“A Day at San Quentin”Dateline: San Quentin State Prison, CA 94974
Saturday June 7, 2009
Led by Peter Cook, eleven of your DTW teammates along with 4 others spent an extraordinary day inside “The Yard” at San Quentin prison this past Saturday. We played a split morning/afternoon doubleheader against the San Quentin Giants and the San Quentin Pirates. The games were competitive. Both games featured come from behind, last inning victories with Cookie pitching a complete game in the morning as DTW won 4-3. In the 2nd game, after scoring 5 runs with 2 outs to take a 7-4 lead DTW let one get away as the Pirates pushed across 4 in their last at bat to win 8-7. But that doesn’t begin to tell the story of this remarkable day.
The first thing you notice as you approach the oldest correctional facility in California is how narrow and residential the street leading to the prison is. San Quentin State Prison, a/k/a “SQ” or The “Q” opened in 1852 and not much has changed since. It sits on 400+ acres on the north side of San Francisco Bay. The lower parking lot where you leave everything except your gear and your driver’s license, the sign in sheet at the outdoor gate, and the quarter mile walk to the entry gate seem almost normal. Having your bags searched, your name noted and hand stamped, and the sound of the 2 sets of heavy iron gates closing behind you as you walk onto the grounds is anything but.
As we were escorted through the grounds and down the driveway to the yard we entered a world that, my guess would be, none of us knew too much about. The high wall to our right served as a boundary wall and the driveway we were walking on – adjacent to the fenced in 1B visitors bench and the right field line was part of the perimeter driving, walking, jogging track that circumvented the yard. The other 3 sides of the yard were a mixture of buildings that could best be described as new, old, and very old.
The place was a buzz of activity. While there are over 5000 inmates (600+ on Death Row) housed in a facility built for 3000, only a small handful (200-300 Level II/honors or the equivalent) were allowed to be in the yard – and then, not all at once. Eerily, there was no overt concern for our safety. You got a quick sense of prison culture by virtue of the ages of the guys, the groups or cliques they congregated in, and the various tattoo styles that were on display. On the baseball field that sits in the middle of all this it was quite different. Members of The Aryan Brotherhood, the Nuestra Familia, and other racial and ethnic groups that tended to be segregated in various pockets around the ball field all played together on the 2 prison teams. A place where every game is a “home” game and where every visiting team is called “The Willing” was a melting pot ‘between the lines.’
We played on a ‘skin’ infield with no grass, no batter’s box, and no foul lines. The outfield was a soggy marsh of patchy grass punctuated by goose droppings gracefully left there by the half dozen or so geese that populated the outfield and who tended to prefer the center and right field areas the most. Pretty much everything was “in play.” The “home” dugout, on the 3B side of the field was hard up against a split-level of concrete slabs that served as an exercise yard. No weights but lots of poles and pipes and benches that were in constant use as exercise equipment. Farther down the left field line there was a small concrete bunker that served as a hang out area for one of the prison cliques. When a ball was hit around there hardly a move was made to help the fielder yet there was no shortage of conversation and commentary available on the plays themselves - ask Victor.The ‘warning’ track ( a whole new meaning here), while also a walking track, was populated during the entire game by guys jogging, walking or meandering around. Less populated out in the reaches of left center and straightaway, the warning track gave way to metal picnic tables in right center (ask Tony about retrieving a ball there) that was next to the small scoreboard where the hits, runs, and errors were hand placed by a few guys who sat on its wooden landing. Over in right field there was a short porch – a close in, low slung building (one-hopped by Steve Moritz for a big hit) with barbed wire on top, a screened in walkway in front, and a stoop that ran the length of the building’s 40 or 50 yards. That stoop was prime seating and also brought running commentary to the play on the field. It seemed as if a different game was being played while you were in the outfield as opposed to the infield on this day.
The surreal world became no less real when we started to play ball. Tentative at first, we all got comfortable with each other. As a base coach what kind of conversation do you have with the 1st or 3rd baseman? How bout the banter with the umpires, one of whom – right out of central casting - is called Coach. For our catchers (Aaron and Sam and Garrett) you’re squatting between an umpire and a batter who won’t exactly be joining us for lunch at the Marin Brewing Company in between games. Those guys can tell you better what that was like. While it wasn’t cool to ask the inmates a lot of questions, some of them volunteered some information. Contrary to what you often hear about inmates (“I didn’t do it”) we didn’t hear any of that. What we heard were remembrances of places they lived and where they went to school…from the weather in Santa Monica to Katella High in Anaheim. On the lighter side, we had inmates walk up behind the fence that separated our bench from the road and cheer us Dodgers on to beat the Giants. Childhood favorites linger, even here.
