Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Best Little Ballpark In Texas [or Anywhere Else]

Kokernot Field in Alpine out in Far West Texas will make you fall in love with baseball again - especially now that the Big Bend Cowboys semi pro team has been playing this summer in the so-called Continental Baseball League. The Cowboys are a throwback; the whole team's salary for the season is $25,000 and players stay with local families during home stands. (click on the headline for the Big Bend Cowboys' website)

Then again, so is Kokernot. Built of native stone and iron in 1947 by Mr. Herbert Kokernot, Jr., the owner of the storied 06 Ranch which once almost surrounded the town of Alpine, the ballpark is a miniature of the old Yankee Stadium, only fancier, with wrought iron decor that features baseballs, great sightlines, and a view that won't quit. Baseball writer Nicholas Dawidoff of Sports Illustrated called it "the loveliest ballpark in America" and the Best Little Ballpark in Texas [And Anywhere Else].

For me, going to Fenway Park or Wrigley Field is like going to church, so hallowed are the stands. But Kokernot is even better because it's the way baseball used to be. Tickets are $7. Fans with the dirtiest car win a free car wash. Girls pass the hat in the stands whenever a Cowboy hits a home run. The mountain vistas beyond the outfield wall are sublime, although the architect who built the modern high school over the right field wall obviously did not understand how sacred Kokernot Field was/is because the modern school is a real eyesore and interrupts the mountain view.
There's a real fantasy aspect to it, beginning with the team's owner, who announces the game from the press box. One of my writing workshop students sat next to a proud mother and father who'd driven 24 hours from Ohio to watch their son play.

OK, OK, maybe the fact that I was selected to throw out the first pitch of the game to promote the Way Out West Texas Book Festival influenced my enthusiasm (the pitch was hard, chest high and a little outside, but it popped when it hit the catcher's mitt). But even if I hadn't, just being there was enough to make you love the game again.

My colleague DJ Stout was at the game. He was born in Alpine. His dad was a pitcher for Mr. Herbert and his mom met his dad at Sul Ross University and used to watch Alpine Cowboys' game where she met her future husband. DJ's dad has started an Alpine Cowboys web site
and DJ is working on a book about the team for University of Texas Press. It was great watching my old friend relive so many memories. He introduced me to Chris Lacey, the grandson of Mr. Herbert, who was watching the game behind home plate.

Although Sul Ross University and local amateur teams have used the field for years (when I wrote about the ballpark for Texas Monthly back in the mid 1980s, I saw the Lobos split a doubleheader with the University of Chihuahua in international intercollegiate play), it's been more than 45 years since pro ball was played here and this season has really engaged the community and the whole Big Bend region.

You can go watch overpaid jocks in your major leagues. I'll take the Big Bend Cowboys any day. Their home field is an architectural wonder - the best baseball park in the world, according to Sports Illustrated, as is noted before the start of every game.

There's a good story about the Alpine Cowboys at the Western Canada Baseball site - - written by Kerry Laird of the Alpine Avalanche newspaper

Here's the 1989 story from Sports Illustrated
DJ's will have Nicholas Dawidoff's story in the book.


Anonymous said...

As the late Loel Passe would say, "Now you chunkin' in there, Joe Nick!!"


Doyle Stout said...

Joe Nick. Your enthusiasm for the lore of the Alpine Cowboys is contagious. Great job and thanks for your many inputs. DJ will do a great job on the new illustrated book and it will be a "winner".