.

"It makes me hungry," Robinson said. "I take these drills, everything I do, I take it serious."

This spring, Robinson's in another battle, fighting for a reserve outfield spot in a crowded mix that includes Steve Pearce, Conor Jackson, Chris Dickerson, Jason Pridie and Lew Ford.

"He's going to get an opportunity here to show what he can do," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Switch-hitting guys who can play three [outfield] spots are hard to find, especially at his age. He's still a young man."

In 90 big league games with the Mariners over the past two seasons, Robinson had just a .215/.272/.330 batting line, but he recorded a .278/.354/.484 line the past two seasons in Triple-A, including a 26-homer season in 2011 with the Dodgers' and Mariners' affiliates.

This spring, Robinson has shown his talent in flashes. He hit a game-winning, two-run homer in the Orioles' Grapefruit League opener after entering as a substitute. In nine spring games entering Friday, he had four RBIs, three stolen bases and a .526 slugging percentage.

"I'm not more so worrying about the results right now," Robinson said. "I'm just trying to be calm and stay within myself right now and swing at good pitches. I'm going to give it my all every time I go up there, but I just want to give myself a chance to swing at a good pitch."

With Adam Jones away from camp playing for the United States in the World Baseball Classic, Showalter will use a variety of outfielders — Robinson included — in center field, so Robinson should get more playing time as he tries to make the team.

"That stuff is out of my control," Robinson said of the number of outfielders in camp. "I'm more worrying about helping the team win as much as possible. If they see that I'm a winner, then whatever. But I don't worry about that stuff."

Robinson is the first major leaguer to come out of Crenshaw High since Darryl Strawberry in 1979. He's a product of Major League Baseball's "Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities" program, which helped him get exposure that he might not normally have received.

"They were good, because they were always around and they always supported me ever since I was, like, 11," Robinson said. "When I got to high school, they always had the spring tournaments for inner-city kids for spring break. A lot of richer schools always had big tournaments and whatnot, but in the inner city, they didn't, but RBI always had the tournament."

Robinson gives most of the credit for his success to his mother, Jackie Jenkins, who pushed him and his three brothers into sports so they wouldn't end up hanging out in the streets.

"My mom kept all of us in sports, and kudos to her," Robinson said. "Everything you see right now is because of her. She pretty much taught me to be a man and taught me not to take anything for granted."

Robinson said the temptation to join gangs was ever-present, but he stayed focused on baseball.

"It's just kind of day-in-and-day-out trying to survive," he said. "My grandmom stayed right around the corner from my house, and even when I walked to her house or rode my bike to her house, it was like stepping into fire. It's just one of those things. You know you don't want to get mistaken for anybody."

Now, Robinson faces the challenge of establishing himself in a new organization — the third since he was drafted in the 10th round in 2005.

Just before spring training began, the Orioles designated Robinson for assignment, and he couldn't report to camp until he cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk. But the Orioles still believe in Robinson's upside.

"We like him, and I've talked to him about the fact that just because he came off the roster and got through it doesn't change the way we feel about him," Showalter said.

Being passed over stung, Robinson says, but it's nothing considering what he's been through.

"Being a player, you don't want to hear that," Robinson said. "But it is what it is. It ain't gonna stop me from putting my cleats on.

"That's just a bump in the road. If you got wheels, you run right over it. I ain't got no problem with it, just got to turn up."