Even in prison, baseball is the Great American Pastime, and Pornchai Moontri’s Legion of Angels and Demons is in first place for the pennant race.
For the uninitiated who failed to read my post, “Holidays in the Hoosegow: Thanksgiving With Some Not-So-Just Desserts,” the word, “hoosegow” is American slang for a prison. It comes from the Spanish word, “juzgado,” the roots of which have to do with judges and courts, the first steps in being hauled off to the slammer. In turn, the Spanish term evolved from the Latin Base, “judicare,” from which comes the English word, “judge.”
Here in the hoosegow, I help coach a local baseball team. Yes, as I lamented two weeks ago in “News on Sale,” John Henry owns the Boston Red Sox – at this writing with a one game lead over Tampa Bay in the Pennant race – and he now owns The Boston Globe as well. But here in the hoosegow just to his north, my team is also in a one-game lead in the Pennant race, and I have a blog! So read it and weep, John Henry!
I call it MY team, but even though I’m on the team roster I haven’t actually played much. It’s really Pornchai Moontri’s team. He’s the team captain and its pitcher, while I’m just sort of a senior coach. I provide pre-game pep talks, rally the troops when we’re losing, and calm the occasional temper flares that are the daily fare of this environment, especially on the ball field. My official role is to stand just behind a barrier a few feet from home base, offer the umpire my glasses when it seems he needs them, and assist those with chronic ADHD by yelling things like, “HEY RALPH, FORGET THE SQUIRREL! WATCH THE BALL!”
We don’t have spring training, as such, but each year before the prison ball field opens in May, prisoners are allowed to organize teams for an intramural baseball league. It’s an exciting time as teams come together amid lots of bargaining and pre-season trading. The bottom line is that prisoners who know each other tend to gravitate to teams with friends, so the various prison housing units each end up with a team representing them.
There are lots of jokes about having prison baseball teams. Like this one guy who was really good at stealing bases, but we convinced him to put them all back and then we got on with the game.
ANGELS AND DEMONS
Unlike Boston’s Fenway Park, the prison field is surrounded not by stands of fans but by double high fences and rows upon rows of razor wire. We don’t have a press box. We have a guard tower. Despite all that, we still play ball! It’s not without built-in frustration. Nothing in prison ever is. Due to budget cuts and staff shortages, the schedule for opening the field has been dismal this summer. It is the only “outside” we have, and it has averaged just three mornings per week. The evening hours have been far worse. Out of 90 possible scheduled openings, the field has opened only 17 times. It’s painful to watch when a whole team is ready, just to remain inside. As it does with most things, this team has learned to face disappointments as a team.
This year the prison intramural league consists of nine teams, each with a roster of 18 players. Each team has eleven starters. The teams have names such as “North Killers,” “Goon Squad,” “Gladiators,” and “Granite Beasts.” They choose their own names, and some have had the same name for years. One team composed of relative nerds is called “Isotopes,” and they tried to recruit me early on. They’re more interested in the vector analysis of high flies and the velocity ratio of pitches to line drives than in actually winning games, but I do feel a sort of kindred spirit with them.
In a game last week between the “Isotopes” and our team, one of the “Isotopes” actually hit the ball. No one expected that, so no one was ready for it and the guy got on base. But it was the wrong base. The “Isotopes” are not yet sold on the necessity of running the bases counter-clockwise.
Our friend, Pornchai, is captain, coach, and pitcher for his team, called “Legion.” I grimaced at the team title at first, connecting it instantly to the fact that “Legion” describes a group of demons in the Gospels of Mark (5:9, 15) and Luke (8:30).
Pornchai thanked me for that vote of confidence, then pointed out that “Legion” also describes a host of angels in the Gospel of Matthew (26:53). From what I’ve seen of our team thus far, they spend a lot of time running between bases, and somewhere between both Gospel designations. In my view, they grow ever closer to Saint Matthew’s use of the term.
STRIKING OUT THE KLINGONS
In a post last year entitled “E.T. and the Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” I wrote of my very good friend, Joseph, a young African-American man who came to prison at age 17. I wrote that in this prison world of concrete and steel and deprivation, Joseph is not an alien, I am. I wrote that learning to communicate with Joseph at first made me feel a bit like Mr. Spock aboard the bridge of the Enterprise trying to open a channel to the Klingon Battle Cruiser hovering nearby.
A combative spirit with all its use of colorful metaphor does not come naturally to me, and nowhere do I feel more like Mr. Spock among Klingons than during baseball season in the prison ball field. I’ve gotten a few to use Klingon in place of foul language, however. I heard “KAPLAGH!” a lot.
