There is a murderer on the mound, a three-time loser at short and a shank or two buried in the outfield. The San Quentin Giants are no ordinary baseball team.
Chris Rich 6'8", which is why his teammates call him Stretch. On the mound, he has the towering build of Randy Johnson. But this place has a way of cutting you down to size, even when you're alone in the dark. So tonight, as Rich twists his lanky frame to fit his flimsy mattress, he's reminded of a lesson he gleaned from the nearly 2,000 other nights that have come before: Nobody sleeps well in San Quentin.
It's not just his size 15 feet hanging over the bed frame or the pain in his throwing arm that won't go away. It's not the inmates down the hall retching from norovirus, hacking and coughing from "the San Quentin crud." It's not even the images that flash into Rich's mind of the horrible act that will keep him here until he's an old man. Try as some might to blot out the harshest memories with drugs or violence or furtive sex, ecstasy is never as fleeting as it is when you're doing hard time, and the images always return. Rich has learned to live with them.
What he has trouble handling is how nothing ever changes. Rich knows that in the morning he will put on the same clothes. He will trace the same paths, from the lower yard to the upper yard and back. He will eat the same food; lying in the dark, he can rattle off the next two weeks' menus. In prison, the hands circle the clock, but the calendar page never seems to turn. The other day, Rich caught a glimpse of himself in the cell's small mirror and noticed that his hair had started to turn gray.
In the corner next to his tiny bed is a baseball glove. Rich lets his mind drift back to a time when a game held all his dreams. The subliminal flicker of the hallway's industrial fluorescent lights reminds him of the VHF glow of the Game of the Weeks he once watched, sitting by himself as Curt Gowdy called plays. Clear as a bell, he remembers the day he became a Yankees fan: April 28, 1968, when his dad took him to a doubleheader at the Stadium and The Mick played first.
He recalls, too, his resolve at Island Trees High School in Levittown, N.Y. Everyone said he should play basketball, but he wanted to pitch, even if it would be harder than dunking. For a while it wasn't. Rich struck out eight of the nine batters he faced at a tryout during his senior year and earned a scholarship to St. John's. With the Johnnies, he went to the College World Series in two of his four years. Future pros John Franco and Frank Viola were among his teammates, and for a moment, Rich was better than both of them. As a sophomore, in 1979, he was 6—1 with a 0.62 ERA.
In his final season at St. John's, a line drive shattered his left shin, and Rich came back too early from the injury. He pitched through the pain, but his arm got sore and his velocity dropped, so far that he ended up an electrician in California instead of a major leaguer. By his late 30s, he was drinking too much and unable to make his marriage work. One day in 1997, Rich and his wife, Sharon, argued over an unpaid bill, and he exploded. He grabbed a bat and bludgeoned Sharon to death.
Convicted of first-degree murder, Rich got 26 to life and was sent to California's Corcoran State Prison, a high-security facility near Fresno, where a misfired glance could trigger a stabbing or worse. For five years Rich stayed out of trouble. Then he heard that the inmates at San Quentin, four hours north, had a baseball team. Though the game would forever be intertwined with the moment he ended his wife's life and changed his own forever, he still loved it. Maybe it could help him. San Quentin, he told himself, that's where I have to go.
Rich arrived at the Q in a van the day after Labor Day 2002, courtesy of his good behavior, and found the baseball guys right away. Tonight, the promise of tomorrow's ball game is the only thing that gives him the comfort to sleep.
"Not many 44-year-olds are playing shortstop at this level," says Curtis Roberts. "I believe God gave me the gift to play baseball."
In 1994, high on rock cocaine, Roberts walked into a liquor store, retrieved a beer and put it on the counter. When the clerk reached for the bottle, Roberts grabbed two $20 bills out of the cash register and drove off. When he was pulled over by police shortly afterward, he told them, "Here's what you're looking for," and handed them the Jacksons. Roberts had been arrested twice before, once for stealing $76 from a fast food restaurant, once for buying $20 worth of crack. Under California's three-strikes-and-you're-out law, Roberts' third offense sent him away for a minimum of 50 years, with no chance that a judge would alter his sentence and no possibility for parole until 2044.
