When you play ball
You're always on the home team
In a world where
the only constant is change, sports represent a function of society in which
change is deliberately retarded—life recast closer to the heart's desire. We
control the odds, we make the rules, we tame and housebreak chance and
circumstance. No radical philosopher rises to cite the historical necessity for
the 10-inning game. No team is likely to emulate The Living Theatre and move
the contest into the stands. The rules are absolute—no exceptions, no
mitigations—and ambiguity is banished. For a while we escape from the larger
game that shades failure, numbs victory and robs joy of its certainty.
If this is true in
the outside world, it is true to the 10th power for men confined in the sterile
methodology of a modern prison, where sports become a magnificent
I entered prison
at 18. It's a shock that can't be fully conveyed. The shaft is driven home when
you are stripped of your own clothes and you see them as if they were a
discarded skin. Naked, dazed with a sense of loss, you are handed a new uniform
identity. You are invited to become an institutional zombie.
was in the West and today would be called a "cold-water" prison. Built
largely before the turn of the century, it was overcrowded and understaffed.
Two prisoners were stuffed into each small cell and there weren't jobs to go
around. But once the walls are up, and you're behind them, all prisons are much
the same. Their function is their essence. Places where you are forced to waste
a portion of your life. Despite modern rehabilitative tools, this is what you
do in prison. It's probably what you will always do. Hockey players chained in
the penalty box while the game goes on.
My own interest in
sports was modest. I had played street games with enthusiasm, but I was more
noted for spirit than style, and indifferent coordination dampened any dreams
of athletic glory. My interest in organized sports was slender, but I knew
Harry Greb was the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived (still a
good 20 years before Sugar Ray claimed this unofficial title) and I knew Babe
Ruth ate a lot of hot dogs.
administrators encouraged an active interest in games. The inmate who enjoyed
hitting a ball was less likely to hit a guard, they reasoned. The man who bets
a few cigarettes on the World Series was less likely to bet his life trying to
climb the wall.
"fish" knew little of this when we were gathered together and ordered
to play softball. New arrivals at any prison are quarantined until they are
found to be free of infectious diseases and any tendency toward overt
perversion. Despite our outer conformity, we were spiritually as motley as any
crew swept up by a press gang. At 18 I was youngest, and to my chagrin
instantly dubbed The Kid. My polar mate was an ancient of 62 nicknamed
Steamboat because of the shuffling quality of his locomotion. Between Steamboat
and myself we bracketed most of the ages and crimes of man, a fair microcosm of
any prison population, and most of us were glad of the chance to play
softball—even under orders.
We were in the
charge of Sergeant Gump, so called because of a generous nose and meager chin
that made him look like the cartoon character Andy Gump. His true name was
Carpenter, and it was a standing joke to send new fish to address him
respectfully as "Sergeant Gump." I was one such innocent, but he took
it reasonably well. His eyes snapped with annoyance and he looked around a
moment to see if anybody nearby showed the suspicion of a smile before he told
me, "It's Carpenter, young man. Sergeant Carpenter." But convict humor
is as relentless as it is perverse and he could say "Carpenter" forever
and he would still be Sergeant Gump.
looked us over for leadership potential and picked two men who had managed to
maintain some appearance of health and self-confidence. They would be team
captains and choose sides. Naturally they chose their own friends first.
Moments before, we had all been equals, united in the security of total
failure. Suddenly we were once again classified, spread between the first picks
and the last, while the old or clearly feeble were siphoned off as umpires. It
was important to me to be chosen—I was afraid I was going to be given some
mascot position like bat boy. But I was picked in the comfortable middle of the
lottery. Those picked last griped defensively: "I killed seven men in
Mississippi with my bare hands...what do I care for some lousy ball