By the way, Joseph was released from prison last month at the age of 26. In his nine years here he became one of my best friends, and a good friend to Pornchai as well, and we miss him. He was also a key player on Pornchai’s ball team, and he left us in mid-season. As we rejoiced in his freedom, we also had to fill a gaping hole in our outfield. Nothing got past Joseph. When prisoners leave prison, they are not allowed to have any contact with anyone here. The system always assumes the worst of us, and concludes that contact would only be destructive. So Joseph is gone into silence, leaving a gaping hole in my infield as well.
But life goes on and so does baseball. Many of our friends play for “Legion.” None of them are angels, but none are demons either, and in the end I would have to say I am proud to have known them – even here. Despite whatever placed them here, they are good men, struggling to win not just at baseball, but as men with renewed lives and restored family ties. Men who correct their mistakes to become better men are not just ex-cons in my view. Some are unsung heroes. Our culture is wrong – and even unique – to have allowed the formation of a prison caste in which its members’ redemption is always challenged, always put down, never accepted at face value. The land of the free and the home of the brave should be brave enough to accept the return of its prodigal sons.
PORNCHAI LEARNS TO DUCK
If I had to choose an MVP (most valuable player) this year I could not. Mark Maynard in center field would be a candidate. He just asked me to have a link to this post sent to his wife and seven-year-old daughter. Tony Jarvis excels as the short stop, and Augie Reyes as short fielder. Mike Ciresi is out in left field, a fitting spot for him, but he’s one of the best fielders I’ve seen. Daryl, a big guy with a long reach, is at first base, and Pornchai either pitches or covers second.
Ralph Carey, when he isn’t distracted by the squirrels, is a real asset at bat. The whole team agrees that Ralph is by far the most improved player, and has earned his slot as designated hitter. What places the team in first place is its resolve to be a team. There are no rising stars looking to hit homeruns. It’s a team of men who want to get on base, and then send each other home. It’s a great team.
The game is not without casualties. As team captain, pitcher, and coach, Pornchai Moontri’s enthusiasm is contagious, and his resolve to win with absolute fairness and good sportsmanship is contagious as well. He puts his all into each game, and last year I feared that he might win the award for MBB (most broken bones). He twice broke fingers sliding into base at impossible speeds, then took a powerful line drive to the ribs at the pitcher’s mound. It left a black and blue baseball-sized bruise for weeks. Then he took another line drive to the … well … I’ll spare you the details. I had looked away for an instant and missed it. When I looked back I thought he was suddenly on his knees bowed in humble prayer and supplication. That was not the case.
Since then, Pornchai snags line drives out of the air with the agility and skill of a hawk. One day last week, he snatched a speeding line drive while jumping so high it didn’t even seem possible. It earned the final out to win the game.
But on a team, no one person takes credit for anything. Competition between teams can be fierce, but it’s generally good-natured. Pornchai’s “Legion” stands at fifteen wins, two losses, and one tie for the season, and the two losses were very close games. One loss was to the “North Killers” who were subsequently taught some baseball humility in every game since, and are now out of the running. Many of our team’s wins have been one-sided, high-scoring games such as 12 to 1 or 15 to 4.
Pornchai’s team has eliminated all contenders but one this year in the race for first place. Only “The Champs” remain in the running, but are one game behind our team still. We lost to them one day last week. The score was 10 to 9 when the game was called due to losing daylight. Three of our best players opted out of that game to attend a parenting skills class instead. To their credit, becoming better parents is their first and foremost goal, a goal supported by the whole team.
Pornchai’s “Legion” is heading into the final best-two-out-of-three playoff games against “The Champs” for first place in Season 2013 in Hoosegow League Baseball. It won’t be long now. In just a few more games – and the team spirit of these good men honed and ready – it will take but a vowel change for “The Champs” to become “The Chumps!” It’s on!
So, Play Ball!
Editor’s Note: Readers may know that Pornchai Moontri has been in prison since the age of 18, and on Divine Mercy Sunday 2010 he became a Catholic. In a few days, on September 10, Pornchai will turn 40 years of age. If you wish to send him a birthday card, it should be addressed as follows:
P.O. Box 14 – No. 77948
Concord, NH 03302-0014
The rules for sending mail to the Concord Prison are described in the “Contact” page on These Stone Walls. We will also print your comments and send them to Pornchai, so feel free to leave one.