It isn't surprising that Chris Robinson of Troy High School is one of the top pitchers and hitters in Orange County this season.
He was playing against a high school star when he was only 10 years old in Yorba Linda.
The games were often one-sided. The 6-foot 4-inch senior from Troy was his brother, Jeff, who is now a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Chris was a skinny kid who had yet to play in a Little League game.
Despite the lack of parity, the two spent hours playing simulated games that were highly competitive on the family's front yard. Each would take turns pitching a tennis ball that would dip, curve or knuckle.
The boys drew up their own lineup cards and imagined they were facing Don Baylor, Bobby Grich or Rod Carew.
"I remember one time Jeff hit a line drive that nailed me right in the eye," Chris said. "I went running into the house crying, and 15 minutes later, we were back outside playing again."
Eight years later, Jeff is pitching to real major league hitters, and Chris has led Troy to the Freeway League title and into the Southern Section's 3-A division playoffs with a 10-2 record and 108 strikeouts.
Troy (17-6) will play host to Savanna (13-9-1) at 3:15 p.m. Friday in the opening round. This season the Warriors won their first league title since 1979, when Jeff Robinson was the team's pitching and hitting star.
"I used to go to Jeff's games, but to be honest, I don't remember much about them," Robinson said. "I remember he hit a couple of long home runs, but that's about it."
But Robinson vividly recalls those simulated games on the front yard. The Robinson boys had designated areas that were outs, singles or extra-base hits. A long drive over the tall tree was a home run.
"Jeff usually won, but the games were close," Robinson said. "I learned how to pitch against my brother. I could throw a changeup, screwball and a wicked knuckleball. You can do some weird things throwing a tennis ball.
"I learned how to set up hitters playing against Jeff. I try to do the same thing today. I try to set up hitters with a curve, changeup or split-fingered fastball. Every once in a while, I'll challenge a hitter with a fastball."
Improved velocity on his fastball was instrumental in Robinson's development as a major-college prospect this season. He played for three teams last summer--the Fullerton Angels, Palomino White Sox and Troy--and the hard work paid off.
"I pitched a couple of times a week," he said. "I think I improved my fastball by five miles per hour. I worked hard expecting a good senior season."
Robinson and his teammates had some big expectations for the 1987 season. Six starters--third baseman Mike Case, center fielder Steve Shirley, catcher Mike Pawlawski, first baseman Jeff Ferren, shortstop David Shirota and Robinson--have been playing since they were 11 years old and in the Yorba Linda Little League.
Robinson also has been effective at bat for Troy, which has one of the best hitting teams in the county. He is hitting .449 with 2 homers and 25 RBIs.
"I take a lot of pride in my hitting," Robinson said. "One of the first questions I asked college coaches who recruited me was, 'Can I hit, too?' I know my future is as a pitcher, but I love to hit."
Robinson's future will continue to follow in his brother's footsteps, at least for a while. He signed a national letter of intent to attend Cal State Fullerton, where Jeff developed before becoming a major league pitcher.
"People are always comparing me to my brother, and that doesn't bother me," Robinson said. "But we're totally different pitchers and different people.
"Jeff is a power pitcher with a fastball and slider. I'm a finesse pitcher who sets up hitters. We're different hitters. He swung for the fences in high school, and I'm more of a line-drive hitter. But we're both very competitive, and we both hate to lose.
"I don't see Jeff much during the season, but we play together a lot in the winter. I'm his catcher. He calls me sometimes after a game. The first thing he asks is, 'Did you see me get a hit tonight?'
"Personally, I don't think he's a very good hitter. But he's a typical pitcher who likes to talk about his hitting all the time."
It takes one to know one.