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"For we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves."

Me 'n' Bobo: And Other Tales from San Quentin

San Quentin

This is the tale of an amazing baseball game at the Lower Yard in San Quentin Prison during the 2009 baseball season.

The setting

Some of the coldest, windiest days I have ever spent have been on the ball field at San Quentin’s lower yard. A bumpy, scarred outfield, goose crap scattered about, left by the geese that inhabit the place, large birds no one is allowed to disturb—the prison administration has apparently gone green. The infield is dirt with lots of rocks strewn about. Interestingly, there are several narrow little canyons created by the rain, which run for yards. We would take care of this nuisance but the tools required to do the job are considered “weapons stock” and are thus not allowed in the hands of inmates. We use metal and wood bats, but these are not tools.

A strong wind most often blows out of right field and squarely into our faces as we occupy the third base dug out. I have a black shirt whose front turned brown due to the wind forcing infield dirt into its fibers, not to mention into my hair, eyes, ears, and mouth. I have saved the shirt in case anyone thinks I am exaggerating.

The maintenance folks at the prison, bless their hearts, cannot figure out the irrigation system, so there are usually little pools of water in the areas around short and second. Right field is the worst of it though, a real mine field with soggy, sloggy ground. A head long dive by a fielder would mean one wet, crappy, and smelly outcome. Must be a broken sprinkler head that somehow has gone unnoticed these last few years.

The season begins: Tryouts

Tryouts began in late February; we hold two days of tryouts on consecutive Saturday mornings. Guys are not exactly desperate to make one of the teams, but they are sure disappointed when I have to tell them they did not make it. After the first day of tryouts I called a half dozen or so hopefuls out and broke it to them that they had no chance. I do this face to face and explain myself. With the first group it is easy--“You can’t catch the ball or throw the ball.” This often comes as quite a shock to some because, some have insisted that they played professional ball and at the major league level at that. Oh yes.

The lying does not bother me. To have something meaningful and fun to do while in prison like playing baseball is a worthy goal. If I were locked up I would certainly want to play ball, and I might tell myself what a great player I am and what lousy players the other guys are—and believe it. Trouble is, that for most coaches, simply watching someone play catch will reveal all that is necessary. The whole game is right there—catching and throwing the ball. Coaching can only do so much for someone whose youth has been spent in a self-destructive mode.

Two teams with fifteen players apiece emerged out of the fifty plus who tried out for the two teams, the “A” team Giants, and the “B” team Pirates. The Giants got first pick of the talent; I took what was left. At first there was an obvious difference in the teams but as the season wore on, this gap began to close--as you will read about below.

The story starts

A story within a story must be told. The modern era of baseball at San Quentin Prison began in 1995 with Earl Smith, then the Protestant Chaplain. Chaplain Smith became the chaplain for the San Francisco Giants baseball club as well as the San Francisco 49ers. In 2000 I think it was, the major league Giants, by way of their beloved and long time equipment manager, Mike Murphy, gave our San Quentin Pirates their winter uniforms. In a flash we were the San Quentin Giants. Dan Jones and I, who had been coaching the Pirates, at the request of Chaplain Smith in 1997, went from being Pirates to Giants. Earl visited a practice and gave us the news. Some reasoned it was better to be Giants because what was a prison team doing being named after raping, thieving, and murdering brigands anyway? Our team captain though, Jason Gottlieb, was less than thrilled. He was a Pirate baseball player through and through, and it was Jason who did so much work on the field making sure it was properly prepared for practices and games. Jason threw down his glove and walked off. We were all shocked. Just before we broke up the practice, I went to Jason’s cellie and told him Jason had some wiggle room, meaning that he could change his mind and stay with the team. He did. 

