On a hot and dry Sunday morning, a three-car caravan of players from Curley's Bar and Grill slow-pitch softball team of Signal Hill pulled up to the Federal Prison Camp on old U.S. Highway 395 in Boron, 30 miles west of Barstow.
Nearby, across a stretch of barren Mojave Desert landscape, was a dusty, wind-swept diamond called Veterans Field.
Thirteen men, all but three natives of the Southeast and Long Beach areas, were about to play a double-header against a pair of all-star teams chosen from more than 520 inmates.
Most of the Curley's players did not know what to expect on that recent day. But they were familiar with one inmate, Bill Simpson. Simpson attended Lakewood High, where he was an all-Southern Section outfielder on the Lancers' 1976 CIF championship team. A former No. 1 draft pick of the Texas Rangers, he has served nearly four years of a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Simpson was the subject of a Times story in April that told of his frustration at never making it to the major leagues and how he became a drug courier for a major cocaine cartel. The inmate softball league was mentioned in the story.
Scott Denhartog, a Curley's player and a 1986 Lakewood High graduate, suggested that a game be arranged with the inmates. He pointed out that more than half a dozen of Curley's players had attended Lakewood and several more had gone to nearby Millikan High.
"I'd like to meet Simpson," he said. "Everyone from Lakewood knows about him."
Denhartog's teammate, Toby Sherman, had been a classmate and neighbor of Simpson. Last March, when Sherman and a Times reporter visited Simpson, a prison guard encouraged them to play the inmates in a softball game.
"We get teams in here from time to time," the guard had said. "We have some good players in here. You would have a tough time."
The prison--a camp carved out of an old military base--has no towers or gun-toting guards. Its inmates are small-time drug offenders, white-collar criminals and first-time offenders. Former state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya of Whittier, convicted of extortion and racketeering, has become the camp's most famous ward.
Inmates work during the day and pass the rest of the time playing softball or lifting weights.
In August, Denhartog's suggestion was put to a vote of the team, which has players from age 22 to 36. The vote was unanimous to make the visit.
"Sounds like a party," said shortstop Tim Callahan, a new member of the team from Missouri.
It took two months to arrange the games. Charlie Honeycutt, the manager and pitcher and a 1979 Lakewood High graduate, was required to send the prison each player's birth date, driver's license, Social Security and home telephone numbers. The prison did background checks on everyone.
Right fielder Mike (Chip) Anderson almost did not make the trip. The background check kicked out four Mike Andersons with the same birthday, three of whom had felony convictions. The Curley's player turned out to be the clean one, but he took a lot of ribbing, anyway.
The team, which had lost the city of Signal Hill championship several days before, met at Honeycutt's Lakewood home at 8 a.m. and arrived at the prison at 10:45. The games were scheduled for noon and 2 p.m.
Paul Mohr, a prison recreation supervisor, met the team in the parking lot. The adjacent visiting room was bustling, as it always does on Sundays, and the players were escorted past the visitors' child-care playground to the Control (headquarters) Building. They had to show driver's licenses and sign a waiver declaring they were not in possession of controlled substances, cameras or other prohibited items on a long list.
Several rules had been established. The players could wear only what they were going to play in. In the heat, several men donned tank tops. Each player was allowed to bring one bat, one glove and one ball onto the field. No photos were allowed.
Anderson, third baseman Tim Landry and outfielder John Arnold were allowed to keep bags of sunflower seeds. Ron Hall brought in a can of snuff. Several players kept cigarettes.
But Mohr told the players: "If the inmates ask you if they can have sunflower seeds, tell them they have to ask us first."
Mohr and the inmates made a big deal about the games.
"We've been looking forward to this day for some time," he said, explaining that Curley's was the first team to visit in the four months he had been there. "Some time ago, I understand, a couple of Marine teams came in here and really beat the inmate teams badly."
Simpson, wearing a black tank top and sweat pants torn at the knees, appeared at home plate prior to the start of the games.
"I want you guys to know that we appreciate what you are doing for us," he said.
The visiting players stood along the first base line of the all-dirt field for the national anthem, sung by two inmates. Inmates lined the field from home plate to beyond the left-field fence. Three sections of bleachers in center field were almost full. Inmates manned the wood scoreboard.