Roberts has no family. He grew up the youngest of four kids whose parents shuffled them among relatives. After he went to jail, his wife left him and vanished with their daughter, who was then 5. The Department of Corrections has transferred him to various prisons over the years, figuring that a guy serving a 50-year minimum might act like he's got nothing to lose.
For the past dozen years, he's kept a journal for the daughter who has grown up without him, hoping that the day will come when she looks him up. "I may never get out, but I never give up hope that my daughter will find me," Roberts says. "My hope is I won't become some callous criminal in here. I want my daughter to see this place hasn't changed who I really am. I want her to say, 'That's my daddy.'"
But just after he passes the pages of his journal to a friend on the outside for safekeeping, life can feel so empty. There's no crying in prison, but there are days when Roberts feels the tears well up, when he's just one frustration away from breaking. "What more can they do to me?" he wonders. "They've put me in a place with no hope."
Two beliefs sustain him. One is that his true self is the man he was before he started taking drugs, when he worked hard as a plumber. The other is that he is a child of God. At San Quentin, where he landed in 2000, Roberts expresses both through baseball. "I used to pitch," he says. "And one time, after I gave up a home run, I had a coach look me in the eye and say, 'Curtis, it's not whether you gave up the home run, it's what you do afterward.' I apply it to my life. Yeah, I got 50 years to life, but now what am I going to do? You have to take your faith to your job, to society, to the field. I'm showing people what I'm made of.
"I failed," he adds, "but I never quit."
Rich and Roberts haven't played ball together in over a year because Rich's arm has been injured and he hasn't been able to see a doctor (that's what happens when 5,222 inmates are packed into a facility designed for 3,800). Today, though, manager Tom Alioto, a volunteer who is one of 3,000 local citizens donating time to the prison, thinks Rich might be ready to go for his San Quentin Giants. Roberts is a fixture at short.
The Oakland Oaks have arrived. As the 35-and-over white-collar players walk the gravel path that leads from the front gate to the inner yards, they pause to heed Lieutenant Vernell Crittendon, San Quentin's public information officer. Crittendon has walked this beat for nearly 30 years, which includes a stint overseeing the day-to-day of death row (San Quentin is home to all of California's 622 condemned male prisoners). He is now the one-man connection between the prison and the outside world, coordinating the volunteers who work there and arranging the Giants' games with local rec leagues.
"Welcome to San Quentin," Crittendon booms to the Oaks. "We have a no-hostage policy here. That means we will not bargain the freedom of an inmate for your safety. But we will do everything we can to get you out safe and sound." He pauses a beat as the eyes of an Oaks rookie widen. "Just don't pick up the soap," he deadpans, and the gathered lawyers, accountants and engineers in their baseball uniforms share a big laugh.
Beyond the gunnery tower, through a set of inner gates and beyond the euphemistically named Adjustment Center, a plot of grass is etched by smooth baselines. It is bordered by a chain-link fence. There are no bleachers. The green scoreboard in rightfield reads, "San Quentin's Field of Dreams."
They've been playing hardball at the Q for more than 100 years, and the prison even housed former big leaguer Charlie Sweeney, who killed a man in a San Francisco saloon in the 1890s. In 1913, warden James Johnston gave players uniforms to wear instead of zebra stripes and got them into a rec league. In the early 1940s, Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's came north from spring training in Anaheim to play.
All sports were canceled at San Quentin after the Day of the Gun, a battle that left six people, including three guards and black revolutionary George Jackson, dead in 1971. But baseball reemerged for good in 1994 because the Reverend Earl Smith, the prison's Protestant chaplain and a man who has played chess with Charles Manson, believed in the game's rehabilitative powers. The story goes that one day in the yard, he saw an inmate carrying a catcher's mitt and asked him if he played. The prisoner said he didn't because there was no field. So Smith and the inmates spent the next seven months clearing one.
