Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Playing Baseball in San Quentin, by Alex Casnocha

(image of pitcher for San Quentin Giants courtesy prisonphotography.wordpress.com)
Alex Casnocha is a Hastings student who has had the unique experience of playing baseball in San Quentin, and has kindly volunteered to share his experiences with the blog readers. Enjoy!
And, for a documentary on baseball in San Quentin, watch Bad Boys of Summer.

San Quentin Baseball

As a San Francisco native and current law student at UC Hastings, I had heard about the San Quentin baseball program years ago. After my own baseball career ended after college, I hoped to find a way to join an adult team that would play against the prisoners, and my opportunity finally arrived this past spring and summer. In exchange for missing an hour of my Criminal Law class last spring, my Professor required that I write a summary of my experience in the prison, and so I’ve put together some notes and stories from my experiences.

During the summer, the prison fields two teams, and they each play two home games each week, not against themselves, but against outsiders, made up of different adult teams from across the Bay Area. The outsiders’ team name is always “The Willing.” The San Quentin Giants (the prison’s “A” team) wear jerseys and equipment all donated by the San Francisco Giants. Their “B” team is called the Pirates.

Nearly all the prisoners on the Giants are serving life sentences. Some of them were victims of the Three Strikes Law, but many of them are also serving life for murder. Their best pitcher, Chris Rich – or “Stretch” as he’s called because he’s 6’8, who pitched St. John’s to the College World Series twice in the 70’s, "lost his cool one night" and killed his wife with a bat. Their catcher had murdered someone. Their outfielder in a recent interview "just asked for forgiveness from the victim's family." So clearly many of these guys did something very bad to end up there. The rules of the prison are that you cannot wear anything blue, because that is the color of prisoners clothing and in case anything "goes down," they want to be able to distinguish the non-prisoners from the prisoners. They also announce as you walk in that they will not negotiate for hostages. I wore bright red socks, a red belt, and a red shirt.

Anyways, with that backdrop, we entered the prison at a little after 8:30 am on beautiful and sunny Saturday. We had to go through a number of security checkpoints, but finally ended up inside the prison yard. I was kind of caught off guard because there are so many things that catch your eye immediately upon entering, including the brand new hospital that is almost completed. For some reason I thought we would be funneled into the field and that the field would be enclosed by a chain link fence that separated us from the prisoners, but I was way off with that assumption. We got in and immediately a group of huge prisoners walked by us and asked us to "beat the sh-t outta the Giants today." We then walked down this narrow alleyway and all of a sudden the general rec yard opens up in front of you. It was a pretty surreal moment for me. It was exactly how you see it on MSNBC Lockup. There were hundreds of prisoners milling around, mostly separated by race. Some were doing calisthenics, pushups, pull-ups, some were jogging around the outside lap, some were just hanging out against the wall, dealing cigarettes – and probably some other things as well. Clearly (hopefully?) these guys must have had very clean records while in prison to earn the privilege to be out there, because we literally walked right through them all to get to the field.

But we got to the field, put on our spikes, and got ready to play. While I was standing around warming up, an Asian prisoner came up to me and drew a diagram into the dirt to show me how small their cells were. Suffice it to say that they were incredibly tiny. It was ridiculous. A bunch of other prisoners came by to agree with the diagram and emphasize how small their cells were. I talked with the umpire for a little while (the umps are all prisoners as well) and he talked about how the three strikes law had 'screwed' some of the guys on the team. He was pretty smart and knowledgeable about the law and other things. (At one point during the game, he was standing there and another HUGE 50 year old guy came by and was like "Yo dude! You were at Chino back in '99 weren't you? Yeah man I recognize you, Cell Block H! What up man, I was doing three years back then.") But he was also incredibly nice guy. (I learned during my second game that he in fact was in prison because of the Three Strikes Law. He told me had did two things when he was 19 years old and a ‘fool’ and then got caught for petty theft 30 years later – his third strike - and is now serving life. He also played two years in the NFL before coming to prison.)

