A unifying field of dreams

The biggest question of the day was: Is there a fundamental difference between the guys in the drab Dodger grays and the guys in the colorful Giants home uniforms?

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Courtesy of San Quentin State Prison

The note with a subject line “The Q – Summer Prison Baseball” came out of, shall we say, left field, right after New Year’s.

Guys, Each year we play a doubleheader at The Q and I’m organizing the trip this year.

We usually fly in Friday night, play a doubleheader of real baseball on Saturday and head home Sunday morning.

You must pass an FBI background check to enter the prison. We’ve had guys late on child support, DUIs, etc., and the warden denied their entrance to play ball.

It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Let me know.

Regards,

Aron Levinson

Aron is a distant cousin of mine from L.A. with whom I had recently become acquainted. It turns out we share a love of baseball, and when he was in Boulder recently I invited him to play a game on my fast-pitch softball team. Little did I know that when Aron and I executed a perfect 8-6-2 (centerfield to shortstop to catcher) relay play to nail a runner at the plate that evening, I had laid the groundwork for one of the most profound experiences of my life. As Aron predicted, it was, indeed, unforgettable.

“The Q” is code for California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison. Located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, San Quentin is the oldest prison in California, having opened in 1852. The inmate population of more than 4,000 includes all of California’s 700-some death row convicts, making it the largest death row facility in the United States.

San Quentin has the dubious distinction of being the location of all prison executions of men in California, and more than 400 executions have taken place there over the years by hanging, asphyxiation (gas chamber) and, most recently, by lethal injection. Current notable inmates include David Carpenter (the “Trailside Killer”) and Scott Peterson (convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn child, Conner, in 2002), and among former prisoners are such recognizable names as Neal Cassady, Eldridge Cleaver, Henry Cowell, Merle Haggard, Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson.

During recent years, San Quentin has also become known for its unique and controversial baseball program. Inmates have been allowed to play baseball at the prison since the 1920s, and an aerial view of the facility shows just how prominent a feature the ball field is. For the past 20 years, teams from the outside have been invited to enter the prison and play semipro-quality baseball games against the two prison teams, the San Quentin Giants and the San Quentin A’s. The two prison teams are comprised of first-rate ballplayers who must meet eligibility requirements and try out for one of the teams. Inmates who make the teams are outfitted in genuine Giants or A’s uni forms, donated by the major league teams, and play two games a week during the four-month season against teams who are willing to spend an afternoon sharing a baseball diamond with convicted felons, about half of whom are serving life sentences for serious crimes, often murder.

During the interminable six-month lead-up to our July 20 date at The Q, the 15 players who comprised our team engaged in a steady stream of email correspondence that ranged from purely logistical to deeply existential. Throughout it all was an undercurrent of one-liners that suggested the need to diminish anxiety through the use of humor.

Given that our opponents would be donning Giants and A’s uniforms, and out of deference to the fact that most of our team was from the L.A. area, we would be the Dodgers, replete with Dodger caps and gray jerseys and pants to distinguish ourselves as the visiting team.

“We will wear our Dodger grays because if you wear your whites, you might stay the night for eggs on Sunday,” quipped our leader, Aron.

Adding to my anxiety were the frequent allusions to the issue of race, which plays a very significant role on the other side of the ubiquitous barbed wire-topped dingy white walls that surround San Quentin. We would learn during our time in the prison yard that inmates stick to one of four groups: White, Black, Hispanic or Asian. Indeed, it was reported to us by one of the numerous friendly prisoners we freely conversed with that day that a white pitcher we faced had gotten into a heap of trouble by choosing an Asian lover. He was consequently “pressured” to switch teams from the Giants to the A’s.

“I suggest you get yourself a Dodger jersey with no name on the back or an old one on clearance,” advised Coach Levinson. “It’s creepy when they call you by name, considering there are plenty that don’t like us for simply being Jewish.”

The next day I went online and ordered a Dodger gray jersey with the name “Gonzalez” on the back.