Back to 2009

Before the first game was played on April 4, nearly eighty games had been scheduled--forty games for each team. I did the scheduling and Elliot Smith took care of obtaining gate clearances for the incoming players, mostly teams from the Bay Area Senior Men’s League, a job I had done for the last thirteen years and one which I thoroughly despised since it usually turned into a seven day a week job. Laura Bowman and the people who worked with her took care of the actual clearing in, which was handled very well, the best I had ever seen. Let me say clearly now: the administration of San Quentin, the warden’s office, along with the correctional officers, go to some lengths to see that the program continues. Not all the players realize this but those of us who coach understand the very large contribution. I also credit my immediate boss, Don DeNevi, Don’s supervisor, Frank Kellum, and his supervisor, the principal of education and recreation, Ted Roberts. (By the way, for those who think the tax payers are footing the bill for “the coddling of the convicts” by letting them play ball, the State of California has no budget for us, and what we don’t get from the S.F. Giants the coaches come up with.)

How it works

Giants play on Wednesday evening and Saturday morning; Pirates play Thursday and Saturday evenings. No telling how many games will be played due to various reasons, chief among these would turn out to be the arrival of the swine flu. The warden’s office shut the prison down for two weeks on nothing more than a sniffle—or at least, that is how it seemed to us.

Our coaches were faithful to the end. The Giants had Kevin Loughlin, Mike Deeble, and Elliot Smith. With me and the Pirates were Stan Damas and Len Zemarkowitz. During my one month vacation, from July 16 to August 12, Len took over, but due to lock downs, the Pirates played only two games. I like to remind Len that the Pirates lost both of those games.

For the season the Pirates will play, short of another lock down, twenty-one games. Three games in April, three in May, six in June, two in July, and six, so far, in August. Our record is 7 wins and 13 losses. We hope to make it to 8 wins. Last year when we had one team only, the Giants, our record was 35 wins and 10 losses. With two teams the talent is thinner, yet with two teams more guys get to play. And it is this latter result that is most important to the coaches as well as to the prison administration.

An account of the big game—setting up the story

Kevin Loughlin, our Giants head coach, was to be away on business so he asked me to manage the Giants for the game against Benicia—Saturday morning, August 15. It would be a long day for me then, just back from a month’s vacation, having to do a double-header, the Giants in the morning, and then Giants vs. Pirates in the evening.

To complicate matters however, Benicia cancelled the day before, Friday. Right then I determined that Benicia would not be invited back to play in 2010. And, sadly it would be the same for The Willing, my very own team, but when their game day came around, there never were enough of them to field a complete team.

The Willing, close to my heart ever since I watched Shane Kennedy help out in a girls little league practice that my daughters Laura and Jenna were part of. Shane was catching behind the plate and I noticed right away that he had done it before. Turned out he had been a big time soccer player and had been coaching in Mill Valley’s Little League for years. I approached Shane about playing at the prison and organizing a team to bring in for games. That was the start of it and the process began to take shape. For thirteen years Shane led a team of local coaches into the prison as The Willing, and the team became one of our favorite opponents. Some of these Willing players have been friends for years: Dan Parker, Steve Frei, Bob McKennee, David Kennedy, John Spilman, Kevin Loughlin, Bob Baker, Eric Distad, Steve Hoffmire, Tucker Kuhn, Eric Williams, Carter Zinn, and Shane’s son Spencer. But looks like those glory days will end as the glory days always do for baseball players unless they morph into coaching as I have done. And, by the way, that is the reason I coach at the prison—to stay around the game. It really is just that simple.

Back to the story

In order now to have a team for the Giants to play Saturday morning, I emailed a desperate plea out to seven of our faithful teams and sure enough four different teams responded right quick—Sting, All Blacks, Barons, and The Mission—10 players in all. There would be a game. Of course, nothing like this would be possible without the internet and email.

At the Thursday game, August 13, Pirates vs. The Fog, a game the Pirates lost, I informed one of the Giants players, Johnny Taylor, one of their catchers, that I would be running the game as Kevin would be away. Kevin and I coached together last year with the Giants, only had one team that year, 2008, and he and I have been friends for years, having coached against each other at the high school level, he at San Rafael and me at Tam. Now in 2009 I function as a kind of GM over the baseball, softball, and football programs. So my running the game, as opposed to Mike Deeble, a young coach, very faithful to the baseball program, but perhaps not yet ready to managing a prison team but would be soon, or as opposed to Frankie Smith, the inmate coach with the Giants, was not something unusual. One of our concepts is to avoid having an inmate be in sole charge when playing an outside team—learned through a number of unfortunate experiences. So I was hoping I had prepared the Giants for the Saturday morning game. You see, because of the team rivalry some Giants tend to see me as part of the enemy.

