Welcome to the big leagues

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Orwell once wrote that serious sport is like war – minus the shooting. I’m not so sure. But it’s notable that this definition from Britain’s most prolific pessimist didn’t exclude baseball batting. Neither does it rule out skewering (with a broken golf club), thwacking (of the crib-board variety), or skulling (which requires but a single iron horseshoe and a vivid imagination). In fact, with all due respect to Orwell, you might as well throw in the bullets – as long as there’s a rule about warning shots. At least that’s how we do it in the Big House.

If there’s one thing Joe taxpayer hates more than a convict watching cablevision, it’s a convict playing croquet. Or tennis. Or anything with the word ball n it. But it hasn’t always been that way. Before the Great Depression brought boxcars full of shiftless young men to the front gates of hell (Kingston Penitentiary), the prison exercise yard was also knows as the rock quarry. But by the 1930’s, many of those behind bars in Canada had already paid for certain freedoms in the blood-drunk trenches of Europe. Now they wanted to play a little three-base stickball.

On October 17th, 1932, a disturbance in the stone sheds behind Kingston’s cellblock bloomed into a full-blown riot that had been germinating since the turn of the decade. And while the results that day were predictable (more Canadian blood on the bricks), the smashup made it equally evident that the events in Flanders fields had changed more than just the landscape of the Ottoman Empire. In a world now measured against the bloodiest war in history, Her Majesty’s Penitentiary would be requiring a softball diamond – for low.

“You want to have what?” the sports officer asked me one day fifteen years ago.

“A family sports day. I’m sick of watching guys stab each other and overdose on heroin for entertainment. We need to change it up around here.” The officer stared at me with a cocked eyebrow, like I had just asked for a cold Molson Canadian. Not exactly a sporting reception.

So I explained to him about the twenty-odd guys whose kids come to visit every weekend. What was here for them? A cramped visiting room where they couldn’t leave their seats, and a Dad who divided the time between griping about lockup and groping about under Mom’s shirt. I wanted a day where kids could hang out with their Fathers and come away with more than a lecture on schoolwork and dirty bedrooms. I wanted medals, ice cream, even a water balloon fight. And I wanted to do it up so that some events would allow kids and parents to compete together against other kid-parent teams. Slowly, Sergeant Sport’s surly stare gave way to a nearly invisible nod.

“You write it up… and I’ll take it to the warden.” He said. “But skip the water sports. Knowing you guys, it’ll turn into a big wet t-shirt contest. Wouldn’t the Globe & Mail just love that?”

Maybe not. But as I think back now, Family Sports Day at Kent maximum security penitentiary sure brought a lot of love to the faces of some kids who had paid for it in blood – the blood of kinship.

There were sack races where fathers and daughters moved in step – often for the first time in their lives. There were teams of uncles and nephews, spoon and egg in hand, racing against retired mothers and their incarcerated sons. There was baseball tossing, egg catching, base running, and even a tug-o-war where families three generations deep stared each other down from opposite sides of an unauthorized mud puddle. But the best part was the judges. While I can’t say for sure that the underworld got to them, the fact that every kid won the exact same number of gold, silver, and bronze medals will certainly go down as one of the greatest sporting miracles in modern history.

The next day, I was sitting in the corner of the gym soliciting donations for all the hardware and soft ice cream, when a churlish sixty-something named Carl came over and picked the donation sheet up off the table.

“This sports day thing – that was your big idea?” I nodded.

“Were you able to make it out to the events yesterday, Carl?”

“Nope. But I sure as hell heard it blasting through my window all afternoon.” I braced myself for the oncoming hurricane. If there’s one thing old guys in prison are particular about, it’s noise. And afternoon naps.

“You know,” he continued. “That’s the first time I heard the sound of laughing children in sixteen years. I just sat there all day with my window wide open, sucking it up like a sponge. I hope you do it again next year.”

Carl finished scrawling on the donation sheet, handed it back to me, and shuffled off in the direction of the Big Yard. I let out my breath and relaxed, glancing at what the cranky convict had handed me. There on the sheet, next to Carl’s name and signature. Five hundred bucks. For him, a year’s pay. For us, enough to cover the entire event and the following year’s as well. Ain’t war hell?

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