The crack of the bat deafened the sound of the gun range as the San Quentin baseball diamond auditioned residents for the San Quentin A’s team’s 27th consecutive season.
During spring tryouts, the prison fell victim to COVID-19. Players and coaches were locked away as rotating closures of cell blocks threatened this year’s schedule.
But the consecutive-season streak continued because one single practice game was played when participants from hardball and softball suited up. This game represented the only competition during a year of hard work, where practices occurred without any games. A no-visitation policy kept visiting squads out the past year.
This year’s schedule is threatened again due to COVID-19 closures.
Annually, 25 teams visit to compete. “Administration approved two teams and hopefully another two will get approved,” said outside manager Michael Kremer. Raphaele Casele, assistant to the Chief Deputy Warden, traditionally processes visits for 700 sports volunteers per year.
The 2019 team returned this spring for a new season and planned a June start. Now, most of the season’s regular schedule is lost through the second lockdown, which ended in August and threatens the team’s hopes for any outside team to visit. The visitations would greatly reenergize the 102-year-old tradition.
San Quentin’s 2019 team had a 35-game winning streak and an unprecedented record of 38-2.
Tryouts restarted in August let manager Richard “Coach Will” Williams acknowledge his returning players, who showed more perseverance than any team he’s ever coached. “Last year, practicing two to four days per week without the guarantee of any games, and now practicing just between the players in their own cell blocks, shows a lot of dedication,” said Williams.
Williams’ adjusted expectations still do not guarantee any player a spot on the team. “Coach” still demands players never lose sight of their top priority — preparing to go home. “Your family and programming comes first,” Williams said.
Players reviewed San Quentin baseball’s history. The sport started in 1902 as the first teams enjoyed road trips outside the prison walls to face opposing teams. Since then, SQ baseball is played inside the prison walls. The COVID outbreak of 2020 hit star player and new captain Chris “Max” Hickson. “Man, 2020, men were dying and families were scared to death…we willingly sacrificed for the good of our community. But this year is too much. The world, which includes San Quentin, has proved it needs sports.”
“Not returning and losing the opportunity for another record-setting season. We were going to go undefeated. Now all of our coaches advise focusing on going home. That is important, but no ball? This is terrible,” said infielder Kolby Southwood.
Tryouts allow incarcerated residents a chance to compete for the nation’s only 18 roster spots in any prison. Ready to pick the team, Coach Williams now promises a two-day audition before beginning play. “We know who we were going to keep… The additional tryouts give us one last chance to find any diamonds we may have missed,” said coach Rob Tyler.
In major league baseball, 24 players are on a team. This equates to 900 professional positions. The incarcerated population of approximately 2.3 million in the United States has only 18 positions to compete with outside clubs. All the positions are here at San Quentin.
“Our opportunity we take seriously,” said rookie pitcher Everett Wiley. “We are fortunate and work hard, knowing we are held to a higher standard.”
Team leader and new catcher Matt Negus stated the team’s ultimate goals and aspirations. “Remember, since outside coaches Michael Kremer and Steve Reichardt have taken over the organization, everyone eligible for parole has left, and no one has come back,” said Matt.
The coaches preach emotional intelligence, rehabilitation and humility through “The Grand Ole Game.” At the end of every game, all team members circle up with outside teams, sharing their rehabilitative stories and praying at game’s end. This ritual is led by the team’s spiritual leader, Elder Carrington “The Natural” Russelle. This circle is a restorative healing circle for inside and outside participants.
“Allowed to participate in a sport where no other prison in the nation does…,” said assistant manager Mike “The Body” Pulido. “I only hope we continue to appreciate what the administration does for us … as well as the volunteers who come in.”
Enduring and surviving 600 days of COVID-19 became the only competition that mattered to the entire world. Yet, after two years of quarantining, the men of SQ baseball eagerly await the return of outside competition to hear opening day umpires yell, “Play ball!”