I was playing first base so I got to chat with a bunch of the prisoners as they came down the line. They were cracking jokes about this and that, they are all older about 30-50 in age, and all pretty solid players as well. We got up big to start the game, so that took the air out of them a little, but when they scored their first run the entire yard went nuts. There were about 750 guys out there, and a lot of them were watching the game. Probably the largest crowd I've ever played in front of.

A couple of mini-stories:

My first at bat, I hit a line drive hard straight back to the pitcher, and drilled him right in the groin. I was afraid he was going to come high and tight on me next at bat. Thank god that didn't happen.

At the beginning of the game, our coach comes up to us and says "Alright guys, this umpire is notoriously sh-tty. Just terrible, so don't let his bad calls shake you." (Yeah coach…not planning on arguing with a prisoner who is umping our game anyways.)

My buddy the umpire told me that when all TVs went from analog to digital they all got paid the price. Nearly every tv in prison was analog, so they basically have no channels now to watch on TV.

It was also a little tricky to figure out what you want to talk with these guys about. I obviously wasn't going to start grilling each prisoner as to why they are in prison, what they did, etc. So mostly we just stuck to baseball chat. We discussed the game, discussed the players, cracked jokes, and really there was never an awkward moment.

Another thing was that there were about 30 prisoners standing right behind the backstop chatting and heckling you for most of the game. They were all really good sports, and since we were winning by a lot, they wanted to know who we were and where we came from, but for my last at bat, I stepped to the plate, and one of the dudes is like "yeah, this kid's not a nice little swing. Alright big man, where you gonna hit it, call your shot." I didn't want to show that guy up, so I pointed my bat towards left field. (It was a short porch out to left field so I figured I could maybe poke one out of the park.) The whole group of prisoners starts laughing and cheering. The pitcher was this guy with long blonde hair, like Fabio, and everyone called him Fabio. So the group behind the backstop starts shouting "alright Fabio throw him a fastball, man vs. man, man up Fabio and throw this kid a fastball." (with a few other choice words interspersed. First pitch - fastball, right down the plate. I swung as hard as I could and swung right through it. Whole backstop starts cheering. I ended up weakly grounding out to the pitcher. It was an exciting moment though, and Fabio was pretty pumped up as well.

But all in all, I'd say the biggest thing I walked away with was knowing how truly great all these guys were. Obviously, at some point in their lives they did something very bad. But for a lot of them, that was 10, 20, 30 years ago, and they've been in there their whole life. Clearly, some of them seemed to be pretty hardcore guys on outside. Their catcher for example, was no joke. Tattoos all over the place, all over his neck, broken left thumb, definitely a 'balls to the wall' kind of player. During my second at bat he was telling me how the pitcher was throwing too slow for us, so I mentioned that "yeah the pitches look pretty good" which kinda seemed to tick him off. He immediately says "Yeah, but he's my F-CKING boy, and I'd do anything for him." Message sent. But even all the prisoners who were watching would come up and chat, cheer us and them on. I think they just really appreciate getting the chance to play every week. Frankly, the field was nice, the weather was beautiful, and it was legit baseball. To be serving a life sentence in prison, and be able to play like that, must be something truly special for these prisoners. After the game, each one made a point to come up, shake our hands, hug us, and thank us for coming out.

Afterwards, and even during the game, I tried to imagine what some of these guys would do if they got released today. For some of the guys, especially the older ones, they seemed to be perfectly rehabilitated. Obviously I was only privy to this little glimpse into their daily lives, but I couldn't help but think that many of these guys had been in there for a long time, and their crime was so long ago, that they were no longer a danger to society. Yet in class, when we did hypothetical scenarios involving a murder, I almost always raised my hand for a life sentence. I think my attitude now has definitely changed. Maybe I would still vote for a life sentence, but I would at least provide an opportunity for parole after 20, 30, 40 years. The pitcher who killed his wife with a bat, was maybe the nicest of the bunch, and was genuinely grateful for the opportunity to play us. I'm sure he's seen a lot of very bad things in his time in prison, but I could only imagine him getting out of prison and being able to help and coach other youth baseball teams.

