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SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON
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.