After
the initial slew of anxietyreducing emails had ended, the first
existential thread began with a note from our shortstop, Ricardo (Rico)
Rodriguez. Rico grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods of East L.A. —
The Maravilla Projects — and, although he never joined a gang, many of
his friends were gang members, and he twice witnessed a friend being
killed by a gang-directed bullet. Despite the odds that were stacked
against him, Rico managed to escape from the projects and go to college,
ultimately becoming an architect and starting his own architectural
firm. One of his accomplishments as an architect was to develop
innovative designs to make the projects of his youth more livable and
less subject to crime. Against that backdrop, Rico was having second
thoughts about playing ball at The Q, which speak to the central
controversy surrounding the San Quentin baseball program:

“I’ve
participated in tournaments where we go out of state and help out kids
and the less fortunate by providing a clinic and playing
against
other teams, but for the first time I am playing with convicted
criminals who have killed innocent families and destroyed people’s
lives. Why would I give them the pleasure of something that is so dear
to me [as] playing the game of baseball? They are in prison for doing
something so very wrong and have been cut off from the world and deserve
to be where they are at with no outside benefits. So why are we doing
this?”

Rico received a number of thoughtful replies, ranging from selfish to altruistic in nature:

“It’s an opportunity to play real ball in a unique setting that will spark every emotion you have from excitement to fear.”

“Between
the lines it’s competitive baseball and you’ll forget where you are
until the siren goes off and you have to go to the ground or risk
getting shot from the guard tower.”

“It
will be a part of your baseball resume that most people can’t fathom. I
tell the ‘Q Story’ at client meetings, family dinners, airports, etc.,
and it’s an amazing icebreaker.”

“I had a heated debate in the office and at home about this trip and baseball won out.”

“My sister is a victim’s advocate in Orange [County] and she’s all for the baseball adventure because of what I get out of it.”

“It
is an unparalleled opportunity that we all have to broaden our
perspectives and to enjoy the benefits that will inevitably accompany
such a unique experience. And when all’s said and done you have a day
that will prove to be not only memorable and transformative but that we
can all feel really proud to have been a part of.”

“I
do not believe we are committing an error by providing an enjoyable
diversion for them on a single Saturday afternoon. Rather, we are
engaging in an act of charity, much like rolling down our car window and
handing a five-dollar bill to someone who is homeless and hungry, or
like holding the door for someone in a wheelchair who is struggling to
get around.”

“I
know at least one person who I have helped put in that prison. My heart
does not bleed for any of those guys. Do I believe that some of the men
at San Quentin have found redemption? That they are sorry for the
crimes they committed? Yes, I do. My hope would always be that those who
commit a crime would be rehabilitated by the system.”

“If
I help bring joy to a criminal for a few moments, I can live with that.
If I bring joy to a guy that made a mistake, snapped, lost it for the
first time, and has admitted his sins, I’m glad.”

After receiving this input from his teammates, Rico decided to play.

“After
reading all your emails, two words come to mind: empathy and
compassion. Thanks to you, these words can be my guides. I love this
sport; it has taught me a lot of life’s lessons and I don’t want to
cheat myself.”

Anyone
who has lived in the San Francisco Bay area knows that “summer” has a
different definition there, and the morning of July 20 was a classic
example. As “Gonzalez” and the rest of the team gathered in the lower
parking lot just outside San Quentin State Prison, we were greeted with a
chilly wind rolling off a foggy San Francisco Bay, which, combined with
the widespread feeling of nervousness, caused a shiver beneath our
Dodger grays.

We had
all passed FBI background checks and were instructed to bring nothing
into the prison with us, except our gloves, baseballs, batting helmets,
four wood bats, water and our drivers licenses, which were shown
repeatedly to the guards at the checkpoints leading in and out of the
prison. Finally, the heavy metal gate slammed behind us and we found
ourselves walking down a ramp and into the prison yard, arriving at the
ball field where the home team was already engaged in their warm-ups.

But
this was no ordinary ball field, and this was no ordinary home team. We
were meeting convicted felons — some rapists and murderers — to play
ball on a field immediately adjacent to the blocks of 6-foot by 8-foot
cells where many of them will live for the rest of their lives! A wave
of conflicting emotions washed over me. The same feelings of empathy and
compassion that enabled Rico to be our shortstop that day were doing
battle inside of me with the sense of outrage at what these men
masquerading as ball players had done to be living out their lives, day
by day in this, this place.

How
was a guy like me — a guy who had flown here from Colorado, stayed in a
$250-a-night hotel and driven to the prison in a rented Kia Soul that
was waiting for me safely outside the metal gates and barbed wire — to
focus on playing a game of baseball?

Suddenly,
the game seemed inconsequential. I had some big questions to answer.
And yet, over the course of the hours to come, a prison baseball field
would become a “Petri dish” in which the conflicting thoughts and
emotions would grow and reach a resolution that can only occur when we
remove ourselves from the dream we live in during our daily lives and
place ourselves in a position to taste, to really taste, the way life
can be for those who have not been similarly blessed.

