Baseball Behind Bars: A Tradition At San Quentin State Prison

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This story originally aired on Oct. 4, 2014. This week it appears again as a part of our ‘Best Of‘ show. 

In the shadow of high walls topped by guard towers, a baseball season recently came to a close.

“This game is huge,” said Anthony Sorrell, center fielder for the San Quentin Giants. “This could be considered our World Series.”

He wore an orange and black San Francisco Giants uniform, but he wasn’t at AT&T Park. Rather, he stood in the main yard of San Quentin State Prison. It's the only prison in California to allow inmates to play baseball.

A Tradition At San Quentin

“Anywhere else, a bat, a hard baseball and equipment could be considered weapons," Sorrell said. "It's just a history that's been going on for so many years.”

"It's bittersweet. Of course I want to go home but I'm going to miss these guys."

Anthony Sorrell, San Quentin Giants center fielder

Baseball has been played at San Quentin for the better part of a century. This particular game was against the other prison team, the San Quentin Athletics, and there was plenty at stake.

“We live with these guys, and we eat with these guys, we go to school with these guys,” Sorrell explained. “You see a guy — you're going to have bragging rights all the way through to next year."

It's not just the players who care about this contest. As the game got underway, a group of prisoners dressed in regulation blue and white uniforms were standing around behind home plate. Among them was Larry Fayson, known as Popeye.

“I look forward to baseball season every year,” Fayson said. “I'm alumni now, I guess."

Fellow prisoners remember Fayson as a strong left-handed hitter, but nowadays he's more likely to be found playing the trumpet than baseball.

"I wish I could go out there and pitch now," he said. "I'm a little older now — everything don't balance out like it used to be. It's OK, I can still enjoy this game here.”


A chance to swap standard-issue prison uniforms for baseball attire provides an escape for inmates. (George Lavender/OAG)
Swapping standard-issue prison uniforms for baseball attire provides an escape. (George Lavender/OAG)

Heading Home

Sorrell's Giants took an early lead over the Athletics. For Sorrell, it wasn’t just the last game of the season; it was his last game in San Quentin. He's preparing for parole after nine years in prison.

[sidebar title="Moore's Second Chance" width="630" align="right"] After spending two-and-a-half years in prison, Vershon Moore is starting at running back for Washburn University.[/sidebar]

“I'm anxious to go home,” he said. “Like I told someone, it's bittersweet. Of course I want to go home but I'm going to miss these guys.”

“It's going to be sad to see him go because I want to see him play baseball next year with us,” said Sorrell’s teammate, Giants third baseman Chris Deragon. “But at the same time, man, I want to see him go home. I’d rather see him home than be here by far.”

Deragon has been in prison for 17 years, most of his adult life. This was his third season with the San Quentin Giants.

“I've hit a couple of walk-off home runs,” he said. “I usually hit cleanup — three, four, five; that range. I one-hopped the gym. That's a major league home run. I've cleared education quite a few times. I've walked off a home run over that satellite dish over that building.”

As Deragon pointed out, there are more than a few obstacles to playing baseball in a prison. From lost foul balls to frequent alerts, it's not uncommon for games to get called off entirely because of security issues. The game against the Athletics, though, went all the way to the ninth inning.

“You got to get three more outs,” Giants coach Frankie Smith said. “Regardless of what we've done in the ball game it all comes down to getting the last three, and sometimes that's a lot harder than you anticipate.”

Smith, who's been incarcerated 11 years, said coaching the Giants sometimes feels like an escape from prison, a chance to swap the blue prison uniform for a black and orange one. Smith has a date in front of the parole board in 2017. He said the next season might be his last, because he has to concentrate on his parole paperwork.

The San Quentin Giants play in uniforms donated by their MLB brethren in San Francisco. (George Lavender/OAG)
The San Quentin Giants play in uniforms donated by MLB's San Francisco Giants. (George Lavender/OAG)

'Eighteen Guys, Between The Lines'

Each year the Giants lose a few players like Sorrell, who get released. Other times players get transferred to different prisons. Like most of the team, Deragon doesn't know when he's getting out.

Most of the time you're in prison, you forget that -- you lose your humanity.

Chris Deragon, San Quentin Giants third baseman

“I would say probably most of us are lifers,” he said. “Probably 90 percent because we're here — we're the guys that are here. We're usually the ones that are going to be around no matter what, so we get an opportunity to work on baseball.”

Sorrell said that’s exactly why this team matters to the players.

“This team was very important to me,” he said. “It made me take my mind off a lot of situations, kept me positive, always something to do that I love to do.”

Sorrell said he plans on playing in a team on the outside, and one day coming back to San Quentin to volunteer. But first, he had a game to win.

With a two-run lead and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, the Giants got into a tricky spot with runners on first and third before a batted ball struck a base runner.

“That hit the runner — he's out,” Smith yelled. “He's out! He's out of there!”

The San Quentin "World Series” ended with the Giants victorious, 9-7. Deragon said people here will be talking about the controversial ending until next year. He said it's something he's looking forward to already.

“Most of the time you're in prison, you forget that — you lose your humanity, based on the fact that you're incarcerated; you're behind walls,” Deragon said. “You're treated with less than respect as a human being, so when you come out here you get to be a human being. You get to play baseball. That's all it is, is 18 guys, between the lines, and we get to have a good time and have fun, man.”

This segment aired on December 26, 2015.



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