Pornchai “Max” Moontri and his Legion of Angels eliminated seven other teams to claim the 2016 softball league championship. Witness the ascension of prison walls.
Like every prison complex in America, this one is surrounded by a high wall. From a cell in the rear of a building in a far rear corner of this prison, the view from my window is a 25-foot stretch of weeds between me and that impervious wall. It’s an intimidating view of corrugated steel, 20 feet high, topped with another 10 feet of chain link fence and gruesome double spirals of razor wire designed to shred whatever comes into contact with it. There is no mistaking where we are.
The wall fills the view from my barred cell window, but if I strain a bit I can still see some blue sky above it. Directly across the 25-five feet of weeds is affixed an ominous metal sign in huge letters:
“OFF LIMITS: ALL INMATES ARE TO KEEP 25 FEET AWAY FROM THIS WALL.”
I once described the less-than-panoramic view of life between the window and the wall in “The Birds and the Bees Behind These Stone Walls.” As I wrote in that post, don’t expect a snapshot of the lurid side of prison. It really was just about birds and bees, but even here life goes on. As I type this a squirrel breaking into prison has made his way atop the wall and is now moving with effortless contempt down the center of the razor wire spirals. He stopped across from my window and stared at me sitting here. “Maybe he thinks we’re nuts,” Pornchai said. Maybe he’s right.
The wall presents other curiosities as well. At some point, the relentless expansion and contraction of steel from the daily assault of the sun caused a rivet to pop, leaving a tiny round hole less than a half centimeter in diameter. My window faces west, so late in the remains of the day at this time of year the tiny hole projects a near perfect image of the setting sun upon the opposite wall of this cell I never tire of watching its daily ascent on the wall. It became a conversation piece as I explained to other prisoners the rotation of the Earth on its axis giving the appearance that the glowing disk is moving. One or two were fascinated. Most just yawned.
A DOOR TO A PARALLEL UNIVERSE
But in the base of that wall – across from my window where that squirrel just flipped his tail at us and moved on – is a narrow door, the only such door in the wall’s entire perimeter. It is the door to a parallel world, for on the other side of it most of the trappings of prison disappear. We stare in longing at that closed door from October to May each year, anxious for its long awaited May 15 opening. Passing through it often reminds me of Dorothy Gale stepping from the black and white world of Kansas into the burst of color that is the Land of Oz.
Beyond the locked door is a world that appears often on These Stone Walls, a small tribute to its importance to us. It’s an acre of grass with a baseball field at one end surrounded by a quarter-mile paved walking track. In the beyond it is surrounded on three sides by trees and hills, such an unexpected view that it erases the evidence of prison. The guard tower, the double 20-foot high chain link barriers, the rows upon rows of razor wire all seem to fade against the trees in the background. Last year I wrote of a day of Divine Mercy and redemption that took place out on that field. It’s one of the most popular posts on These Stone Walls, “At Play in the Field of the Lord.”
PRISONERS OF SUMMER
The prison Recreation Department, where my roommate, Pornchai “Max” Moontri works, is host to eight intramural softball teams. The teams have names like “Wolf Pack,” “South Sluggers,” “North Station,” and “Legion.” The intramural teams – it’s of interest that the Latin origin of “intramural” means “within the walls” – comprise a roster of 145 prisoner players, coaches and umpires.
A few summers ago, I protested Max’s choice of “Legion” for his team name. I told him that it refers to a host of demons in the Gospel of Luke (8:30). He countered that it also refers to a host of angels in the Gospel of Matthew (26:53). But somewhere along the way, the angels won out, and the unofficial team title became Legion of Angels. I hoped it might inspire the team to shine, and it did.
The Legion of Angels, for which “Max” Moontri is coach, captain, and pitcher, has 14 members. For three years in a row, Legion won the series pennant here, but lost it last year in the final inning of the final game of the final playoff. This year Legion reclaimed the victory, eliminating each team during the season, and then defeated the final challenger in each game of the playoff series, but not without casualties.
A few members of the team were lost mid-season. One of them, Short Stop Carlos Perez,was featured on TSW in “A Mother’s Day Letter from Dante’s Purgatorio” in May. Carlos was paroled mid-season, a fact for which the rest of his team cheered. Our friend, third baseman Enrique was transferred before spring training, but returned in time to play for the finals.
But the most notorious casualty came with a loud “CRACK” near the end of the regular season. The chilling sound of ball meeting bone made me grimace from across the outfield. In an early morning game on August 8, Pornchai-Max was on the’ pitcher’s mound in a close game that was pivotal for the season pennant. I watched from a distance that Monday morning as Max pitched the ball with a pretty good batter at Home Plate.
I remember learning in a college physics class decades ago that a batter must make 72 spontaneous mental calculations between the time a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and its arrival at Home Plate. The batter connected solidly with Max’s ball, and the crack of the bat was ominous.
