Sweets' Robinson finds faith and baseball

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WALLA WALLA — When Walla Walla Sweets player J.J. Robinson and his parents decided he should transfer to DeSales from Colfax, Wash., last winter, they weren’t aware of just how much the senior athlete would be missing.

Robinson, and his parents Jeff and Kristi, knew he would miss spring baseball and winter basketball, but they didn’t know that Colfax and DeSales — traditional rivals at the WIAA Class 2B level — would go on to win state championships in basketball and baseball, respectively.

He took the transition in stride, though, practicing and traveling with the DeSales baseball squad while living with his godparents, DeSales coach Kim Cox and his wife, Lisa.

But for all that Robinson missed — his parents, siblings, and old friends, not to mention a pair of state titles — he found something, well, bigger than sport.

Robinson, a utility player for the Walla Walla Sweets and bound for WSU on a baseball scholarship, found God.

Robinson said he was a non-denominational Christian prior to attending DeSales, but didn’t attend church regularly and did not have a “religious lifestyle.”

But on Easter Sunday this past spring, he and three other DeSales students stood on the alter at St. Francis of Assisi and were baptized and converted to Catholicism.

It was a joyous occasion for the Robinsons, the Cox’s, and many of the DeSales faculty who had encouraged him to explore his faith.

“A lot of our teachers and staff in general took a real interest in J.J.,” coach Cox said, “and when they found out that he wanted to join the church, everybody was just really happy about that. They thought that was pretty awesome.”

Even Mike Parrish, Robinson’s former baseball coach at Colfax and himself a Catholic, made it down for the baptism.

“Even though he wasn’t playing for Mike Parrish anymore, Mike was very supportive of the decision (to transfer to DeSales) he made,” Robinson’s father Jeff said. “He didn’t want to lose one of his players, but he was supportive and he even came down for his baptism. That says a lot about him — that was something special.”

Robinson, who played a little bit of everything for the Sweets this season and was a two-sport star at Colfax, first became interested in Catholicism after taking a religion class at DeSales.

“It was interesting to see the different religious views like Mormon, Catholic and Christian and all of them,” Robinson said recently. “Out of all of them, Catholicism made the most sense.”

His interest piqued, Robinson consulted coach Cox, who had himself converted to Catholicism as a senior in high school.

“We looked up on all of them a little bit and learned about it and we found out some things and read the bible a little bit,” Robinson said. “Coach Cox is very educated in that matter... so he’s pretty much my book to learn on it (religion). He did a good job.”

“Everything was positive about him (Robinson) coming here, except the not getting on the field part,” Cox said. “Him coming to school and learning about Catholicism, and having an interest in it like he did, that was really pleasing to me personally.”

Positive it was.

Robinson left Colfax after the fall semester of his senior year seeking a better environment. Naturally he was homesick at first, but as his time in Walla Walla comes to a close with the end of the Sweets season, Robinson said had no regrets about changing schools.

“If anything, I would have moved to DeSales a lot sooner, to be honest,” Robinson said. “I would have liked to spend all of my high school here at DeSales, and that was always a thought. We kind of just thought about it when I was 13 and 14, but we didn’t really consider it all that much. Finally did it the last possible minute.”

Robinson also enjoyed the challenging academics at DeSales, something he felt the Catholic school did better than his previous high school.

“Doing a whole semester there, even though it was just a semester, it felt like it was a whole year,” he continued. “It was pretty intense — they made it seem like college. I liked it a lot.”

Robinson’s humble personality, and grace in handling his sidelining during the prep baseball season, left the DeSales students and teachers as equally impressed with him.

“I know the DeSales kids, they love him,” Cox said. “And a lot of it is because they were just incredibly impressed with how he handled the situation of not being able to play this spring. He didn’t complain about it — it was upsetting, he wanted to play — but there wasn’t much that came out of his mouth about it. He just kept going to school, doing a good job in the classroom, and coming out and being a good teammate every day. Just totally selfless.

“The respect that the coaching staff at DeSales has for J.J., and the respect that the kids have, is probably higher than anyone I’ve ever seen at DeSales.”

Although Robinson didn’t get to play baseball for DeSales, he practiced and traveled with the team as though he did. He also practiced with Walla Walla Community College’s baseball team, which is coached by DeSales product Dave Meliah.

Baseball played a huge role in bringing the young man to Walla Walla in the first place.

When he was 9, it became apparent to Robinson’s father Jeff, that the youngster had an aptitude and interest in baseball.

Jeff Robinson, who had himself played college basketball for the Community College of Spokane, began looking around for a coach to teach J.J., but found none in basketball-crazy Colfax.

He was referred to Cox by former Colfax football coach Doug Curtis, brother of former DeSales football coach Dave Curtis.

So the Robinsons began to make almost weekly trips down to Walla Walla.

