Robert Polzin aka “Big Smooth” is one of the most active persons in sports at San Quentin and he will tell you it’s not simply for the love of the game.
“It’s hard for some guys to learn things out of a book. It’s often the real life situations that help us develop real life skills,” said Polzin.
Polzin plays baseball for the SQ Oakland Athletics, the SQ Kings, and he even coaches the “Hardtimers” softball team. He said coaching and playing are equally enjoyable and help him further develop coping skills.
Polzin is the youngest of five children from a small farming town in New Prague, Minn. He came to California in 1980 and lived in the Bay Area most of his life.
The 46-year-old Polzin found himself back in prison on a parole violation for fighting. In order for the lifer to be released back to San Jose by a parole board, he has to deal with his anger issues first. He said he has taken several self-help programs like Victim Offender Education Groups (VOEG), Next Step, Non-Violent Communication, Guiding Rage Into Power, Addiction Recovery Counselor (ARC), Alliance For Change, and Restorative Justice.
He considers sports as a self-help group as well.
“It is sports that allow me to see value in myself,” Polzin said.
Polzin arrived at San Quentin in 2017 and put on a baseball uniform. It was “Red,” a friend Polzin knew from another prison, that nicknamed him “Big Smooth” for his effortless style of fielding the ball, which can be difficult for a big guy over six feet tall.
Polzin loves playing first base, right field, and he likes to pitch. He likes the camaraderie and sense of community he experiences among the many ethnicities out on the field
“Playing sports is about being part of something bigger than yourself,” said Polzin.
He sees it as an opportunity to reach out to the younger generation—to say I’m here to help you get through the rough times. What Polzin learns in his self-help groups, he shares out on the field. It helps him and others to develop the tough skin needed to deal with hecklers, losing and not living up to your best potential.
“Whether you do it for exercise or releasing the negative energy, playing sports helps make you feel like you matter,” Polzin said. “People depend on you and you don’t want to let them down.”
Polzin finds it “humbling” when people walk up to him after games and say, “Thank you for helping me keep my cool out on the field today.”
Polzin has always found himself in management or supervisory skill jobs. Before the Hardtimers, he coached Little League on the streets and started several softball teams at other prisons.
This baseball season, Polzin hopes to become a better hitter, a better offensive player and a better mentor to the younger guys on the Athletics. As coach of the “Hardtimers” he has already accomplished the goal of getting them more games and a longer season.
“We like to win, but it’s not always about winning and losing,” said Polzin. “It’s also about meeting and getting to know the visiting teams who come in from the streets.”
According to Polzin, the visiting teams remind you that you are actually human, that there is a real world out there waiting for you to return. They provide spiritual and emotional support.
“The visiting teams keep you connected to the outside world and become a great support network for those of us who need it,” he said.
Polzin imagines a prison without sports would be, “a yard full of people fighting for space. Violence would increase. It’s that age old adage, ‘an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’”
Polzin admits that he always knew the power of playing sports, but he lost focus.
“You have to keep applying the principles and coping skills that make us a success in life,” Polzin said. “We cannot allow ourselves to stop doing good and practicing to become better people.”