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Prison baseball team gives inmates a focus beyond their cells

The San Quentin Giants, one of the only prison teams in the nation to compete against outside clubs, play on a diamond surrounded by guard towers.

By Frank KosaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

Inmates of summer: A member of the San Quentin Giants swings for the fence, which is surrounded by guard towers, during a game against a club from Santa Monica, Calif.

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San Quentin, Calif.

As a baseball manager, Kent Philpott has to navigate many of the usual challenges on the diamond: player egos, varied skills at the plate, and uneven levels of motivation. But he also confronts a few unusual problems. When he benches someone or cuts them from the team, it's likely to be an armed robber, drug dealer, or murderer.

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Firm though he is with them, Mr. Philpott relies on skills from his primary vocation when managing on the field – being a pastor. What's more, he may be the only one in baseball to lean so heavily on a coach, Stan Damas, who confesses that he knows nothing about game. Mr. Damas's expertise lies in handling people. "I have 21 players, all of whom think they should be starting," says Philpott. "Guys can get upset with me. Stan makes things right."

Philpott is the manager of the San Quentin Giants, a team made up of inmates from one of the nation's most widely known maximum-security state prisons. While many penitentiaries around the country have organized baseball teams, San Quentin's is the oldest and one of the only ones that competes against outside ball clubs.

To prison officials, organized sports is a way to keep inmates occupied and perhaps teach a few lessons on getting along with others. In this age of punitive attitudes about crime, no one is calling it rehabilitation, exactly. Some conservatives and victims' rights groups, in fact, think that any kind of recreation for inmates – especially America's pastime – isn't appropriate for prisoners, especially those who committed a violent crime. But it helps prison authorities battle one of the biggest worries behind bars – idleness. "It keeps tensions down, increasing the safety and security of everyone, including employees," says Marie Griffin, a criminologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Philpott, a volunteer coach at the prison, sees even bigger benefits. "These guys learn to deal with losing, they learn to cooperate, build people up, and become team players," he says.

There is no shortage of inmates wanting to be on the team. More than 50 tried out for the club this year – 21 of whom made it. Some just love baseball. All prefer sitting in a dugout to a cell. "It's a privilege to play," says starting pitcher and team captain Chris Rich. Mr. Rich was a star pitcher for St. John's University in New York in 1979, with great expectations for the big leagues when an injury crushed his hopes. Seventeen years later, in a troubled marriage and destitute, he killed his wife – for which a court sentenced him to 26 years to life.

Now in his 13th year in prison, the 6-foot-8-inch man known as "stretch" is soft-spoken and humble. "I'm thankful for every game," he says.

• • •

The visiting team for today's game is the Santa Monica Suns, who have journeyed from southern California. Just to get to the baseball field in the prison, the team must cross the upper yard, a cement promenade that is delicately poised between heaven and man's darkest impulses. Heaven is represented on the north side by tidy houses of worship for the inmates – three chapels, and a native American spiritual office.

Darkness rises up to the south side with a forbidding three-story building called the "Adjustment Center." "It houses the worst of our worst," says Lt. Sam Robinson, a San Quentin spokesman. "Serial killers, validated gang members, and the like." It is also where condemned inmates are housed when they first arrive, allowing them to "adjust" to the idea that they won't be leaving alive. No other path to a baseball field anywhere may be quite so sobering.