Inmate Brian "Sharky" Holliday slides safely into third base after hitting a triple during a friendly game with visiting members of a Seattle baseball league, at San Quentin State Prison, in San Quentin, California, on Saturday, September 15, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma native's field of dreams is in San Quentin

Behind the walls of California's oldest prison, baseball has the power to connect.

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It was game day here, so Branden Riddle-Terrell had been out that morning to touch up the diamond, helping to chalk the foul lines and fill in potholes. It was Riddle-Terrell who made the sign that hangs near one of the dugouts — HOME OF THE SAN QUENTIN GIANTS — and who fixed the American flag nearby, and who placed the distance markers along the outfield fence.

“Why?” I asked him. What would drive an inmate to obsess over this modest baseball field on the edge of freedom?

“One, when I’m here, I’m not in prison. I’m not thinking of being locked away,” Riddle-Terrell said. “And two, every time I’m here, I’m reminded of what I did, and what I want to be.”

(For more photos go here.)

What Riddle-Terrell wants to be is what most of us aspire to: a present parent, a loyal spouse, a friendly neighbor and productive co-worker. What he did is haunting.

In 2012, when Riddle-Terrell was 24 years old, he celebrated the marijuana harvest near Auburn at the home of his close friend, Ryan Roth, by drinking, snorting and huffing himself into a stupor. He wound up stabbing Roth, a father of two, to death with a pocket knife. Prosecutors, fearing that a jury might find him not guilty by reason of insanity because of his degree of intoxication, allowed Riddle-Terrell to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter. His sentence: 11 years in state prison.

“You don’t go a day without remembering what you did, and the people you hurt,” Riddle-Terrell told me behind first base as his team of inmates played an integrated game with a team from Seattle on Sept. 15. “The family, the community — even the first responders that night. At night, when I’m in my cell saying my prayers, I try to recall all the names of those people, and there’s so many I can’t even go to sleep.”

Can a game erase the crimes of the men who play it? Can it cancel their pain or diminish their shame? Can it make them whole? No, not by itself. But here at San Quentin, officials still see prison as a place of rehabilitation, and they embrace any program that advances the mission. Including baseball.

Sonoma native Steve Reichardt, who has coached in the prison for five years, is a believer.

“I still have great sympathy for the victims. You never lose sight of that,” Reichardt said. “Still, the guys I’m working with will be getting out someday, and part of my responsibility is to help make them better men, and to make them better prepared when they’re released. They’re looking to make amends to society and to make the most of their second chance.”

Reichardt played basketball at Sonoma Valley High School (Class of ’85), but he always harbored a love of baseball. When he was in his mid-30s, he signed up for the Redwood Empire Baseball League, a men’s recreational hardball league. Reichardt had an opportunity to join other Redwood Empire players for a game in San Quentin, and the experience moved him.

“First, I’m a big fan of history and San Quentin has some of the most well-known history around our area,” he explained. “I found that fascinating. Plus, it was a rare chance to go inside. But it all comes back to baseball.”

Reichardt started gathering other teams for trips into the prison, and in 2013 he agreed to coach inside the walls.

So for about half the year, Reichardt, who lives in San Francisco and is senior chief engineer at the Tiffany Building on Union Square, enters San Quentin for games every Wednesday and Saturday. He shares duties with another outside volunteer, Mike Kremer, and four inmate coaches. The 2018 season runs another three weeks.

“Every time I think I’m having a bad day, I think about them,” Reichardt said of his players. “When it comes to free time, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I’ve always had one pledge to them: I want to still be coaching when you’re out.”

Each time he arrives, Reichardt submits to the same procedure I followed two weeks ago. Take the last exit before the Richmond Bridge. Park and approach the antiquated entrance to the prison on foot. Sign the massive guest register out in front. Report to the guards inside. Enter the secure “sally port” and show your ID to another guard behind Plexiglas. Exit the sally port, cut through a landscaped courtyard and walk to the baseball field. The only difference is that I was accompanied by a prison guard; Reichardt possesses a card that allows him to move about without escort.

The scene at the diamond surprised me. I imagined tight control — of me, of Press Democrat photographer Alvin Jornada and of the entire prison population. Instead, I found an atmosphere that inmate and catcher Juan Navarro described as “like being inside a college that you can’t get out of.”

Inmates strolled around the grounds in their blue jumpsuits. Some carried books. Some stopped to chat or exchanged greetings with baseball players.

Just to the east of the diamond was a basketball court (where members of the Warriors play every year), tennis courts, a weightlifting area and horseshoe pits. The baseball squad shares its outfield grass with soccer and football teams. There’s a running club, too. An hour or so before the games against Seattle began, a band practiced next to the field.

True, when you panned out, the scene looked a little more ominous, with armed guards stationed in towers, razor wire topping much of the outfield fence and the massive West Block of cells rising like a gothic tower beyond left field. The field was shabby, with an all-brown-dirt infield and a pitcher’s mound that looked like a small lump.

Still, as the sun dipped toward Mount Tamalpais to the west and a salty breeze blew off of the bay, there were probably worse places to play a little ball. An inmate updated the manual scoreboard in center field. Others gathered around the backstop to spectate, and even to heckle.

