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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."

Tales from San Quentin

San Quentin

Highlights of the 2010 Baseball Season:
First Day of Tryouts

New Hopefuls Arrive

February 27 turned out to be a cold and rainy day, but we went on with the tryouts anyway. About forty men came out. We began by playing catch—pairing the players up. Our coaches walked around with clip boards, noting the ones who could at least throw and catch. What caught my eye was that there were a whole flock of new young guys, mostly black, and some looked like ball players. There were a few guys I cut on that first day—anyone would be able to see that baseball was not their game. There were five of these, older convicts, who wanted to be part of this most elite group in the prison, a team that had received national attention more than a few times. Making cuts is the most unpleasant part of the process for me, but as head coach I must do it. It is not enough to post a list of the people who are on the team. I had learned over the years that guys took it far too hard from a written list. Maybe I shouldn’t care about that and save myself some sleep, but I have still have some compassion.

The Hard-Soft Switch

The trick is not to become hard inside. It has been said that I am hard on the outside but soft on the inside. This may be an overly simplistic description; I like to think I am more complex than that. Surely I am somewhat soft on the outside as well, or the people I pastor at the church would not tolerate me. And if I were really hard on the inside, then I would I would probably not be aware enough of grace and mercy. Jesus did save me from my sins, which were many, so I know to some degree what it is to be loved and forgiven. This I have to give to those guys who have been rejected and neglected and made to feel unlovable. Hard inside? I am hoping to be tough when it is necessary, but I am also hoping my little light shines through anyway.

Prison is a good thing!
SQ players behind the fence

Many, if not most of the men I have known at San Quentin need to be right where they are. Some of the world’s worst offenders are at the prison, and we do not want them out among us. Prisons are a wonderful institution; no one would be safe without them. That’s right, I am no bleeding-heart liberal, but I have been accused of coddling the convicts merely by making it possible for them to play the game of baseball. Many people want the convicts to be doing hard time, chain gang stuff, to pay for their crimes. I certainly understand, to some degree, the feelings of those who have been impacted by crime. I have been so impacted. But we have hundreds of thousands of men and women in jail, and many of them will eventually get out. Then what? Maybe something good does happen in prison, something that would never take place anywhere else, that changes a heart and mind. I have seen real change happen, over and over—a deep down, inside-out change in a person that could only come through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Only in Jesus can someone experience what it is like to be free of guilt and shame.  
Beyond that spiritual reality, I know for a fact that if I were incarcerated in a prison somewhere for any number of years, I would love to be able to play this game I love and have identified with ever since my childhood. This is another motivator for my coaching and managing prison baseball.

There but for the grace of God...

The men at San Quentin have much in common with “regular folk,” and I include myself in that category. There were times in my life when I could have committed a crime. As a teen ager I made some really stupid moves, some of which did put me in contact with the police. It happened quickly, and it could have ended badly and irrevocably.

Most of the convicts I have known got in trouble when they were “drunk, stoned, and stupid,” which is a phrase we often use. It may be offensive to those who might identify with this, but most of us are not too reality-oriented as teenagers. It was the commission of a horrible crime as an eighteen or nineteen year old under the influence of some substance or other that landed several of the men on the Giants in prison.

My time at San Quentin

My history of going into San Quentin first began in 1968. At first I taught the New Testament in the Protestant Chapel’s School of Religion. The new prison chaplain then ended that school and switched it to the Yokefellow program. At that time most of the convicts were white, tough guys—real criminals and sociopathic types. Then in 1972 came the George Jackson shoot-out, and all programs ceased for a long while. In 1985 I started back again, and by this time the population of San Quentin had changed completely. Now there was a large number of blacks, some Hispanics, very few Asians, and still many whites. In 2010 there are far fewer whites, more Hispanics, and a large increase of blacks. To a man the convicts will tell you it was the drug culture that did it, and it lodged most strongly among those on the margins of society, the so-called underclass, consisting mostly of blacks and Hispanics. I am no sociologist or criminologist, but anecdotally I am aware of how things have changed.

Kent Philpott

Read more in the September issue.

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San Quentin Baseball Team 2010

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Last Update: 2012-10-20 10:58