Chris Robinson: Between the lines
Chris Robinson, the highest-drafted position player in Illini baseball history, will be the keynote speaker at the team’s Hot Stove Banquet on Saturday at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. News-Gazette beat writer Jeff Huth recently caught up with the catcher, a 2005 third-round pick of the Detroit Tigers, who made his major league debut last September with the San Diego Padres:
Your journey to the major leagues was an exercise in perseverance. It wasn’t until your ninth professional season that you pulled on a big-league uniform. What was it like to finally reach that goal, and were there times beforehand when you considered calling it a career?
Walking into the clubhouse for the first time in San Diego in August, I forced myself to really step back and take in the moment. I took a second to look at my locker with my jersey hanging in it and look around at the other lockers with the other jerseys and the names of all these big leaguers and for that moment I allowed myself to be satisfied with what I had finally accomplished. Although I had a lot more I wanted to do, in my mind that was one of the few times in my career where I let my guard down and really felt a sense of pride for what I had finally done. It definitely wasn’t easy, there were several times where I thought about moving on from the game. It’s funny how the game we love works, the closest I have ever been to retirement during the season was this past June. I had gone out in the spring and had a great Spring Training with the Orioles, an exciting WBC with Team Canada and even with all of that I found myself on Father’s Day for no reason at all the odd man out on our AAA roster in Norfolk. The writing was on the wall, I was playing well but I just wasn’t in the Orioles’ plans. Amy and the kids were down visiting along with my Mom and Dad and we sat down and had dinner together in Norfolk to celebrate Father’s Day. After a long, emotional discussion the night before with Amy, I had decided it would be best for me and my family to pack it in and head home for the rest of the summer. At dinner I told Mom and Dad that that was it and I was going to move on. It was an emotional time. My Mom and Dad are very involved in my career, they live the ups and downs with me, but they could tell I wasn’t happy and completely understood. At this point, I truly was at peace with this decision. I had finally got to the point where I was very proud of the career I had had and finally after years of searching for the call of validation it didn’t matter to me that I hadn’t played in the big leagues. My plan was to grind out the rest of the week, collect my last paycheck and move on.
Cue the craziness of the game. Two days later I was called into my manager’s office and was told I got traded to the San Diego Padres. At that time probably the one team out of 30 in all of Major League Baseball that I knew the very least about. I had played their minor league clubs only a couple of times and was very unfamiliar with the entire organization top to bottom. I would be introduced to Padres AAA manager and former superstar college coach Pat Murphy days later. Murph changed my life, and there is no doubt in my mind was the main factor in getting me to the big leagues. I could write and talk about Pat Murphy for hours and hours. I will leave it at that, though, the man that got me to the big leagues.
I do like the word perseverance. If I look back on my nine-year career to this point that may be what I am most proud of is the way I have persevered through some ups and downs. By no means am I the first player to feel there were times in their career that I deserved more than I actually received, but to finally reach the big leagues after years of disappointments and “just abouts” was a moment and a feeling I will forever be grateful for and cherish. I will forever be a San Diego Padres fan and the guys that were in that locker room and on the coaching staff will be people I root for the rest of my life.
Your first career hit as a major leaguer was a three-run home run on Sept. 25 against Arizona. Set the scene and tells us how you felt in that moment.
The entire month of September I spent the majority of my time being a full-time professional pinch hitter. It was something that I had never in my career really had to do at any stage of the minor leagues. As the month went on, I developed my routine that all players have to get ready for a possible pinch-hit appearance. I got in a groove where I was loose and felt comfortable if I was needed for an at-bat or needed to go into the game defensively. This night was different though. I was in the bullpen due to one of our bullpen catchers needing the night off. I spent the second half of the game in the bullpen and pretty much checked out of the game assuming I wasn’t going to play tonight because I was 430 feet away from home plate in the right field bullpen. As I was warming someone up in the eighth inning the phone rang from the dugout, bench coach Rick Renteria, now manager of the Chicago Cubs, summoned me back to the dugout for a possible pinch hit. As one inning ended, I ran the 430 feet across the diamond to get back in the dugout to find I was batting third in the inning. No time for any swings to get loose, I grabbed my helmet and bat and after a quick couple leg stretches I was on-deck preparing for my at bat.
