CINCINNATI — This is a 40-yard match race fans claim they’d pay extra to witness.
In Lane One: Cleveland outfielder Drew Stubbs, who turns infielders into trembling and shimmering Jello-O when he hits a ground ball to them because he who hesitates doesn’t throw Stubbs out.
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In Lane Two: Cincinnati Reds farmhand/outfielder Billy Hamilton, who set a professional baseball record last year by stealing 155 bases in one minor-league season, most of them standing up and many of them second and third on successive pitches.
In Lane Three: Cincinnati outfielder Derrick Robinson, who is so fast some say he could play quarterback and wide receiver on the same play and complete a 40-yard pass to himself.
When approached with the match race idea, the 25-year-old Robinson smiled and said, “I’m there. That would be a good one.” And when he was asked who the favorite would be, Robinson said, “I like myself. There are not too many people that I’d tell you could beat me. They’d have to prove me wrong. That’s just how I am.”
Like Hamilton, being a baseball grand larcenist is Robinson’s game. For four straight minor-league seasons he led the league in which he played in stolen bases with 62, 69, 50 and 55.
A match race? It was an every day occurrence for Robinson in his Gainesville, Fla. neighborhood.
“I grew up in my hometown racing all the time,” he said. “That’s how we got our speed. We’d race 20 times a day. Guys would think they’d get faster throughout the day and keep challenging me.”
Robinson seldom lost, but once in a while his cousin, Derrick Cason, would pull ahead, “Like one year I’d be the fastest and the next he would and then I’d be.”
Robinson appears to glide across the grass without bending the blades when he chases fly balls and barely raises a dust bunny when he is on the basepaths. He moves like a football player.
And that’s no accident.
Robinson signed a letter of intent out of high school to be a defensive back at the University of Florida, but when the Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round of the 2006 draft he signed a baseball contract and skipped the chance to play for the Gators.
And he missed an opportunity to play with quarterback Tim Tebow and win two NCAA national championships (2006, 2008).
“I just love the game of baseball and Kansas City made me a great offer,” he said, acknowledging that both baseball and money talked louder than coach Urban Meyer. “This is the career I wanted and I took advantage of it?”
Regrets? Does he even have a few?
“None at all,” said the 5-11, 190-pound switch-hitter. “When my recruiting class at Florida won their first two championships a lot of people asked me, ‘Don’t you wish you were there?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m happy for those guys and I don’t regret my decision one bit.”
Robinson was signed by the Reds in December as a minor-league free agent after seven years in the Royals system with nary a sniff at playing in a major-league game.
He impressed manager Dusty Baker in camp this year but was sent to Triple-A Louisville for a very short stay. On Opening Day, Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick demolished his shoulder sliding head first into third base and is not expected back before mid-July.
And Robinson was summoned. He made starting debut in left field on April 9 in St. Louis and went 1 or 3. And last Wednesday he made his second start and was 1 for 3 with his first major-league RBI. His first major-league hit was a pinch-hit single against Washington against Stephen Strasburg on April 7.
What Robinson really relishes is the stolen base and that opportunity didn’t arise until Monday night against the Chicago Cubs and he stole second.
“That was awesome, especially in that situation when we were tied, 2-2, and trying to get the go-ahead run,” he said. “That’s the biggest part of my game. I’m not a power hitter, so when I get on first I have a chance to get to second and third within a couple of pitches.”
After so many years earning his keep in the minors, Robinson is wide-eyed at what he sees in the majors.
“It is everything I expected and more,” he said. “It just makes you want to work harder to stay here. People think when you get to the majors, you’ve made it. But it is the opposite. You get here and the work intensifies so you can stay here.”