Nearly a dozen Northern California rec teams show up to play the Giants these days, but when Smith and the inmates reopened the field, in '94, only two squads were willing to enter the imposing gates. In 2000, the San Francisco Giants donated their practice uniforms, and the inmates changed the team's name from Pirates in thanks. Two years later, the metal band Metallica donated $10,000 to renovate the field. Engineers at Sport Choice (the developers of AT&T Park) had to dig down nine inches in the yard to reach soft soil, plucking out long-hidden shanks along the way. Then one day in 2003, Rich and his 'mates rolled out the sod for the current field's opening day. That afternoon, Rich hit his first home run since his senior year in high school.
It's on that grass that the Giants shake hands with the Oaks and proceed to show their guests how baseball is played when it's all you've got. The hard-swinging Giants take a 2-1 lead on a sacrifice fly. They charge every play in the field, and Roberts gobbles up every ball hit his way. As he does, he seems to cherish again the smell of his leather glove, the snap of the ball smacking his palm and the sensations of letting loose a throw and kicking up a cloud of dust. These are deep pleasures in a world that doesn't offer him many lasting happy moments. "My father wasn't around much," he says. "But we had a connection when I played baseball. So it reminds me of my family."
During the fifth inning, an alarm sounds; somewhere the guards have seen something they don't like. The Giants drop to their knees, as do their guests. "Why take a chance?" says the Oaks' Glenn Davis, who works for an energy company. "You don't know who's in the towers. And we're wearing red."
Conversations in both dugouts turn to Barry Bonds. "There's only one thing that would really worry me about playing in San Quentin," Davis jokes. "If they started putting perjurers in here."
"No steroid users," says one of the Giants.
"But we like Bonds' friend who won't testify," says another Giant, laughing.
The tableau of this lockdown reveals that the Giants are an oasis of integration at San Quentin. Inside, the prisoners divide themselves by race. Outside, too, behind the field's chain link, prisoners watch the action in separate groups: blacks, whites, northern Mexicans, southern Mexicans. But out here, the Giants pat backs, pass cold water and chatter about balls and strikes.
A muffled voice crackles over the loudspeakers; the alarm is over, with no explanation. The Giants take a 6-2 lead into the sixth, and as the sundown curfew approaches, Rich comes in to pitch.
When Rich is behind bars, his lined face and intense stare through large glasses give
him a just-back-from-shattered look. But on the mound he's all legs, huge hands and gangly arms. He is, in fact, very much alive out here, and everything about toeing the rubber feels good—especially the grass all around him, turf he helped install. He relishes the chance to spot his pitches, to work the count, maybe to strike out a guy. Rich will take these sensations back to his tiny cell.
He takes a deep breath of fresh air. His chest swells with pride. Then he sets down the Oaks in order—game over. It's an accomplishment that makes tomorrow different from yesterday.
Coaches in both dugouts fill in the boxes on scorecards that Rich designed and printed himself. On the back, as part of team history, it reads: "The San Quentin Giants team has never had a losing record, and players are encouraged and challenged to work together while playing baseball at the highest level that can be achieved individually and as a team. The cooperation and interaction consistently make the team greater than the sum of its parts."
The Giants will tell you it's not redemption they're after. These men are locked inside San Quentin because they did something they can never set right by apologizing, like Chris Rich, or because society has decided they are as expendable as spent matches, like Curtis Roberts. Or both. San Quentin's harshest lesson is that you cannot earn grace through good works.
But you can earn a measure of self-respect. Baseball offers inmates not just camaraderie and a break from routine, but also the chance to feel good without doing wrong. And the game's commandments—"One day at a time"—clichés though they might be, give those who desperately seek anchors one to grab. "There are only two kinds of baseball games," says Rich. "Good ones and great ones."
You better believe it.
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