The aforementioned Rick Renteria and I became very close in the month of September. Ricky and I have a history that dates back to this previous spring where in a WBC game his Mexican team and my Canadian team had a little disagreement (to say it nicely) that ended in an all-out brawl. It was a bunt that I laid down that led to this “disagreement” or “misunderstanding.” As I was walking into the box this September night I was about to get ready when randomly I caught Ricky’s eye on the bench. He smiled at me and gave me the universal swing away sign as a joke to remind me not to bunt. I couldn’t help but smile and at this moment a calming feeling came over me. As I took the first two pitches for balls I sat there in a good hitter’s count thinking I wasn’t going to get cheated if the next pitch was around the plate. When I first made contact I knew that I had got it well. I followed the ball as I started to first base and as I watched the left fielder, his reaction had said it all ... it had gone out. A quick fist pump was all the emotion I would show as I tried to keep it as professional as possible and act like I had done it before (even though I hadn’t) as I broke it into my home run trot. This approach worked until I got around second and caught sight of the ear-to-ear smile on our third base coach, Glenn Hoffman. A similar smile took over my face and as I crossed the plate, the best part of the entire night ensued. The greeting that I received from my teammates, their reaction, their genuine excitement for me, a kid from Dorchester, Ontario, a person most of them had known for only a month, may have been the most special part of all. The night ended with me going in to catch in my first game as well. A game-ending catch, a Gatorade shower while being interviewed and a locker room filled with my teammates giving me a champagne shower after the game leaves this night as a memory that I won’t ever forget.
On Oct. 4, you were sent outright by the Padres to their Class AAA affiliate in Tucson, Ariz. However, you were under contract with the Padres only through the end of the World Series and are now a free agent. What’s next for you in baseball?
That was a move that was inevitable and made sense on both the Padres side and my side. They were very complimentary and expressed their desire to bring me back this year, but I’ve adopted the “slow and steady wins the race” attitude. I’ve signed quickly in the past and jumped at the first good opportunity, and a lot of times that hasn’t worked out. So I am now just taking my time making a decision and see where everything goes.
What is your favorite on-field Illini memory?
It’s difficult to pick just one. At that point in our careers a Friday night in front of a packed Illinois Field in the middle of the Big Ten season was difficult to beat. That was our moment and my junior year when we won the conference, the support was pretty impressive! One moment in particular that year that stands out is the first weekend of the year when we swept Ohio State at home. We won the fourth game on Sunday with a walk off home run by Drew Davidson, and that was pretty special. It’s funny that while you’re in the moment you take so many things for granted. I have lifelong friends that I spent my three years on campus with. Between the early-morning workouts, long Saturday practice at the indoor complex, the bond you form is initially overlooked. When I look back on that now, some of those times with my teammates were the most memorable. Even something as small as walking through the cemetery each day with Dusty, Toby, Brian, JR, Roofie and the rest of my teammates to get to the indoor facility from the ballfield are all places I can easily take myself back to in my mind.
What is your goofiest off-field Illini memory?
Wow! I will keep this one clean so that I don’t get myself or any former teammates in trouble. Some of the characters that we had the three years I was there you couldn’t help but have a lot of laughs on and off the field. One of the off-field moments I remember most that wasn’t necessarily goofy was the infatuation the baseball guys had with flag football. My junior year I think we had two teams that competed in the men’s intramural league and one very dominant co-ed team. I was a member of this co-ed team — a team name which can’t be printed. Comprised of primarily softball players, baseball players and close friends of ours, we proceeded to win a co-ed flag football championship in convincing fashion. An honor that we truly took a lot of pride in. The end of fall ball for baseball meant the start of our flag football seasons. As collegiate athletes in another sport, the passion and intensity that we put into this intramural sport was pretty pathetic. To this day when I see someone playing flag football, memories of our on-field celebration on a cold night in December come rushing back to me. I still have the T-shirt we won for that championship and continue to wear it with pride!