Damien Echols

Bottom of the Ninth 

To say that life in prison is stressful would be an understatement of epic proportions. Most people wouldnít consider being stabbed in the face by a schizophrenic to be a normal job hazard, but in here, itís just par for the course. Not to mention being physically separated from everyone you love and who loves you. Combine it all with the fact that youíre viewed and treated as some sort of sub-human, and your day tends to go south with a quickness.

Life on death row is deliberately designed to be a cold and comfortless thing. Everything is made of either concrete or steel, and privacy does not exist. Youíre often at the whim of prison guards who make third-world dictators look like beacons of light and virtue. Most of the rules youíre expected to follow run counter to anything close to common sense, and if you ever get really sick, youíre probably going to die. I once saw a prisoner lie dead on the floor all night after having had a heart attack, and the only concern the prison administration had was whether or not they were going to be held responsible. During the summer the heat and insects are enough to drive you stark-raving mad. My hands have been so swollen that I could barely flex my fingers due to the number of insect bites.

The twelfth year I spent in this cage was the worst one for me, at least so far. My nerves were at the breaking point and my life was misery. That was the year I nearly gave up and lost all will to live. My physical health was rapidly deteriorating, the strain of trying to hold a marriage together in these circumstances was breaking my back, and I had used up every last ounce of willpower that I had. Then a miracle happened. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series. My sanity was saved by Johnny Damon.

Most sports mean absolutely nothing to me. The Olympics bore me to tears. Football is something I can take or leave. But when it comes to baseball, I am rabidly devoted. I never miss a game that I can pick up on television or radio. The reason is because baseball is magick. It gives off an aura that is greater than the sum of its parts. A baseball player is the closest thing to a titan that the modern world knows. When I see a player that I love step up to the plate with a bat in his hands, my heart absolutely soars. At that moment he becomes a symbol of hope. Thereís something heroic about a man with a stick in his hands rising up against those who oppose him from reaching home. Johnny Damon is the new Odysseus.

There are only two things within these walls that can soothe or relax me. One is going to Mass, the other is baseball. Having a baseball game on the television has the same effect on me as sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair. Itís a security blanket. When I have reached the very bottom of hopelessness, I will turn on a game, lie on my bunk, and pull the covers up over my head. I leave a tiny opening so that I can see the television with one eye. The sound of the announcerís voice lulls me towards relaxation in a way thatís almost hypnotic. It helps me to heal.

Perhaps the comforting quality that baseball has for me stems from the fact that some of my best childhood memories have to do with watching games with my grandmother. She was a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and never missed a game. I would be next to her on the couch as she watched, or quietly lying on the floor. For Christmas she would buy me baseball cards, protective sleeves for them, and albums to store them in. Even though I grew up to be a Boston fan, thereís still a soft spot in my heart for St. Louis. When I watch them play I can still feel my grandmother near me.

When a Red Sox player switches to another team, it always feels like a personal slight, as if heís consciously betrayed me. The day Johnny Damon signed a contract with the Yankees, I felt my heart drop. I was stunned, unable to comprehend how he could have defected to the Evil Empire. I was in mourning. Up until the very last second I couldnít shake the feeling that maybe he was just joking, and that at any moment heíd pull a red cap out of his back pocket, put it on his head (with his still as yet uncut hair), and say it was all a publicity stunt. Part of me knew this was as pathetic as going to a relativeís funeral and waiting for the moment he sits up in the casket and says, ďApril Fool!Ē Still, itís hard to crush that hope out. Damn you, Johnny Damon (shaking my fist towards the heavens).

Baseball is my escape hatch. When Iím watching it I become enveloped in the feeling that everything will turn out okay. It reminds me that if I just hang on long enough, anything could happen.





by Nancy Dunaway