Sometimes I ask myself ‘What are you doing here, Philpott?’ Playing baseball at San Quentin Prison consumes about fifteen hour of my time each week.
Some days are dusty and hot, surrounded by ugly yellow brick. Other days a cold, stinging wind blows in from the Pacific Ocean. That wind picks up the dirt and drives it into our eyes and noses.
Surly, angry convicts shout taunts and wander through the outfield while games are in progress. ‘Lock-downs’ disrupt practices. Epidemics of chicken pox, tuberculosis, hepatitis C (two players are HIV positive) pop up now and then.
One guy says he used to pitch for the Houston Astros. Another brags his fastball has been clocked at 100 mph. A guy as old as I am tries to convince me he is ‘a better ball player than anyone I got on the field’.
Every year there will be at least one who will loudly criticise every call I make, and then remind me how wrong I was and how right he was at the conclusion of the game – especially if we lose, which is about half the time.
Ugly and cruel
Sometimes I think I am there to learn what hell would be like. San Quentin Prison, indeed any lock-up, is evil partially restrained. I see what it is like when sin has its way. And it is ugly, mean and cruel.
Sometimes, too, I think I am there to learn how to love sinners, which a gospel preacher like myself needs to do. I see how unlovely the offenders can be, how their tortured minds hate and despise anyone who gets close to them.
Sometimes I think I am there to see what an amazing thing it is that God could love me! It could easily have been me who ended up hating myself and all those around me, which aptly describes the mindset of many of my players.
My best hitter and pitcher, a black Muslim dangerously associating with non-Muslims (especially me, a Baptist preacher) was isolated for his own safety. Two of his Muslim brothers had taken a religious vow to stab him in the yard.
My first baseman has served twenty years for a murder conviction, and is soon to be released now that the real murderer is awaiting extradition from a federal prison in Oregon. He is also isolated at present because the Muslims floated a story that he ran drugs in the prison.
Juan at the age of eighteen had been at the wrong place at the wrong time, one hot summer night. The gang he was riding with robbed a gas station attendant for beer money (one of the gang had a gun). That was five years ago, and Juan has been my lead-off hitter and centre fielder ever since.
Every year a group of Mexicans, friends of Juan, try to intimidate me. They don’t want Juan playing ball with members of rival gangs on the same team. But young Juan somehow had been able to stand up to his compadres and play.
But the annual visit from the Mexicans has to do with control. It shows that they have power, like the Black Muslims and white gangs. Every year they catch me in the outfield during batting practice, away from the rest of my team.
One speaks while the rest of the goons stand real close to me. They are cold and unsmiling, their hands loose at their sides. I smile though, look them in the eye, and ask if they would like to join the team. One day they cut Juan with a blade right down his face.
Juan didn’t like me much at first. He would show up late for practice or sometimes not at all. On more than one occasion I went to his tiny cell in North Block to wake him up and scold him for letting his team down.
Then Juan started showing up at chapel when I was the preacher. A time or two he walked out during the sermon. The third year, though, he was sitting through the whole service. I heard from others that Juan was coming to other events in the chapel as well.
Nobody knows how or when, but the grace of God has reached Juan, and he has been changed by the gospel he has heard. I have a feeling that the crooked scar on his face will work for good when he tells other Mexican gangsters about the Lord Jesus Christ!