Saturday morning of the big game daySan Quentin batter

Saturday morning, before I made it to the dug out, I heard that some Giant starters were complaining. There was nothing for me to do but proceed with my plan to play everyone and keep some of the starters on the bench at first but bring them into the game half way through. I felt this was warranted since there had not been a lot of games due to the swine flu. Deuce and Jason, two Giants starters, did not like it that they would be on the bench, though I did have Jason DH for Chris Rich who can no longer run but can still pitch. And Frankie was not too thrilled about the situation and, I thought, kept his distance from me despite the fact he was in the first base coaching box for us the whole game.

I learned later on that some whined to the effect that I was not the real coach, Kevin was, and that I should be starting the usual starters. I anticipated that this would happen and was why I took care to announce my intentions early on. But, everyone one of the Giants got to play at least half the game and had at least two at bats. The Giants’ win over the combo team was large behind a 17 hit attack. The Giants really, or usually, are a very good team, stronger across the board than my Pirates team. Chris, or “Stretch” as he is called since he is 6’9” tall, also threw a complete game and got the win.

After that morning game there was not the usual congratulatory spirit I was used to. I was fairly well ignored by some of the players.  The core guys, players I have known for years, are always just happy to be able to play ball and are better equipped to put the small things aside and appreciate changes and challenges. But, the stage was set for the evening duel.

The Game

This would be the third meeting between the two teams for the season, and would be the last. The Giants had beaten the Pirates fairly easily the first two times. There would likely be some wagering going on as well, though this is always kept very quiet.

Tensions were running high for the final show down. The game was late getting started due to new policies imposed upon us, and I figured we would only get in five or six innings. Some players did not want to dress out in uniforms to save time, which uniforms were dirty and smelly anyway due to the fact we were no longer able to wash them as we had in previous years. (No solution to this has yet been found.) With a little urging, both teams dressed out in full uniforms. The field did not get stripped however and there was a certain make-shift feeling to the game—and the players on both teams were tense.

The guys on the team

Israel Amos, who for the two previous years had refused to play for me, and I thought, had caused me some grief, managed to put it all aside and asked to play for the Pirates. I welcomed him and got him nearly suited up for the game, though I had to give him my belt to keep his baseball pants up. Turned out that was the only game he played in, something I am still puzzled about.

We had a 14 man roster then and I was determined to play each man half the game. This was not a simple decision since I very much wanted to win the game and not sticking with the starters may have been thought to mean that I did not really care about the outcome of the game. But our team, at this stage, is fairly evenly balanced, to the point I thought it safe to substitute.

David Baker, our team captain and best pitcher, started. Herman Hopkins is our other starter but had pitched the Thursday game against The Fog. The Pirates jumped out to a two run lead, which was tied by the Giants in the third, who then went ahead in the fourth, but the Pirates tied it in the fifth. During the game I put on two suicide squeeze plays, neither of which worked. Though the plays failed, the Giants were reminded of the unorthodox moves I would make—like a suicide squeeze with two strikes on the batter and two outs in the inning.

Could we make it in time?

Games usually end about 7:50pm due to having the Close B inmates appear for a count at North Block, and we had several of these, some on each team, who would have to count. Therefore time was a factor. But here we were tied and we did not want to stop play. I figured we would go on and if forced to stop, well so be it.

There would be time enough for only a sixth inning, but barely. Mario Ellis was going all the way for the Giants, pitching very well, and David Baker was going the distance for the Pirates.

