Dodgers prospect gives back in L.A.

LOS ANGELES -- As far back as any of his baseball coaches can remember, people noticed Trayvon Robinson.

He had the skills, but not the polish; the raw tools, but not the savvy.

Anyone with a little vision could see what kind of player he could become. The question was whether that potential would develop and bloom one day.

Andre Green had coached baseball at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles long enough to recognize a talent such as Robinson's early on. He'd also been around long enough to know all the things that could keep Robinson from developing into what he's since become: one of the Los Angeles Dodgers' top prospects.

Like many of Crenshaw's top athletes in recent years, Robinson also played football before high school.

"He wanted to play football, and I just told him 'No,'" Green said. "I said, 'You're a baseball man and you're going to put Crenshaw on the map.'"

It was a conversation he'd had with many players. Just a few years earlier, a talented young slugger named Brian Price came through Crenshaw High. The home runs he hit at nearby Southwest College had already become the stuff of legend.

John Young, a former scout and major leaguer with the Detroit Tigers who founded the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, had told Green and everyone who'd listen that Price reminded him of a young Frank Thomas.

But Price also reminded people of a young Warren Sapp and would have his pick of college scholarships. Price chose to play football, later signing with UCLA and getting drafted in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I just think kids think they can get more out of football or basketball now," said Major Dennis, who coached with Green at Crenshaw for 22 years. "They just want to go to college and get to where they can make the big money faster. It just seems harder to get ahead in baseball."

It generally does take longer to reach the "show" in baseball than it does in other sports. Most players who are drafted never even sniff the major leagues. But for once, baseball had the advantage when it came time for Robinson to choose his path.

"My mom, Jacquelyne Jenkins, always loved baseball, and she kind of got that into me," Robinson said. "She always listened to Dodgers games and took us to games.

"I got to love baseball, too."

In 2005, the Dodgers picked Robinson in the 10th round of Major League Baseball's draft. He is the first player the Dodgers have drafted from Crenshaw High.

Robinson turned 23 years old in September. He is too young to remember a time when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't being honored with a national holiday.

The world Robinson was born into has grown a lot since King's time, but his chances of becoming a major league player are still far from equal to a contemporary born outside of South Los Angeles.

After flourishing in the inner cities during the 1970s and '80s, baseball began to fade. Little leagues folded, baseball fields became unkempt and local high schools had inadequate resources.

Young began to recognize the beginnings of the downward trend in the mid-1980s as a scout based in the South. When traveling to Atlanta, New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., and Montgomery, Ala., and shake his head at the gap between the prospects he saw in the suburbs and at parochial schools compared to those he found at the city schools.

"The public schools in the inner cities were terrible in baseball," Young said. "They were good at basketball and football, but they were terrible at baseball.

"I'd always talk with other scouts about it. … One subject that always came up was all the black players in the inner city that we were losing. That's something scouts see five to 10 years before front offices do because we're out there in the field."

A few years later, he moved to the West Coast to scout for the San Diego Padres.

"I started having the same conversation with a different group of scouts," Young said. "And it was even stronger here because these scouts remembered the heyday of baseball in L.A., with Darryl Strawberry [who played at Crenshaw] and Eric Davis [Fremont High] and all those guys."

Young grew up in the Watts neighborhood in South L.A. during the 1950s. Jackie Robinson was his hero. During the summers, he'd work out with former Negro League players at Will Rogers Park on 103rd and Central Avenue.

But as a scout, when he searched for prospects in that area, which once had been so fertile for baseball prospects, Young realized what had happened.

"My generation, we didn't take it back to where we'd come from," Young said. "We just dropped the ball. We got into our careers and we just stopped going back."

Young founded the RBI program in South Los Angeles in 1989. There are now 187 RBI programs around the world.

Green isn't shy about calling Trayvon Robinson. Mostly the old coach follows him from afar, keeping up with his progress via the Internet or through word-of-mouth.

"But when I don't hear from him for a while, I call him," Green said. "He always picks up when I call. I like that about him."

Most times he calls to check in and let Robinson know everyone back home is rooting for him. Other times he asks if Robinson can help out with a clinic or fundraiser the next time he's in town.

"He's a kid that comes from the 'hood that's doing something," Green said. "A lot of people wait until they get all this money to give back. Tray does it now."

Robinson works out at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton and regularly does clinics in and around South L.A. There's a sweet reciprocity to his actions.

"If what you see on TV is who you look up to," Robinson said, "and what a lot of black kids see on TV are black athletes playing basketball and football -- guys like Shaq and Kobe -- I feel like now I have to be that superstar so I can be a role model, too."

De Jon Watson first saw Robinson at an open workout at Lynwood High in 2004.

James Bishop, the coach at Lynwood, played with Watson in the minor leagues. He invited Watson to watch a showcase for some of the best players in Los Angeles, and Robinson immediately stood out.

"John Young is a good friend of mine," said Watson, who is now director of the Dodgers' farm system but was with the Cleveland Indians at the time. "And he was always talking about this kid, Trayvon."

Robinson was the fastest kid on the field, with good instincts and the makings of a powerful swing. He needed polish, and someone definitely should've turned him into a switch-hitter years before. But there was something there.

The Dodgers drafted Robinson in the 10th round in 2005. When Watson took over the Dodgers system in 2006, he was already familiar with the promising young outfielder.

In his first three years with the club, Robinson played hard, but it was taking him a while to get comfortable hitting from both sides of the plate.

Watson talked to him frequently.

"He and I had some long conversations," Watson said. "He wanted to stop switch-hitting. I told him to stick with it."

Robinson stuck it out, and in 2009 his career took off. He hit .306 with 15 home runs, 54 RBIs and 43 stolen bases for Single-A Inland Empire. The Dodgers moved him up to Double-A Chattanooga at the end of the season, and he hit .246 with two home runs in 19 games.

Then, last season, the team put him through a routine eye test and discovered he needed corrective lenses.

The improvement has been striking. Robinson hit .300 with nine homers, 57 RBI and 38 stolen bases in the Southern League, one of the toughest leagues in minor league baseball.

He's expected to start this year in Triple-A Albuquerque, but that could change based on his performance in spring training.

"He has a chance to be an impact player," Watson said. "He can be an offensive force and a defensive force."

In other words, it was worth a trip to Lynwood High all those years ago.

"It takes some work sometimes," Watson said. "But you have to keep searching for these kids."

Robinson is close enough to the major leagues now to start picturing his first day at Dodger Stadium. He's also close enough to get ahead of himself if he's not careful.

He's worked hard, but he's still got work to do.

"You just have to stay grounded and level-headed," he said. "Even when you get here, you have to stay grounded. Because once you get here, you have to fight to stay."

He was speaking about himself and his approach to the next stage of his career, but his words seemed to echo those of Young, who realized all those years ago that it's not enough to make it out of the inner city and into the major leagues.

It takes work to keep those doors open.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.