The inmates we were exposed to, some of who were convicted murderers, all sounded a similar theme….they made a mistake, made a poor choice, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, were drunk or stoned or strung out and did something stupid. For some of the lifers it was a 3 strikes conviction. How ironic, the use of that term while playing ball. You got the sense that those in the yard and those who had made the cut to play on one of the prison teams – and the competition was fierce – had passed through a personal portal in resignation or more likely, acceptance, of their situation and realized that with their choices limited they were going to make the best of the situation. In stark contrast was the sign we saw over one of the buildings we passed by once through the gates. The inscription over the door said “Adjustment Center” and it was housing for those that hadn’t yet come to grips with their reality. One of the most surreal experiences was to look in some of the players’ faces and see someone that didn’t look all that different than us.
Yet perhaps the most profound emotion the prisoners expressed to us was one of appreciation. The privileged few that make the team get to practice once a week and play twice more. That’s 3 times a week they get to do something they love. And if a team from the outside doesn’t show up or doesn’t have enough guys, they’re disappointment is palpable. What our presence meant for them, while hard for them to describe, was never more evident than at the end of each game when we lined up to swap high fives. Both games, both teams, every player looked us in the eye, hugged us and sincerely thanked us for coming.
We were down 3-2 in the top of the 9th in game 1 against the Giants (the better of the 2 teams). Their pitcher, a wiry 6’ 8” former Division 1 college player in his early 50’s named Stretch (what else?) had us down to the last out. A righthander with a big breaking curve ball and tough two-seamer, Stretch bore down against Tony Scialabba, who was fighting off tough pitches in the dirt. Finally Tony got one he could handle and dropped it into left. Paul Galletti followed with a slicing ball down the right field line where the space between the fence and the imaginary foul line seemed to blend together. The ball glanced off the right fielder’s glove and two runs scored. We heard later that the right fielder would get some shit for not catching that ball. They expected a lot from each other on the diamond. It wouldn’t be a heavy thing one guy told us, but he might be shunned for a bit. Cookie protected the lead in the bottom of the 9th and we won the game. After the high fives and hugs we dutifully fell in behind our escort and left the grounds to go into a neighboring town for lunch before returning for the nightcap. A bunch of guys in uniform sitting outdoors in a café with live music behind us and burgers and fries in front of us reflecting on a most unusual morning.
When we returned to the prison we repeated the same screening process and made our way down to the field. It was after 4:30pm and now the yard was strangely quiet. No one around save the Pirates who were warming up. Don’t worry, we were assured, everyone’s at chow and they’ll be wandering in to check out the action in short order. As the game started, Stretch came by with some of his teammates and hung out behind the fence behind our bench. With a light jacket slung over his shoulder he recounted the last inning of that morning game. It wasn’t Paul’s game winning hit that he talked about but Tony’s at bat. When he released the pitch he thought he had him. Low and away, tough to handle, an ‘out pitch’ if ever there was one. You had the feeling he had been ruminating on that pitch ever since we left and he wasn’t finished now. For anyone of us who’s ever pitched or played the game, put their heart and soul into it and left it all out there on the field, there was at that moment very little difference between Stretch’s experience and our own.
The 2nd game felt a little lighter somehow, the local prison newspaper reporter interviewing us during the game….other inmates stopping by the fence and engaging us in conversation and telling us how to pitch or play certain guys. They weren’t shy about letting us know if we didn’t make a play here and there either.
Our going there, which may have seemed a small, curious gesture on our part, was a huge reward for them. It was not lost on me that even as we interacted with these guys and bantered with them on the field, that in some cases, because of their actions, someone lost their life. It certainly wasn’t spoken about. But for us, it was there. In the middle of the 2nd game there was a brief sound, like a siren or a whistle. Standing in the outfield I wasn’t sure what it was but then I saw every inmate, wherever they were in the yard, get down on one knee. An incident, a breech, something had sounded and they all knew exactly what to do. It felt strange to be standing while this was happening so I got down on one knee as well. One of the inmates – he was in the outfield himself …like I said, everything was in play, said “you don’t need to get down.” The hell I don’t I thought. It was a sharp reminder that even as we at DTW take our Sunday games seriously and love that time to forget everything else, these guys do the same. Somehow, for them, that respite is just a little more palatable.