Rapt officer spectators

As it turned out, or at least to my way of thinking, the attempted suicide squeezes attempted earlier in the game played a factor in the outcome of the game--this little fact was in the minds of the Giants, being managed by Frankie. There was high interest in the game and we had more spectators than usual. I noticed a number of correctional officers standing around watching as well. One Lower yard officer, new to me, was leaning against the fence by the third base coaching box where I was. I could tell he was rooting for the Pirates and I had a notion he would let the game run until it was decided, within reason.

Top of the sixth inning

Baker got the first batter out, then a base hit, then a walk, then a strike out. Two outs. Time was flying by and the close B custody players would have to be counted soon, which meant the game would be over. But Red Casey was now due up and I have seen him hit a couple of clutch home runs over the short right field fence. I called time and approached the umpire, Nick Bauer. I wanted Red walked intentionally, signaled that and Red went down to first loading the bases. I was standing close to home plate by then and pointed directly at Deuce, who was in the on-deck circle, the # 4 hitter, and said—“I want to pitch to Deuce.” Probably I shouldn’t have done it but I did it get him to thinking too much about the situation. There was an eerie kind of silence now over the whole of the proceedings—the game was on the line. As I walked back to the dugout, I called out to David on the mound, “Try to make this quick.”

His first pitch was high and inside, perfect, Deuce weakly swung at it and grounded it right to Wolf at first. Easy out. End of inning. Deuce had been the hottest Giants hitter for a month and could have popped one over the right field fence easily—probably the biggest and strongest of all the players. Instead, the Pirates had a chance to win, could not lose now, only tie at minimum, but nobody wanted a tie.

Bottom of the sixth inning

Israel was to lead the inning off—how ironic. I spoke to him before he stepped in, and as a left hander, I said to look for a pitch middle in and try to hit it over the right field fence. It was 5 minutes to 8pm, and the game should have been called by Nick and he held his peace.

Israel worked it to a full count and in the process had swung twice and looked awful each time. I was already quite anxious and the seemingly endless at bat did not help. Then he laced the 3 balls 2 strikes pitch just inches over the head of the third baseman, barely fair, it sliced into the left field corner for a stand-up double.

Now, Kevin Henry was up. Quiet man, big, strong, better than average player, liked by all, a black man, about 25 years old, and he had been playing right field this game. As I had with Israel, I spoke to Henry (he goes by his last name as though it were his first) just before he stepped in to hit and told him to try to drive the first pitch over the right field fence if he could.

The first pitch Mario delivered was a curve ball low and away. It got by Johnny and went to the back stop; Israel took third. Now the game could be won with an out, a passed ball, or a squeeze.

The Giants brought the infield in, first and third up real close. Mario was visibly pressured now. The Pirates were a pitch away from winning the game. Mario made a good pitch under the circumstances, high and outside, but Henry reached out with those big arms of his and popped the ball toward right field.

Israel had started down the line toward home but I yelled for him to tag up. He did and quickly. He was poised with one foot on the third base bag to charge in to home after the catch. But the ball drifted farther and farther as though the wind was not blowing until it was gone—a home run. Steve Negrete could not reach it and would later say it was only a double. However it went down in the books, in my mind it was a home run. Whatever it was, home run or double, it won the game.

Complete with jumping and screaming

It was like the final game of the World Series. Jumping and screaming, we all ran out to greet Henry, big broad smile on his face as he circled the bases. We were waiting for him as he trotted down the third base line. He jumped on the plate with us all crowding around just like on television.

David Baker had us all come out to the mound, a usual thing for him to do, and he gave an emotional, but very brief statement about trusting in Jesus then closed with a short prayer, then, one, two, three, Pirates—and the scramble began to pack up, get off the field, and retreat back to either North Block or H Unit. It was 8pm.

As I was leaving the huddle on the mound, Frankie Smith came up to me, shook hands, and said, “Good game.” A fine gesture from a good man.

My sense of it is that the ball game will be a cherished memory for many of us—Giants and Pirates alike will remember the day well, a pleasant time in a cold and windy place.

Kent Philpott
August 28, 2009

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San Quentin Baseball Team 2010

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