In fact, during my second game at the prison, he opened up a little about his view on the prison system. Years ago, he had requested to be transferred to San Quentin when he heard about their baseball program. He stood behind our dugout for the entire second game chatting with us about this and that. As we got to talking, he mentioned “You will find very few people in here, who believe that most of the guys here should really not be in prison. We all look around and realize that there are a lot of people in here that belong in here, and not on the outside. They are just too dangerous to be out in the real world, and nearly all of us acknowledge that. But for some of us, it kills me that I am costing the taxpayers of California forty-thousand dollars a year, or whatever it is, to be in here, when I could be on the outside, working, contributing to society.” I think that is a very revealing look into the minds of some of these prisoners, how they understand their continuing burden to society.

Maybe these were just my idealized visions, but they all went through my mind while playing on the field. More than anything, it opened my eyes to how difficult it is to sentence people who have committed murder. You want to be able to sentence people on an individualized basis, taking into account their personalities, and perhaps leaving the option open for them to get out later in life, and yet, that is simply not realistic. There needs to be some standards and guidelines. And generally the one our society has created is a life sentence, if not worse.

When I tell some of my friends and their parents about my experience, they all almost unilaterally can not believe that I would put myself into that situation with those "monsters" and "murderers." I now get a little defensive when I try to explain to them that most of the guys were really nice, and you could never imagine them doing something that horrific. And yet, at some point in most of their lives, they did commit a crime that was bad enough that they probably could be called "monsters." It is just hard having to know that that reality exists when you meet them on a personal level on a baseball field on a beautiful Saturday morning or Thursday evening.


Allyson West said...

I have the privilege of seeing some of these games when I come to run my reentry program on Thursday evenings. Many of these men are an inspiration in my life - the adversity they have overcome and insight they have is remarkable considering some of their pasts. I walk the yard - a lone female - and I always feel safer behind the walls of San Quentin than outside of them. These men watch my back and I am very, very lucky to have the opportunity to work with them.

Justin Paperny said...

Very good piece. Disillusioning misperceptions shared by so many Americans about those in our prison system is an important, but tedious task. Most Americans, and I was one of them until I served time in a camp for securities fraud, seem to think all prisoners typify depravity and wickedness. Most are decent people who made a mistake and are being held accountable. Once again I really enjoyed.

Anonymous said...

I happen to have been a really close friend of the wife killed by the pitcher "stretch". You may see him in a different light, but for me he took away a friend that can never be replaced and no matter what he's going through, he's alive. I think prison is exactly where he needs to be for the rest of his life.

Anonymous said...

I was in the class of the wife killed by the pitcher. She was my middle school math teacher. He also was our substitute teacher sometimes. Basically, I had a murderer for my substitute teacher. I remember after they found her body, they tapped off the classroom with the yellow homicide tape and police were scanning the room for evidence. It was extremely disturbing and now, as a full grown adult, I'm sure this experience added to my crippling anxiety. I was looking him up to make sure he is still in jail. You may have gotten to play baseball with him, but I got my teacher killed. Just another perspective.

Unknown said...

I played on the 2009 San Quentin Giants team and i have to say, it was the best feeling i had in a long time. I felt like that little kid playing the sport i loved with others who felt the same way at the same time. It gave me an opening to where i could look back and begin to heal from the trauma that had been inflicted upon me early on in my life that baseball helped me deal with at the time. I miss those guys i played with because they helped me drop those walls i built high above to where even i could not see over. It was playing ball with my teammates on that particular team that allowed me to move forward in the healing process. That team allowed me to get to know me again, and i hope all my teammates are doing well. Thank you fellas for being there l am Jason Martinez (k77694)