In a fraction of a second, the line drive ball came speeding across the mound just inches from Max’s face. In a flash, his hand came up, not to catch it, but to stop it. The second “CRACK” was louder than the first. The speeding ball broke Max’s thumb, tearing off most of his thumbnail inside the glove, then deflected to strike just above his left eye splitting it open. This, too, is an annual event. Two years ago, a line drive cracked his rib. The year before that it struck elsewhere leaving him on his knees in torment while the whole team buckled over in empathy.
So Max was off the pitcher’s mound for the rest of the season this year, but still served as captain and coach to lead his team to victory. It’s a rare thing that we have photographs of events inside this prison, but on September 8 the Recreation Department gathered the team in the gym for a victory photo. Though I did not play this year, I was asked to be in the photo and write about our team. So I donned my cap as TSW sportswriter.
THE LEGION OF ANGELS
Pornchai Max is in front center, his eye healed and the banner covering, his oversized broken thumb. He’s giving the victory sign above the head of our friend, Kewei Chen, whom you read of in “Time in a Bottle with Jim Croce and The Twang Brothers.” Chen, from Shanghai, China, had never picked up a bat in his life until be joined the team last season. Max taught him to play, and turned him into a top notch hitter. Being quick on his feet Chen is also the team’s designated runner. I asked him what else he would like me to add, and he said, “Tell them Chen is a nice young man.” And so he is— most of the time.
To the left of Chen is our friend, Ishmael “Ish” Bangs. Ish is the team’s Catcher and designated hitter. To the right of Max with my hand on his shoulder in the photo is our friend, Jose “CM Chi” Rivera. Chi Chi plays Right Center field from where he has made some amazing catches. I watched him one day streak across the field with lightning speed to make an impossible catch and then end the inning with a spectacular double play. Chi Chi has a lot of energy. In the photo, he is not holding me up. I am holding him down.
To my right is our friend, Robinson, aka “Menol” (pronounced “Mennow”), an excellent hitter, team scorekeeper, and Right Fielder. Menol was sent to prison at age 16 and is now 26. Five years ago, he was transferred to a prison in the north of this state, but last spring he was finally moved back. We were very glad to have him back, and he joined the team this year. Menol works with Max at the Recreation Department and is taking several courses each semester to earn his high school diploma. TSW readers may recall Robinson from an early post, “Fifty-Seven Times Around the Sun.”
Behind me and to my left in the photo is Andrew Lalos. If the team had an MVP (Most Valuable Player), they would all be in the running but Andy might win the prize. An excellent athlete and team player, Andy inspires by example. He is also extremely fast and accurate, covering Left Field like a Major League player. To Andy’s left is Third Baseman, Enrique “Rickay” Barreto who is new to the team. Rickay lived for months in an overflow bunk just outside our cell door where we became friends. He is excellent at Third Base, a tough spot in the game.
To Enrique’s left is Travis Turcotte, a Pitcher and fine hitter. Travis also works with Max at the Rec Department where they both staff the prison weight training program. And to the far left in the back row is Darryll Bifano, also a Pitcher and excellent hitter. He’s a big guy with a wide arm span, and not much gets past him. Darryll was a professional musician before he came here, and while here he works for the Recreation Department’s music program. He’s an excellent guitarist.
There are two others on the team who were not present for the photo, and two whom I could not track down for permission to use their names. But what makes this team stand out year after year is that no one in this photo is grasping for stardom. They work as a team, and that banner Chen and Chi Chi are holding in front of their Captain and Coach is the annual evidence for that fact.
These are good men who once made a mistake, and today do all they can to atone for it by struggling to better themselves in a place that doesn’t always support that goal. Year after year a few players on this winning team leave and are replaced by others. The one mainstay is front and center hiding his broken thumb behind that banner.
Max never needs to recruit players. These guys want to play on his team for three reasons: Max leads by example instead of by demand, and that inspires teamwork; these guys like to win, and win with fairness and sportsmanship, and they know that requires a team effort; and while other teams waste endless time in contention, this team supports each other and enjoys the game. These are good men with hopeful futures, and no longer just pasts. Society would make a grave mistake by keeping them down.
On Tuesday, September 27, the Rec Department will host a pizza party for the annual winners. I’m invited to that as well, and maybe we’ll have another photo, some interviews, and a sequel to this post. These guys will all show up with the same eager hope to step out of prison for a moment to be in the company of their team – leaning ever so slowly, in spite of great obstacles, toward their official designation and goal: a Legion of Angels, messengers among their peers on how to be redeemed and live, even here, with meaning and purpose.
Editor’s Note: On Friday, September 23, Father Gordon MacRae marks 23 years of wrongful and unjust imprisonment. That same day is also the Feast of Saint Padre Pio, one of the Patron Saints of These Stone Walls. Please join us in honoring him by reading and sharing one or more of these posts: