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COLUMN ONE

The Bad Boys of Summer

Surrounded by armed guards and high walls, the San Quentin Giants, an inmate baseball team, always have the home-field advantage.

April 29, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — They're a ragtag baseball team that plays all home games, 20 men with criminal records and donated uniforms. They gallop around a gut-ugly dirt diamond where foul balls bounce off guard towers and umpires take the heckles of unruly fans dead seriously.

Theirs is a home-field advantage so imposing that opponents sometimes fail to show up. Their own coach can't fill out his lineup card until game time because he never knows which starters have been sent to the hole or confined to lock-down.

Forget Ruth and Gehrig: This team lines up as a real "Murderer's Row," the killers, thieves and con men who make up San Quentin prison's inmate baseball team.

This month, as the national pastime eases into full swing from neighborhood sandlots to Major League Baseball parks, the San Quentin Giants begin their ninth season competing in a walled-off league of their own. In 25 games, they will take on college teams and senior leaguers brave enough to submit to pregame equipment searches and play under the gaze of guards armed with high-powered rifles.

The KC Monarchs, an over-40 Bay Area squad, faced the Giants in the season opener last week. Before entering San Quentin's penned-in lower yard, they were warned that authorities will cut no deals to negotiate for visiting players' lives should they be taken hostage. Once inside, catcalls and animal noises rained down from the leering all-inmate fans.

As the visitors stretched before the game, Monarch infielder Tim Knittle said the Giants know how to play. Then he glanced toward the turreted prison towers. "But those fans. They'll eat you alive."

For the Giants, the games provide more than just a release of pent-up prison tension. Team coach and prison minister Kent Philpott says they're an opportunity for his players to compete against "free men," to show not only athletic prowess but demonstrate that they can, for a while at least, again play a game as if they were still boys.

"After so many years behind bars, these players wonder if they can even relate to people from the outside--they worry they'll be rejected because they're convicts," Philpott says. "These games give them a chance to walk among free men. Even if it's just for nine innings."

On opening night, inmate Vernis Brown, in for second-degree burglary, blows the national anthem on a borrowed trumpet, hitting a few sour notes that nobody seems to hear.

Standing along the third-base line, their backs to the three-story cellblocks that also house California's death row, the bad boys of summer mouth the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." They hold "SQ" logo caps over their chests.

Among them is big Tony Gonzales, the Giants' ace pitcher, who can throw a 90-mph fastball and who once tried out for the minor leagues before trouble that he won't now discuss entered his life. Larry "Popeye" Faison, at 51 the oldest Giants player, is a veteran of eight seasons while he does time for second-degree murder. And reliever Andrew Zingler, a three-strikes offender with a wild John Rocker glint, can fire heat from the mound.

Shaking Off Claims of Over-Aggressiveness

Mustachioed David Marshall, a utility infielder serving a first-degree murder sentence, shrugs his shoulders at claims of over-aggressive Giants pitching. "Hey, a brushback is a brushback, whether it's Kevin Brown or some prison inmate throwing the ball."

There's shortstop Eugene Carlisle, a compact man Philpott calls "simply the best baseball player I have ever shared a field with." This is Carlisle's second stint with the Giants. In 1996, in his "rookie" year--he won't say what landed him behind bars then--he set a team home run record with 13 blasts in just half a season, with a natural swing that had Giants coaches telephoning minor league scouts.

But soon after Carlisle's parole, he returned to San Quentin on an involuntary-manslaughter conviction. Now 30, he believes he still has a major-league future, but teammates sadly shake their heads about his missed chances. "They don't send baseball scouts to San Quentin," one says. "Just U.S. marshals."

Giants third baseman Jesse Reed, serving time on a murder conviction, describes the feeling of changing from his prison blues into a real-life baseball uniform.

"There's nights in your cell when you dream about moments like this," he says. "We're not locked up when we're out here. No matter if you're a prisoner, a cop or some suburban husband, we all love this game like there's no tomorrow."

Adds Zingler: "Nobody will ever say they're having fun in prison. But these games are truly something positive in a negative world." He looks at his teammates. "I'm proud to play alongside these guys, no matter what crimes they've committed."

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