At first, Robinson attended baseball fundamentals camps with Cox and eventually began to play for the Walla Walla Black Sox, a team Cox coaches.

“Kim (Cox) said at 9 years old, he (J.J.) could play college baseball,” Jeff Robinson said. “Kim could see it. I couldn’t, but that’s why he coaches.”

While J.J. wasn’t in Walla Walla, he played Little League and Babe Ruth in addition to practicing at home. And over the years, the two families — the Robinsons and Cox’s — grew close as well.

“His dad (Jeff Robinson) is a real stand-up guy,” Cox said. “He’s a man that I have a lot of respect for, so anything that we worked on, I knew that they were going to go back home and there was going to be time spent on doing just that.

“They’d come back the next week and you could really see a jump in improvement,” Cox said. “So I give most of that credit to J.J.’s success to his father, Jeff.”

After J.J. suffered a series of concussions in football his freshman year at Colfax, he devoted even more time to baseball, playing fall ball and, as a sophomore and junior, playing for the American Legion Class AAA Pullman Patriots — a 19-and-under team.

Robinson first caught Washington State’s eye at a prospect camp his freshman year — but playing for the Patriots, who called WSU’s Bailey-Brayton Field home, probably didn’t hurt either.

“That (Legion baseball) was definitely new for me,” Robinson said. “I did good. That’s pretty much when I verbally committed to WSU, my sophomore summer, and I signed at the end of my junior year when I could finally sign.”

Robinson earned multiple all-league honors while playing baseball for the Colfax Bulldogs, capping his junior year with eye-popping numbers like a .600 batting average and a 1.14 ERA over 30 innings pitched.

He mostly played shortstop in high school, but WSU baseball coach Donnie Marbut saw Robinson’s potential as a catcher and asked the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder to move behind the plate.

“We plan on converting him behind the plate so we can best use his athleticism,” Marbut said in a press release. “He has a very strong arm and has shown some nice left-handed power. We think with development he will have a fine Pac-12 career.”

But Robinson, who is a switch-hitter, has seen time all over the field for the Sweets this summer, despite being listed as a catcher.

On Sunday, Robinson had his first start for the Sweets on the mound and gave up just one run on five hits in seven innings.

“I can kind of play wherever they want me to,” Robinson said. “WSU recruited me as a catcher, but now they got me down as kind of a utility guy. We’ll see, I’m not sure I have a set position yet.”

After putting up extraordinary numbers in his final year of prep ball, Robinson has seen his numbers in the batter’s box decline against the tougher pitchers in the West Coast League, batting .235 on the season against pitchers that can hit the low 90’s.

“It’s been a big experience, I kind of got a little bit of a wake up call,” Robinson said. “You’re not the big guy anymore. I’m the meat, the rookie and stuff, so I like it, it’s fun.”

“He’s pretty serious about his craft,” Cox said. “He has a lot to learn about a lot of things — just getting stronger physically, learning how to approach baseball in a professional manner — and I know Donnie Marbut is going to help him a lot in those areas up at WSU. I think the future and the sky is the limit for him. I think he’s got the ability, and he’s got the desire, so it might just happen for him.”

Although it’s almost a two-hour drive from Colfax, Robinson’s parents have made the trip down for almost every Sweets home game, often having to drive back late at night for work early in the morning. But with Robinson’s busy schedule, it’s really the only time they get to see their oldest son.

“We missed some games because of work-related issues, but we’d try to get down to as many as we could,” said Jeff Robinson, who ended up parking a camper trailer in a Walla Walla RV park as a sort of baseball base of operations. “There were many times where I’d drive back at 1 in the morning and then get up and go to work at 6 a.m. Sometimes he didn’t even play, but you have to support him and you have to support the team.”

Now, as Robinson prepares to leave Walla Walla for fall camp in Pullman, he has a whole slew of things on his mind — baseball, school, roommates, etc. — but despite the seemingly-short amount of time it took him to decide to convert to Catholicism, he remains committed to his newfound faith.

“(Converting is) a bigger decision than getting married,” Jeff Robinson said. “In about a month’s period he made a decision to do this — that’s a pretty quick decision. But he decided to do it. We’ll see how it turns out, I hope the decision he made, he stays with it. That can’t be a bad thing. He’s kind of strong willed and that’s what he decided to do.”

“I like Mass and being closer to God, because I wasn’t before,” said J.J. Robinson, who has already found a new parish in Pullman. “I didn’t have a religious lifestyle before I moved here. I jumped in a little quick, but I knew what I wanted.”

Despite the hectic travel schedule Robinson faced this summer with the Sweets, who finish the season Thursday in Bellingham, and during the prep season, Robinson said he has made a point to make it to Sunday services if at all possible.

So far he has missed just two since converting, and yes, he has kept track.

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