Baseball, the Great American Pastime was the talk of summer behind These Stone Walls. Pornchai Moontri’s Legion of Angels won the 2014 Hoosegow League Pennant.
“CRAACCKKK!” It was the sound of baseball meeting bone, and it made me shudder. Our new friend, Zachary – a rooky to both baseball and prison – stepped onto the pitcher’s mound for his first Hoosegow League game in May. It’s not the best spot in a baseball game for a 22-year-old with chronic ADHD. Zach seemed to forget that his glove had more padding than his head. After every pitch, he looked over to the dugout – which in prison is an old bench behind a chain-link barrier – to wave at me, looking for acknowledgement of his much-touted prowess as a pitcher.
I cringed at this accident waiting to happen, so the line drive to Zachary’s eyebrow seemed just a matter of time. Dragged off the field for a visit to the prison nurse, Zach was back in the game the next day with a butterfly bandage and a broad smile belying his pride at brandishing the first battle scar of summer. He also had a new position on the team – deep in right field as far from actual interaction with a baseball as we could get him.
I wrote of these prisoners of summer just over a year ago. “In Hoosegow League Baseball” told the tale of Pornchai Moontri’s Legion of Angels and Demons, the intramural prison baseball team that at the time had taken first place in the playoffs. As last year’s season came to a close, however, the championship went to “The Machine,” a team coached and captained by Jeffrey Marshall winning two out of three games in last year’s finals against Pornchai’s Legion.
The loss seemed catastrophic, and “Wait ’til next year!” was the phrase I heard most often as the prison ball field closed for the season last October. Marshall’s thrill of victory was little consolation in our agony of defeat.
But in the confines of prison, even a long, hard New Hampshire winter could not freeze the frenzy of Hoosegow League Baseball. For the origin of that term – and it’s worth ferreting out – you’ll have to re-read last year’s post if for no other reason than to save me from having to type the explanation all over again.
Life goes on, and in May of 2014, “next year” arrived in a fury of competition as the teams formed up again for Spring Training. The first order of business in the new season was a name change for Pornchai’s Legion. Last year it was officially the Legion of Angels and Demons. This year we dropped the demons – from the name, at least. The jury is out on whether we dropped them all from the team. I’ll let you be the judge of that as you read further on. This year, the official team name was simply “Legion of Angels,” and the subtle change had a noticeable effect on the spirit of the game.
The New Hampshire State Prison Recreation Department which maintains the prison ball field is host to eight intramural baseball teams with a total of about 110 prisoner players, not counting umpires, scorekeepers, and scores of fans in the stands. Well, there aren’t really any stands. In this ballpark, the fans really do stand. And there’s no hot dog and beer vendor either. We do have a well-used water hose, however.
The real competition year after year always comes down to the two standout teams: “Ponch’s Team” (in Thai the “R” is silent so our friend, Max, is simply “Ponch” here) versus “Marshall’s Team.” The two teams are both outstanding but never boastful, competitive but never ruthless, and it helps a lot that the team captains, Max and Marshall, are also friends. Marshall and Mex Sanchez, his Third Baseman, often sit with Max and me in the prison chow hall where every conversation in the summer descends into a post mortem of that day’s game. Otherwise, we might have to actually pay attention to the prison food we’re eating, and no one wants that!
The Legion of Angels – for which I serve as a sort of on-field mentor, off-field behavioral coach, and official dragger of injured players off the field – had lost a few valued team members during the winter. Ralph Carey, one of our youngest and most improved players, left prison at this time last year. We miss Ralph a lot, but today he is free – hopefully free in every sense – and that means a lot to me. Soon after leaving, Ralph posted a comment on TSW’s “About” page. It should be easy to find if you go there and scroll down to it . We never heard from Ralph again after that. Ralph’s comment made me cry.
THE 2014 STARTING LINE-UP
Pornchai Maximilian serves as General Manager, Coach, and occasional pitcher for his Legion of Angels, and there is no question that this is in fact his team. I had a chance to sit down with him in the TSW Press Box this week to discuss his Pennant win this year, and how nice it is to hear “Wait ’til next year!” coming from Marshall’s side of the table in the prison chow hall for a change . As Pornchai described his team’s win:
“We just have an amazing team. We entered the playoffs with twenty-one wins and two losses to face Marshall’s Team, one of the best teams in the league. We sometimes called them ‘Team Infirmary’ because they also had the most injuries during the season.”
Last year, Pornchai described Ralph Carey as the most improved player, but he was replaced on the team by Brian Lisio, a young man who came into the prison just as Ralph was leaving. Whatever it was that brought Bryan Lisio to prison, he became a highly valued member of this team. Brian’s leadership skills are as important to the team as his excelling at Third Base and at bat. More importantly, Brian also excels as a student, spending nearly all of his off-team time taking courses to better himself.
Andrew Lalos is in the outfield. Pornchai described him as “the best left fielder I have seen.” It was Andy’s first season with the team, but his strongest contribution is off the field. Andy exhibits a patience with other prisoners that helps them develop their own best potential. It’s a quality that speaks volumes for the character of any man cast into prison. Andrew Lalos is a teacher in the best sense, a mentor who leads by example.
Bradley “Buck” Winbush rotates between First Base and Catcher, and excels at both. Pornchai says he also excels at bat, and is exceptionally fast. When Buck isn’t playing baseball, he is usually behind an algebra book, working hard to obtain that most essential tool for preserving freedom, education.
Augie Reyes plays Right Field, and sometimes Second Base, and he catches fly balls that no ordinary human should manage. Augie appeared in my June 2014 post, “Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation,” a post dear to my heart but barely tolerated by some TSW readers.
Anyway (resisting the temptation to digress into space), in one game this season, I saw Augie chase down what should have been a Grand Slam, leaping into the air to deny a batter his Home Run on its way over the prison wall. I thought that if Augie had managed just a few more inches, he might have been shot at from the guard tower!
I asked Pornchai about this year’s MVP, the Most Valuable Player. He says he agonized about bestowing it on our friend, star Pitcher Oliver Hooper, who shares the pitcher’s mound with Pornchai. “Hooper,” as we call him, serves with me on the Inmate Communications Committee, negotiating with prison administration for a better environment inside these stone walls. That’s a far steeper climb with more line drives to look out for than the Hoosegow Leagues Pitcher’s Mound.
However, the MVP has to go for the second year in a row to Center Fielder, Mark Maynard. More than once this season, I watched Mark turn singles and doubles into triples. One day last month, The Wall Street Journal’s “Marketing” section had a photo of a jackrabbit leaping over four turtles. I cut it out and gave it to Mark Maynard because it reminded me of his amazing speed running bases with Marshall’s infield in pursuit. Marshall was not as enamored of the image as we were.
The prison Recreation Department threw a pizza party for the winners, and bestowed upon Pornchai’s Legion of Angels the bragging rights of 2014 until the prisoners of summer take up the game again. For my part, the ballfield closes for the season on October 15 as our prison descends into its winter of cold confinement for the next seven months. I dread it, more than ever, for Pornchai and I face each Spring Training a year older, a year further distant from a life of freedom, a year further along this road less traveled. Our prison sentences have seen many team members come, play, and then leave us.
With the Pennant race over, the clear winners established, the pizza consumed, and all the “Wait ’til next year’s “ aimed at us for a change, I’ve had a chance to reflect upon some higher causes. One of them is the nature of prison itself and the sometimes dark politics that surround it in the public square.
There are evil men here, men of such malice they should never again be trusted in the light beyond these stone walls. Prisons everywhere are built and managed to contain them, those few, and all the rest pay a heavy price under the weight of fear, loathing, and social panic they induce into the politics of prisons.
But even here, the influence of evil is a minority report and none of its players were on this team. These are good men, most are wounded men, and the length of some of their sentences for the mistakes they have made – and in some cases, haven’t made -speaks more of the cynicism of our politics than the justice of our ideals as a nation. These are men deserving of the chance to regain their freedom.
One of our readers recently wrote in a comment that reading TSW has completely changed her mind about prisons and the nature of prisoners. For me, that was one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a writer.
It is time for reform and reconsideration of the expensive, dismal, one-size-fits-all punishment that our prisons have become. That America has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners should be a global embarrassment as our President lectures other governments about the state of their democracy, human rights and dignity. As I have written before, “The land of the free and the home of the brave should be brave enough to welcome back its prodigal sons.”
A POST SCRIPT
Every prisoner on Earth loves to receive mail, and I am no exception. However in this prison only the contents of mail are received by prisoners, and not the envelopes. Many people have written to me of late asking whether I have received their mail and why I have not responded. Please be aware that unless your return address is in the body of your letter, I have no way to respond. Since space is severely limited for us, I try to keep each letter until I respond, but I cannot keep them forever. Please be sure to add your mailing address to each letter you write.
Please also be aware that I must special order typing ribbons, and. I am allowed only six disposable ribbon cartridges per year. That means that I must use them for TSW posts and most of my own outgoing mail must be hand written. That is very time consuming, and I often find myself writing the same things over and over. Thank you for your letters and gifts of support, and especially for your patience with me. The rules for writing to me in prison are listed on TSW’s “CONTACT” Page.
RYAN MACDONALD’S LEGAL FUND UPDATE
I am grateful to Ryan MacDonald for his guest post, “Bombshells and Black Ops,” and indeed, some of it was a bombshell. If it was tedious and painful for you to read, that goes ten times over for me! However I want to add a thought to his explanation of the change in our goal toward our legal fund.
To date, Catholic dioceses and institutions in the United States have invested over $3 billion in mediated settlements of sexual abuse claims. My diocese has spent $30 million to $40 million on such settlements with no demands for proof or even the most basic corroboration for many of the claims. We are seeking to raise about one tenth of one percent of what has been expended in my diocese alone to review and expose the truth of this one case.
I am most grateful to the many readers who have come to our assistance with generosity, concern and prayers. If you have contributed to this fund, I thank you, and of course I would not want any of you to go beyond your means in this regard. You could help us far more by spreading word of this story, of our need, and especially by sharing a link to These Stone Walls. May the Lord Bless you and keep you, Father Gordon.