So Mr. Herbert gave it a go. With future Angel All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi and Red Sox third baseman Dalton Jones on the roster, the Cowboys won the first Sophomore League title. There were things, however, about these 'fessionals, as he called them, that Mr. Herbert couldn't abide. In the old days when a slight rainfall softened his infield, Mr. Herbert had simply called the game off, telling ticket holders to use their stubs the next day. You couldn't do that with pros. McNeil remembers, "He told me, 'I'm fed up with this 'fessional baseball. Why they trade these boys right and left, selling them off like cattle.' "
Mr. Herbert wasn't entirely displeased when the league folded after three years. Before this happened, however, he and his ballpark spun their usual spell over ballplayers. "It was amazing," says Fregosi, who played 18 years in the majors. "The best ballpark I ever played in."
With the Cowboys defunct, for the next seven years Kokernot Field was the exclusive home of the Sul Ross Lobos. In a sense, Alpine adopted the Lobos as their new town team. Mr. Herbert, of course, became their most enthusiastic supporter. Then in 1968, as the team returned from losing in the first round of the NAIA World Series, word was passed down the bus aisle that Sul Ross president Norman McNeil was discontinuing the baseball program. McNeil had never had much use for athletics, or for Mr. Herbert. "Apparently he thought a college ought to concentrate everything on academics," says Brooks. "He also might have been a little jealous of Mr. Herbert and the attention he got."
In Alpine there was outrage. "Mr. Herbert never interfered, never made his donations with strings attached." says Chandler. "He gave tuition money to people who needed it whether they could play baseball or not. He gave that school so much, and all he ever cared about was a boy's education, seeing a good game and being sure that his cows were eating." Despite howls of protest, the school held firm. So Mr. Herbert gave the field to Alpine High School, making it the nation's most lavish high school diamond. After that he wasn't seen around town as much.
Fifteen years went by. Without Mr. Herbert, the ballpark fell into disrepair. "He was just sick about it," says Chandler. "The lamps were falling down, everything needed paint, seats were in disarray. He was hurt and offended that nobody kept it up. He was really down."
Then in the fall of 1983, wonderful news arrived with the cactus roses. President McNeil was gone, and the weekly Alpine Avalanche reported that college baseball was returning to the Big Bend. Sul Ross leased the ballpark again and spent $150,000 planting, painting, polishing and generally restoring things to their former splendor. The school also hired Brooks, a coach who appreciated Alpine baseball wisdom and the adage that went, "Visiting teams never do very well the first time they come to Kokernot Field. Their mouths are hanging open at the sight of our ballpark."
Mr. Herbert consented to throw out the first ball at the Lobos' home opener in 1983, but he was reluctant to get his hopes up, and he stayed away after that. In 1987, at age 87, he died and was buried on a knoll on the O6 range in view of the ranchhouse, the fences and the cottonwoods that chase along toward the mountains and beyond to the ballpark he had built 40 years before.
These days, after the college season is over, the loveliest ballpark in America becomes home to the Alpine Pony League team, coached by Scotty Lewis, who, like his father before him, went to college on a baseball scholarship paid for by Herbert Kokernot Jr. On Lewis's squad is a hard-hitting, smooth-fielding first baseman named Lance Lacy. He is the great grandson of Mr. Herbert and the first Kokernot to play for a team on the family field. Lance, 14, is a freckled little fellow with a bright grin. Watching him smack a line drive or deftly field a twisting grounder would have brought joy to his great-grandfather's heart. As former Cowboy shortstop Pete Swain says, "Mr. Herbert would have been so elated to actually have somebody in the family playing there, where Gaylord Perry and Norm Cash played. That would have made all the time and money and hurt worthwhile. People in Alpine still talk as though he's looking down on Kokernot Field, protecting it, and if he is. I think he's smiling again."