"This might just be another game to you guys, but to the men in there, it's an event," the warden of Western Penitentiary told my softball team back in the summer of 1978.
"We invite only the best area teams to play the inmates. They haven't lost a slow-pitch softball game in 10 years against outside organizations like yours. Consider it an honor that your U.S. Steel team from the Pittsburgh Industrial League was chosen to compete against them."
We stood attentive and silent on grass outside the massive jailhouse.
"Oh, one more thing," he said, as we stared at him. "There'll be heavy betting on this game, but not with money. They wager cigarettes and protect them like cash. Good luck, gentlemen."
As we walked down a brick hallway inside, the loud clank of a huge, cell-like door behind startled us. I turned and realized we were locked in, akin to the automatic locking of cellblocks in movies!
A stone-faced guard told us brusquely to proceed singly through an airportlike security door. Our third baseman was the first to enter.
Immediately, an alarm screamed, and four guards appeared out of nowhere. Jim's honest explanation that he had screws in both knees fell on deaf ears, and we were all ordered to drop our pants and empty our equipment bags while the men in gray watched. It was a sight to see: nervous players scampering after loose bats and rolling softballs while trying to hold their pants up with one hand. The sourpuss guard snickered!
After clearing security, we walked anxiously from the outfield to our bench on the first base side, while some 90 prisoners wearing light blue jump suits with white stripes on their backs taunted us from bleachers. It was very unnerving.
A teammate whispered, "I sure hope that cop killer, Hoss, isn't in there. I only see one guard -- he's way up in that gigantic tower behind home plate."
While we were warming up near our bench, a diminutive jailbird approached. "Are you the pitcher?" he asked. After learning I was, he probed further: "Are you guys any good? I wanna know 'cause they're layin' odds on how bad we're gonna beat ya."
"Last year we won 34 games and lost only five, so I guess we're pretty good," I answered.
He changed the subject quickly, pointing to two inmates walking hand-in-hand across the outfield grass. "They're husband and wife. The tall guy's the wife, the short dude's the husband," he said. "See that big monster over there? Killed his mother, chopped her up, stuffed her in a suitcase and mailed it to his girlfriend."
The cross-eyed convict said all this with a mumble, looking around apprehensively, as if the men could hear. I tried not to let his descriptions bother me.
The game started none too soon. Teddy, our left fielder, marched up to me wide-eyed at the end of the first inning. "When I chased that foul ball into the bleachers, somebody said, 'The last guy who came in here for a ball didn't come out alive.' "
"Oh, don't worry, they're just trying to psych you out," I replied.
A pretty white chapel behind the right field fence was only about 200 feet from home plate. Attempting to prevent the opposition from hitting cheap home runs, I pitched left-handed batters outside and the righties inside, as did their pitcher.
The game was scoreless until we scored a run in the top of the sixth inning. The slim lead held up entering the bottom of the ninth. The first two batters grounded out and flied out. The third hitter smacked a hard ground ball to third, but our first baseman dropped the throw that would have ended the game. Their next batter, a lefty, somehow pulled an outside pitch just barely over that short fence, and we lost the hard-fought game, 2-1.
After congratulatory handshakes with the victors, we were dejectedly gathering up our equipment when the prison team's manager approached ours. "This was the best game anybody's played against us in years -- you fellas really should have won. My guys are wondering whether you could stay and play again."
We lost the second game as well, 4-0, keeping Western Pen's winning streak intact. We may have lost the games, however, but not our freedom.
Bill McKinley of West Deer, a retired administrator for United States Steel and Carnegie Pension Fund, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Baseball Lore" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.