Theo Fightmaster, General Manager
Rookie left-hander Jeff Conley barely moved from his seat on the bench. Manager Feh Lentini ricocheted around the exercise yard like a boy in a sandlot. The home plate umpire called strikes with the panache of a Broadway performer, wailing “that's a Rembrandt,” on every third strike. And what felt like 1,000 spectators — all clad in penitentiary blue — nonchalantly took in a ballgame on scrubby skin diamond at San Quentin Sate Prison on Thursday afternoon. The Stompers beat San Quentin Prison All-Stars 12-0 in a six-inning scrimmage, but the team took home far more than their first win of the exhibition season. The once in a lifetime, 3-hour experience will linger more for the context than the boxscore.
From the parking lot, veteran short stop Gered Mochizuki seemed the least excited about the game, but was on the field every pitch, and accumulated as large a cheering section as any player on either team. Reliever Mike Jackson Jr. got the attention of self-proclaimed prison “scouts,” as they identified his 90-MPH heater as “big league.” Rookie Infielder Danny Martinez couldn't stop using the word “awesome,” and catcher Andrew Parker was happy the only thing he received was pitches.
The prison’s basketball team scrimmaged down the left field line, playing Frogger with frozen ropes pulled foul. Two elderly Latino men played the guitar and harmonized in the native tongues, paying no head to the ball game taking place several feet away. One inmate managed the hand-operated scoreboard, and another named “Sparky” was the official score keeper.
A reporter, an inmate and a scribe from the San Quentin News, took in the game from the dugout, and showed off his byline and previous articles about other prison sports program, in-between getting quotes and color for his next story. During the informal interviews, he moved from the seated position on the bench to the ground each time the prison’s siren sounds. It happens about three times in the six innings Thursday.
The “home team” wore retired Spring Training uniforms donated by the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants. The Giants black mesh jerseys were a muted grey from years of dirt, sweat and sun. The chalk lines were drawn with pancake mix. “We use whatever we can get,” offers the coach.
“Is that cheaper than chalk?” Stompers General Manager Theo Fightmaster asked.
Coach: “We take donations.”
Fightmaster: “So do we.”
The San Quentin baseball season is about 35 games long. Only dozens are selected from more than 5,000 men who call the prison home. The 597 inmates on death row and those in isolation are not permitted to play.
“Thank you. You have no idea how much this means to the guys to face a team of your caliber,” said Elliott Smith, a real estate lawyer and civilian volunteer who helps run the program. “I hope you have a great season, beat the Pacifics, and come back next year.”
“To be able to provide even a few hours of variety to these guys is important,” Fightmaster said. “Baseball is our job, but seeing what the game, and this program means to these men, it's a great reminder of the spirit that lives within all of us who love the game of baseball.
“For a few hours they're ballplayers, not inmates. And I hope that helps them, regardless of what they may have done to get here.”
After the game, the teams shook hands, talked baseball and said their goodbyes. No one wanted to leave. Only 15 men even had the option.
Right-handed pitcher Gregory Paulino said goodbye to Pedro, a fellow native of the Dominican Republic, who struck up a lengthy conversation with Gregory on the home plate end of the Stompers first-base dugout, then followed his countrymen through the prison, continuing the conversation for as he was permitted.
“I’m one of the only guys from the Dominican in here,” Pedro said. “This is very special to me to speak with someone who is from where I am from.”
As the Stompers packed their bags, awaited their escort and schlepped out of the yard, past the “adjustment center,” and through the shadows of death row, one of the remaining inmates asked for a final score.
“Who won?” the inmate asked.
“You know we did, boss man,” beamed a grinning Lentini.
The team trickled out of the prison gates, realizing they were among a privileged few allowed to go home after the final out. The cool, foggy air and the spectacle of the Richmond Bridge, sparking in the sunset served as an instant reminder that though they were a mere couple hundred yards from the diamond, they were a lifetime away from the yard.