Originally Published: The Press Democrat
Bob Padecky, Columnist
A guard in the tower Saturday watched a wall cleared and did not raise his weapon; a baseball left the field, not an inmate. Three Sonoma Stompers batters were plunked by fastballs but no one rushed the mound; a convict was standing on it. Fifteen men were sitting on the warning track in left field but were not asked to move for their safety; in San Quentin this is as safe as safe can get.
This is baseball inside a state prison as famous as any, a prison that has or has held among the most infamous inmates in American crime: Charles Manson, Scott Peterson, Ramon Salcido, Richard Allen Davis, Richard Ramirez.
“It always crosses your mind, to look up (at the surrounding buildings),” said Stompers first baseman Daniel Baptista. “Who’s in there? Who don’t we see?”
In front of the seen and unseen the Stompers played their last exhibition game of the spring training and it was going to be unlike any other. That much was certain before they gained entry, when prison guard J. Barr meticulously examined all the team’s gear, from shoes to gloves to bats, a happy camper he was and would remain “as long as you don’t bring anything in here that could wind up in my neck.”
If an inmate asks for a batting glove, refuse. It’s a felony if you give it up. Never once did the Stompers give up the watchful eye, not that could. The 16 players and three team officials passed a memorial at the entrance that honored 10 prison guards who died in the line of duty.
Through a courtyard they continued, past Death Row up there to the far left, curling to the right and down a small hill to a sight that won’t be forgotten: a baseball diamond watched by guards in five towers. The ball field occupied about half of the recreation yard, its dirt infield scrubbed clean and smooth. Sea gulls and pigeons everywhere, inmates along the warning track, a card table in right center field — its participants not scared of getting hit by a measly baseball.
As the Stompers reached the field, even before they warmed up, inmate Pedro Espinal found Stompers pitcher Gregory Paulino. When the Stompers played at San Quentin in 2015 Paulino learned one inmate was from his native Dominican Republic. Paulino and Espinal became friends, wrote letters to each other over the past year.
“I haven’t been to my home country since 1974,” said Espinal, burglary his crime. “He tells me of my home country. He tells me of what life is like on the outside.”
Life on the outside. That’s what the Stompers are to the inmates. The outsiders, the people from the other place, where I used to be. They are young and free to come and go and the inmates welcomed them as if they were a homecoming parade.
“Here, we (inmates) are objectified by administration and staff, made to feel like second-class citizens,” said Isaiah Thompson of East Oakland, in for 16 years on a triple robbery conviction. “But they (Stompers) remind us that we’re still citizens, that not all of us are bad guys.”
Not a large percentage of the 3,922 inmates are allowed on the yard. Death Row inmates and inmates in the Assignment Center are not allowed. Only the inmates who wear blue, who have shown the ability to co-exist without violence, are permitted in the rec yard.
“I am required to tell you,” said San Quentin liaison and coach Elliott Smith, “that in the case of a raid we will not negotiate for your release if you become a hostage. But I also will tell say you have a greater chance of winning the lottery (than being held hostage). Talk to them. They want interaction.”
They want to get a whiff of the outside. That’s what boys in blue wanted. In some cases they made that desire heard loud and proud. Every time a player for the Sonoma Stompers reached third base, the San Quentin third baseman ran over to the runner, pumped his hand, gave a compliment. Every time. Nineteen times to be exact. David Fraire is just four months removed from nine years in solitary confinement.
“I’m getting to be a human being again,” Fraire said. What he was before, he just shook his head. Fraire wasn’t sure if he could function outside of the Security Housing Unit. Solitary does that to a person, strips away identity, not to mention social skills. Fraire was scared. He was alone for 23 hours a day, for nine years.
Fraire, convicted of murder and torture, was using his third base gathering spot as a learning tool. Yes, he was loud, exuberant beyond belief. The Stompers never blinked, shook his hand, thanked him for the courtesy of recognition. The Sonoma guys quickly found the game to be the elixir they needed – and that the prisoners needed as a well. A sport is an escape from the real world and baseball was that for the inmates. Baseball, on the other hand, is also was a welcome reminder of the real world for the Stompers.
“It’s almost euphoric when our players leave the prison,” said Theo Fightmaster, the Stompers general manager. “They see what they see inside here, people with a lack of freedom, and then they go to In-N-Out Burger on the way home. We have some players who haven’t found host families yet in Sonoma and have to sleep on air mattresses. After they play at San Quentin the air mattresses don’t feel that uncomfortable.”
The game went without a hitch. Baptista was Babe Ruth, hitting three homers. The Stompers won, 16-0. A large inmate, who otherwise must spend a lot of time by himself, offered a non-stop oratory from behind the backstop. Stompers reliever Austin Delmotte, who bears a striking facial resemblance to Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, was continually called “Kershaw”. This guy was not ignorant of the game. He threw out Bop Roberts and Randy Johnson and Dusty Baker and Steve Balcony out there, sometimes for no apparent reason other than it had been two minutes since he last opened his mouth.
A moment of pause did occur. Three of them in fact. Three Stompers were hit. Three Stompers took a breath, glanced down and did the only mature thing to do: run to first base.
“That’s one thing I learned from coming here last year,” Baptista said. “Don’t argue with the umpire. Don’t argue calls. Don’t do anything but keep your head down. Yes sir, that pitch was a good pitch. Don’t make anything complicated.”
The home plate ump was an inmate. So was the umpire on the bases. Inmates were sitting on a wall in right wall, bodies in play. Inmates were talking smack. The fans were inmates. As for home field advantage the San Quentin Giants-A’s have the greatest home field advantage of all time. The Giants-A’s play 40 games a year at home. You might say attendance is steady.
“This is the most memorable game I’ll ever experience,” said Stompers bench coach Chris Matthews.
Why? You don’t go to prison to play a game. You don’t go to prison unless someone like Fightmaster says it’s going to be a good idea, that you’ll get more out of it than you can imagine. And that there’s no way to make mom completely comfortable until it’s over.
“I’m going to call her,” said corner outfielder Ethan Szabo. “She wants to hear how it went.”
She wants to hear her son’s voice. After all, San Quentin is the only prison in the United States that has such a baseball arrangement. To those who raise an eyebrow in suspicion, to those others who question whether this should be permitted, Eddie Herena, 33, in for a murder, provides the answer in just six words.
“What good do you think comes of this?” I asked.
“I’m sitting here talking to you,” Herena said. For him and other inmates baseball just wasn’t a game Saturday. It was a portal. Players, free men, crossed over and came to us. One day, Herena dreams, he’d like to return the kindness.