“Usually by about the fifth inning, you forget it’s prison,” Riddle-Terrell said.

Bill Sessa, an information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (and someone I know from his side job as a freelance motorsports writer), told me that San Quentin has a large population of Level 2 offenders — men who have received comparatively minor sentences or who have worked their way down from Level 4 or Level 3 by hewing to the rules of the system.

The sort of open wandering that takes place at San Quentin would be inconceivable at Corcoran or Pelican Bay. The message is clear: Screw up here, and you’ll find yourself somewhere worse.

And yet, as Sessa explained, all Level 2 state prisoners are allowed staples like vocational training, counseling and educational access. The superior extracurricular opportunities at San Quentin are mostly a function of location. Proximity to a vast metropolitan area means more volunteers and more money from empathetic donors. San Quentin has yoga classes (provided free of charge by a local instructor) and theater productions (coordinated by the Marin Shakespeare Company). Most of the athletic facilities here were underwritten by outsiders, including the baseball field.

Reichardt and Kremer hold tryouts in the early spring and pare down the roster to 20 players. Talent level varies widely. Some are playing organized baseball for the first time. At the other extreme is Anthony Denard, 40, who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 1996 and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1997 as a speedy centerfielder.

“If I hit it anywhere in the infield, and it was bobbled at all,” Denard said, “I was safe.”

Denard, who grew up in Oakland, washed out of the minor leagues early and went astray. When he was 22, he got into an argument at a gambling house, lost his temper and shot a man named Kevin Davis six times. Davis died, and Denard was convicted of second-degree murder.

“It’s something that I regret — not saying because I got caught,” he told me. “I regret because I took a mother’s child. And I hurt families. Not just one family, but two families. I’ve wrecked communities. The hurt, it will never stop.”

But Denard, who has a placid demeanor, a ready smile and a few extra prison pounds, believes he has something to offer. He dreams of coaching youth baseball with his two brothers. He’s scheduled to go before a parole board in 2024.

“We’re not what we did,” Denard said of the prison population.

Denard played some softball at other state prisons, but it was only one building vs. another. When he arrived at San Quentin and discovered there’s a hardball team here that goes up against junior-college and minor-league opponents, he was elated. He hadn’t played since the late 1990s.

“Fell in love all over again,” Denard said.

I expected the inmates to tell me that baseball is a good way to kill time, to grind down the endless nothingness of incarceration. They corrected me, explaining that there is no end to the work and study a man can do at San Quentin.

To these players, it’s more about personal growth.

“It gets us ready for getting back home,” Navarro said. “Just those little interactions you have to relearn. When teams come in to play, at first it’s handshakes.” Navarro pantomimed a stiff how-do-you-do. “At the end,” he said, “it’s all hugs.

What these men really appreciate are the connections formed on the diamond. If you’ve read or watched anything about maximum-security prisons, you know they are dangerous places, with harsh divides along racial lines. Life there is ruled by tension. San Quentin is generally more relaxed. It may be the only California prison in which different ethnic groups mix freely.

“Honestly, at first, when I found out there was a baseball team, I was like, ‘Should I do it?’” recalled Navarro, who is serving 40 years for armed robbery — four years for the robbery itself, and 36 for gun enhancements. “It’s prison. There’s all this racial stuff. And I would be the only Latino on the team. But as soon as you throw on the jersey, all that goes away.”

When Reichardt began coaching at San Quentin, there were two separate teams here, the A’s and the Giants. The A’s were predominately African-American, the Giants predominately white. That racial split is one reason the prison combined the two teams into one squad that uses both uniforms. “Come on, this is logic,” Reichardt said. “Use baseball as a common denominator.”

There’s another connection that matters here — the bond formed with visiting teams. Again, San Quentin is the only prison in California that allows games against outsiders. The visits can be fraught, at least at first.

“A small percentage, maybe three to five percent of the players who come in, never come back again,” Reichardt said. “They won’t outwardly say why, but they’re just not comfortable in the setting. I’m not sure if they’re claustrophobic. Maybe the guys in the watchtower with rifles are intimidating. I’ll say another 20 percent or so just come in to play baseball for a night and don’t put any emotional thought into it.”

The other 75 percent? They’re like the players from Seattle, a rec-league squad that, as far as anyone could recall, had traveled farther than any other team to play here. They were playing their fourth game in San Quentin in 48 hours, and by the time the final inning was over, the mutual affection was bubbling over. They all laughed and gently teased at the postgame handshake line.

Gathering around the mound, people from both sides offered thanks. Darkness was falling, and the field lights were on.

“We had no idea what to expect coming in,” David Steele, the Seattle coach, told his hosts. “Usually in baseball, guys are walking around trying to act stoic. You greeted us right away.”

He promised to return. There was a little more chit-chat, and then the two sides parted. They had met as strangers and come together as equals. Now the contrast in their lives came back into focus as the Seattle players left for their cars, their flights, their hotels and beds, wives and children. Reichardt headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. The A’s and Giants changed out of their dusty uniforms, ready to return to their cells, another X on the calendar as the doors slid shut.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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