Despite
the emotional trappings, my Dodger teammates and I are pretty damn
comfortable on a baseball field, even this baseball field, and as we
went through our own warm-up drills — stretching, running, playing
catch, infield practice — the differences between this ball field and
every other ball field I have ever played on during my five-decade
“career” as a ballplayer began to melt away. There were two dugouts, two
foul lines, a diamond with bases 90 feet apart surrounded by a grassy
outfield, and a mound on which a pitcher stands in the role of the
instigator of the ultimate one-on-one confrontation in all of sports.
There was no fundamental difference between this ball field and the one I
first played on at the age of 7 when the ball was placed on a rubber
stand, a “tee,” and a strike was assessed if the bat struck the tee
instead of the ball.

But
the biggest question lingered throughout the day and took both games of
our doubleheader to answer: Is there a fundamental difference between
the guys in the drab Dodger grays and the guys in the colorful Giants
home
uniforms? Or, put another way: If the 15 of us had been born into and
lived the life circumstances of the 15 of them, would we (any of us) be
the ones living in a prison, and would they (any of them) be the ones
driving off in their rented cars to have beers and burgers at the Marin
Brewing Co. at the end of the day?

This
question was answered gradually but unquestionably as we got to know
some of the inmates during the course of what turned out to be as much a
day-long visit to The Q’s prison yard as a doubleheader of baseball. We
sat, side-by-side with convicted criminals, heard their stories and
shared philosophies in a way that none of us had ever experienced in a
baseball context before. I spoke at length to a man who had served 17
years of a life sentence for being part of a robbery gone bad that left a
victim murdered (he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger). He will be
eligible for parole in six years and dreams of the day when he has paid
the price for his mistake and is a free man again. Another prisoner who
is doing time for identity theft shared with me that he had enrolled in
an online Shakespeare course and planned to become an actor upon his
release. Listening to the deep, rich tones of his voice, I could better
imagine him on stage in a Shakespearean role than tucked away for the
night in his tiny cell.

Among
all of the inmates I spoke to that day, there wasn’t one who failed to
impress me with the humanity we shared. There wasn’t one who failed to
express a sense of remorse for the mistakes he has made in his life,
just as I do. And that was really the turning point for me. Because who
among us has not erred? Who has not spoken angrily to his children,
failed to inform the cashier that too much change was given, stolen a
place in line when nobody was looking, lied to an employer about being
sick to get a day off work, looked the other way while witnessing an
injustice?

If there
was any remaining doubt in my mind that there is no fundamental
difference between the players, the men, that comprised the teams that
played baseball at San Quentin State Prison that day, it was erased when
the Dodgers and the Giants met on the mound once the game had ended
(which, by the way, the Giants won 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth).
There were hugs all around and a general sense of camaraderie among all
of us that was inescapably heartwarming and deeply emotional (I
literally cried behind my sunglasses as the two teams gathered to take
photos). “We understand that you all traveled long distances to play
ball with us today, and we want you to know how much we appreciate it,”
offered a member of the Giants.

Those that commit crimes are not “evil people.” Rather, they are people who have had such a rough go in this life that they did “evil things.” At
their core they are human beings that are, on an essential level, no
different than the rest of us. Now, let me quickly add that I believe
that people who do bad things are responsible for their actions and
should experience the consequences, even consequences as horrible as
those being endured by the inmates we faced on the San Quentin baseball
diamond. Still, I do not believe we committed an error by providing an
enjoyable diversion for these men on a single Saturday afternoon.
Rather, we engaged in an exercise that models well the way that we
habitually engage in “us and them” thinking and can, indeed must,
transform that thinking if we are to discover the truth of the human
experience. Whether it be differences in religion, gender, race, color,
political party, sexual preference or whether the kinds of mistakes we
have made in our lives are considered serious enough to get us locked up
for a while, we are all fundamentally the same.

Playing
baseball for a day at The Q was a profoundly unifying experience that
shed a bright light on the common ground we all share. The visiting
Dodgers were fortunate to have an experience that few have had. But
unifying fields of dreams can be found in every walk of life, and one
never knows when such an opportunity might present itself. We all need
to commit to search for our own “baseball” and our personal “San
Quentin,” so that we can escape from the prison of judgment that we all
live in. For whether we realize it or not, we are all imprisoned to one
degree or another, individually and collectively, by shackles just as
binding as the ones that hold my fellow ballplayers at San Quentin.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com