KALW has partnered with radio producers inside California's oldest prison to bring you the San Quentin Prison Report, a series of stories focusing on the experiences of these men, written and produced by those living inside the prison's walls.
When most of us think about baseball, we might imagine the game being played in parks, in school yards, or in stadiums, but we might not expect to see a game being played inside prison walls.
San Quentin Prison has two teams, the San Quentin Athletics and the San Quentin Giants. Last May, a professional minor league team — The San Rafael Pacifics — came to San Quentin to play hard ball against an all-star team of prisoners. Even though the players come from different circumstances, they all have one thing in common, the love of the game.
“When you walk in the first thing you see is a palm tree. Wasn't expecting that,” says San Rafael Pacifics player Colin Allen.
The palm tree he is referring to is located in the direction of center field slightly beyond the field of play in San Quentin's lower yard, which houses a baseball diamond. The yard is known as the field of dreams, because it was a dream come true for prisoners who wanted to play baseball here in prison.
The playing field is enclosed within a fence without bleachers, with nearby gun towers overseeing the entire prison yard.
A game like this has never happened before. It is the start of baseball season and the San Rafael Pacifics, a professional minor league baseball team, are here to play the San Quentin All-Stars. The All-Stars are the prison’s best players, hand-picked from their two teams, the San Quentin Giants and the San Quentin Athletics.
Elliot Smith, the head coach of the San Quentin Giants, explains, “The way we selected the All-Stars was based on the performance for the entire season.”
John Yaya Parrot, the head coach for the San Quentin Athletics, says the combination of the best players makes for a “very talented team.”
This is not the average prison sporting event. A cameraman from a local TV station, KTVU, radio broadcasters, and commentators are all here.
The atmosphere is charged with good cheer, high energy, and excitement. There is an outline of chalk on the field and about 400 spectators, predominantly prisoners. There are also around 50 outside guests, including a few women who arrived with the Pacifics, and they are all mingling with the prisoners. Some onlookers are positioned behind the backstop in both dugouts and standing behind the fence in the direction of first and third base. Others are watching from the back fence in the outfield.
The game starts with an opening ceremony. The players are lining up on the base lines and removing their caps for a prisoners’ rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then the teams acknowledge God in prayer. “And we just pray God that you can give us the right attitude, the right frame of mind,” says one San Quentin player.
Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's Public Information Officer, throws out the ceremonial first pitch, and the crowd cheers. Next, the Pacifics and the All-Stars take to the field with their game faces on.
The announcer blasts, “And the one-two pitch. And there's a swing, and a high fly ball to center field that should be a routine play, as Chris Marshall backs up and makes the catch at left center field for the first out of the ballgame.” Though the game is off to an exciting start, today is about more than winning or losing. It’s about the love of the game.
“Baseball to me is a game that really mimics life. So it feels really good being here and being with other guys that love the game like you do,” says Pacifics second baseman, Price Kendall.
San Quentin’s All-Stars second baseman, Christopher Smith, says this is a day of great significance. “It's monumental because it never happened before, San Quentin having an All-Stars game. The best players in the prison playing against these dudes who are supposed to be a minor league team, you know what I'm saying?”
Pacifics player Ross Pomerantz expresses a similar sentiment: “It's the opportunity of a lifetime. I don't know how many guys are going to get to say they came in here and played baseball at San Quentin. This is the type thing you tell your grandkids. This is much bigger than just going out and playing baseball. This is why we play, getting to do stuff like this.”
Next the announcer says, “Open stance and the next delivery is a swing and a high pop up on the infield. That should be a routine play to third baseman. The short stop going over the line, and making the catch is the shortstop Ke Lam. So two men gone on a fly and a pop up.”
Two All-Stars stand out to commentators, players, owners, and spectators alike. One of those players is the starting All-Stars pitcher, Jeff Dumont, who held the Pacifics without a hit for four innings.
The announcer says, “San Rafael Pacifics could not hit the San Quentin pitcher early on. Dumont got him one, two, three first inning. Yeah. In the second inning they managed to get a runner on board, but then a double play wiped that one out. And in the third inning they did get two men aboard on a walk and a hit batter, but again Dumont got out of that inning into the fourth inning. Struck out two more.”
The second standout player is Cleo Cloeman. The announcer explains: “2-0 delivery coming and then a fast ball, a fly ball, and a short right field. That's going to be a tough play. And the second baseman goes back, makes a brilliant catch, throws to second base for a double play. What a play by Cleo Cloeman. Wow.”
For most people at the field, this was the play of the day. It is the soft flare into short right field, which goes over Cloeman's head. He runs for the ball, dives, and makes an over-the-shoulder catch. Then he rolls over, springs to his feet, and throws to second base for a double play.
I ask Cloeman what this day means to him. “I feel like a kid in the candy store now. You know, I get a chance to play the game I love man, and give it all, and leave it on the field. I just want to thank God, man, for this blessing. Just to be around these gentlemen here today.”
Both teams pitch a no hitter for the first four innings, but by the bottom of the ninth inning the San Quentin All-Stars are losing big, 17 to 3.
“Two outs and there's a ground ball hit to third,” says the announcer. “Throw to second base in time for the force, and the ball game is over.”
Though the All-Stars lost, the general consensus is that, as one spectator remarks, “It was a success for both teams.”
Most of all, the community from the free side of the prison wall is able to see a very different side of the prisoners than what is often portrayed in mainstream media.
“I came in with a set of expectations at what it was like here at San Quentin and it's very different than what I thought,” says Eugene Lupario, managing partner of the Pacifics. “I'm proud to have brought our team here, and I hope that we do it every year.”
The field of dreams is one place where the prisoners are not defined by their crimes. Today they are San Quentin All-Star baseball players.
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