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Dutch absorbed this information slowly, his eyes blinking with the effort. Then he nodded, reached across, seized the other side of the bar and with one heave pulled it down. The beer taps gushed toward the ceiling, the automatic bartenders streamed Coke, soda and water.
The bartender studied the ruin, then politely asked, "What're you drinking?"
Not everyone had to bribe and angle his way into the athletic program. There were the regulars, men who seem intuitively to understand the connections of the society whether it's high school, politics or jail. They bob to the top like corks with apparently no more effort. From the moment they hit the gate they had a certain confident air, and while the average inmate was still waiting in line for a chance to swing on a horizontal bar they would already be pitching for the hardball team or calling signals at football. This special aura wasn't always related to athletic ability, and participation on the various teams wasn't always motivated by a love of sports. It was first and foremost a means of creating an identity in an environment inadvertently designed to diminish the individual. For many men sport was the only activity that bore any relationship to the real world, the one area in their lives where winning and losing still had meaning.
A former relief pitcher for a major league team arrived one week, and proved to be such a one. He had been convicted of murder second in the death of his girl friend, and he was a hero before he ever hit the gate. It didn't matter that he wasn't much of a success in the majors. He had been in that magic circle that came to us from the other side of our earphones.
Whatever privilege was available, the pitcher had it, because the guards were as hooked on sports as we were. It was baseball season when he began his sentence and he was rushed through orientation so he could take the field, and against amateur and semipro teams he was a giant. His second season in prison he sparked an undefeated team. The only possibility of upset came when the pitcher was thrown into solitary for running a brewery in the laundry. Dismay. Everyone knew the team couldn't win without him. I was never close to the real power in the prison so I don't know what pressures were brought, what cons applied, but by order of the captain of the guards the pitcher was released every Saturday afternoon for the weekly game and locked up again afterward. It was common for favored athletes to receive diet cards which were good for extra food, but the pitcher was the only one ever sprung out of solitary.
If these men and a few others had hints of greatness, there were hundreds who struggled as hopeless amateurs only able to delude themselves that some route to glory lay open. One of the principal psychological functions of a prison is to screen those who persist in confining themselves against the realization of failure. On the surface this is an absurd statement, for prison itself must be the ultimate failure. But for the younger prisoners this social judgment doesn't apply, and the prison becomes a Coventry, a stasis where the normal designations of success or failure no longer hold. It's possible to fantasize endlessly. Reality is postponed until the day you walk out through the big gates. Ballplayers who would be outclassed in the Little Leagues dreamed of the day a scout from the majors would discover them, and boxers whom it would be a kindness to describe as fourth-rate dreamed of claiming the title.
One man, a tiny flyweight, killed his opponent in a practice bout. This was worth an inch in the local newspaper, but he carried this clipping, folded into his billfold, convinced he only had to show it to a fight manager and begin his relentless march toward the title. Meanwhile, he lost almost every bout.
If individuals were usually fooling themselves, the inmate teams were usually quite good in comparison to the amateur and semi pro teams they played against. The prison provided a larger manpower pool than the bottling plants and factories that sponsored most of the opposition, and age also played a part in the inmates" superiority. The average prisoner is under 35, so it was only the service teams that provided any real competition. The big grudge matches each year were the football games played against the local Marine base. These games were savage, and sometimes even provided memorable football. It would be easy to imagine that prisoners would be poor sportsmen, but it's fair to say that unless heavy gambling entered into it they usually played clean. The umpires, also inmates, were notoriously and curiously harder on their own.
Refusing to relinquish their right to bitch, however, prisoners claim they play under enormous disadvantages. For one thing, they have little time to practice. If you point out that men who work for a living and play ball in their leisure can't have any more time for practice, they will immediately cite the food. The food is the No. 1 topic in any jail.
The universal complaint of the prison athlete is that you can't train on beans. The fact is that it has been 50 years since beans provided the staple diet of most prisons, and their menus are prepared by dietitians. Despite this, the argument has lost none of its currency among inmates. Clearly, prisoners are no fair match for the straight-world amateur athlete who trains on hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries.