If it seems that everyone and his agent is in prison today, they are. Darryl Strawberry, Jim Brown, Dexter Manley, Nate Newton, Willie Mays Aikens, Rae Carruth, Denny McLain and agent Tank Black are just a few of our pros who are cons. And Mike Tyson recently said that he wouldn't mind being a guest of the state again. "I like prison now," said Tyson.
So, evidently, does Lakers forward Rick Fox, who plays a convict on Oz. And so does every corn-rowed athlete whose 'do-rag, giant jeans and neck tattoos have made pop culture of prison culture.
But if our athletes are aspiring prisoners, we should expect our prisoners to be aspiring athletes. Thus last Thursday night baseball's San Quentin Giants, who have never played an away game, hosted the semipro Novato ( Calif.) Knicks inside California's notorious San Quentin State Prison, a.k.a. Unsafeco Field.
The Knicks' minimal traveling party of nine—"Half our roster wouldn't make the trip," says their general manager and Thursday's starting pitcher, Chris Kenyon—endured background checks, wandings, friskings and three separate security gates before guards briskly went over the ground rules, which consisted of just one: "We will not negotiate for you in the event of a hostage crisis. Do you understand?" This is San Quentin for "Play ball!"
The Giants wore, as always, their home blacks. The team changed its name from the Pirates when San Francisco Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy donated a few of his team's old spring training uniforms to the prison. (Alas, the names on the backs have been replaced with the letters SQ; thus no one will ever get to bail Bonds.)
On Thursday, as Kenyon, 36, was taking his warmup tosses, an alarm was sounded over the prison P.A. system, and all inmates, including the Giants, crouched on the ground and froze, per protocol, until the all-clear. Kenyon kept pitching, unfazed. "I've played at San Quentin the day after an execution, when it was silent," he says. "So this was nothing."
Prison ball presents pressures unknown to Randy Johnson. Knick Kevin Wolfe was pitching against the Vacaville ( Calif.) State Prison team in 1984 when he heard a guard yell, "Hey, Charlie, get off the field!" The diamond invader obeyed, but still: When Charles Manson is your Morganna, it gives a pitcher pause.
Could Pedro Martinez beat a Murderers' Row of real murderers? Could Curt Schilling get three strikes off a Giant who was made a Giant by California's three-strikes law? Would Roger Clemens stare down a lifer waving an aluminum bat 60 feet, six inches away? "Never thought of it this way," says Kenyon, laughing nervously.
And don't expect the calls to go your way. At every Giants game the four umpires are inmates. There is very little Earl Weavering of these men in blue jumpsuits. Don't like the strike zone? "Let it go," opponents advise.
The crowd consists of roughly 400 inmates who are better behaved than most Yankees fans. Unable to travel, the Giants themselves are "always glad to see us," says Kenyon, whose team plays at San Quentin twice a year. "They're very good-natured. At the same time, you know they're in for a reason, and that means anything from murder to drugs."