Robinson and teammates find minor-league homes

By Sabrina Willmer

Just two catches at a Friday night baseball game, and former University catcher Chris Robinson found his name quoted throughout the media world. Jay Leno, “Inside Edition” and “Sports Illustrated” all echoed “Chris Robinson” – or rather “Chris Robinson and Laura, an African elephant.” Robinson inadvertently stepped into the spotlight on Aug. 12 after catching two opening pitches from the unwieldy rookie – an effortless entry into the public lens.

But Robinson and six other University teammates entering the minors this summer earned their recognition – without a fateful 8,500 pound nudge. Robinson (Detroit Tigers), pitcher James Conroy (New York Yankees), outfielder Drew Davidson (San Diego Padres), pitcher James Morris (Cincinnati Reds) and short stop Toby Gardenhire (Minnesota Twins) entered the minor league in June, while infielder Dustin Bensko (Twins) and outfielder Ryan Rogowski (Los Angeles Dodgers) signed free-agent contracts after the draft.

The seven players emerged from their 2005 Big Ten championship team, a team that had grappled with frequent injuries in previous years.

“The group had gone through a lot of adversity … and put all those negatives behind them and just did a great job of production,” said Dan Hartleb, head baseball coach. Hartleb, who described the number of draftees as “not a typical thing,” said it proved the program’s ability to recruit and develop successful ball players.

Following the dynamic 2005 season, Robinson, a native Canadian, achieved University celebrity status, becoming the all-time highest University draft pick in his position. Drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the third round as the 90th overall pick, Robinson departed his hometown of Peoria, Ill., three weeks later to play short season baseball for the Oneonta Tigers, and transferred in early July to the low A Western Michigan Whitecaps.

Robinson’s push towards professional baseball developed at age 5, increased gradually through childhood, gained momentum in high school with an offer from the New York Mets, and exploded in 2005 with the Big Ten Championship, All-Big Ten honors in both 2004 and 2005 and a position on the second-place Whitecaps.

Robinson lauded the Whitecaps as the “best league” he could play in because of its proximity to home.

Facing a rigorous summer schedule with three off-days, Robinson said he gradually eased into the routine of playing baseball everyday. When at home (2-3 days a week), the routine involved morning lifting, early afternoon hitting, mid-afternoon stretching and batting, a 6 p.m. pre-game meeting, a 7 p.m. game and sleep directly after, he said.

“It’s difficult to carry on a normal life. It is tough to keep in contact with friends,” Robinson said.

Despite the social sacrifices, Robinson describes his opportunity as a “dream come true.”

“I love it. It gives me the opportunity to play baseball every day,” he said.

Amid challenges of joining a new team mid-season, Robinson earned a spot on the post-season instructional league. The league includes thirty players from his team selected to train from four to six weeks in Lakeland, Fla., starting mid-September, Robinson said.

Robinson attributes his success to the influence of coaches, teammates and his alma mater.

“A lot of the player I am today fundamentally is because of the University of Illinois.”

Coach Hartleb praised Robinson for providing “great leadership not only with the pitching staff, but for the entire team.”

“On top of his leadership qualities, he went out and also produced,” Hartleb said. “He hit well, did a great job defensively, controlled the running game,” he said.

Conroy, also selected for low A ball, joined the Staten Island Yankees as the 29th pick in the 19th round. Conroy said he felt the change from University ball in pitching appearances, which increased from once a week at the University to once every four days in professional baseball. Pitching for a team seven and a half games ahead in its division, Conroy said he performed better than expected, logging in “a lot” of innings.

Conroy began his baseball journey at age 7, which led to an offer by the Oakland A’s in 2004 and his current position in the minors. Conroy, who quickly discovered his passion, said he remembers drawing a poster about a future career as a major league baseball player in first grade.

“It has been my life-long dream to get drafted and play professionally,” he said. “I got this far, and my next goal is to make it to the majors.”

“This year he gained a lot of confidence, and went out to the mound to win games,” said Hartleb. He also said Conroy “really matured as a pitcher from year to year.”

Morris, who signed with the Cincinnati Reds, joined the Billings Mustangs two days after the draft.

“The adjustment wasn’t too bad,” Morris said. “Most guys playing in the minors were playing college ball.”

A primary difference from University baseball appeared in the increased one-on-one time with the coaches and the greater focus on development, Morris said.

Morris credits the University for preparing him for minor league workouts through the fall and winter conditioning.

He attributes his success to listening to coaches and “developing a good work ethic through conditioning and weight training.”