On the fourth of July, nearly 1,000 fans made their way to Kokernot Field in West Texas to see the Alpine Cowboys play. In the town of Alpine, population 5,500, a crowd of 1,000 people is sizable. That night was the highlight of the baseball season for alumni Riley Smith ’14 and Scott Hong ’14, who played for the Alpine Cowboys this past summer.
“It was just really great to sign autographs and watch the fireworks after the game with the fans,” Smith said. “Getting to play on the Fourth in front of all these people that really love our team—it was a beautiful moment.”
Smith, a shortstop, and Hong, a pitcher, played against Ithaca College during a spring break game last season. The pair impressed Ithaca head coach Ryan Stevens, who also happens to be the manager for the Cowboys.
Stevens liked the pair enough to offer them each a spot on his team, which competes in the Pecos League, a professional independent league operating in cities with no Major or Minor League Baseball teams. The league includes teams from New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Colorado.
Independent league baseball is considered professional because the athletes are paid to play, but the players make little in salary compared even to Minor League players.
“Let’s just say if you’re playing down there you’re not in it for the money,” Smith said.
The Alpine Cowboys play 70 games in 75 days, in a season that spans May through August. Hong lived in a hotel when the team was in Alpine, and Smith lived in a coach’s guest room, but they were never in Alpine for long. The team traveled for two weeks at a time, sometimes as long as 10 hours in a day to make it to their next series.
“We stayed in a lot of hotels, definitely not the best ones,” Smith said. “You really learn a lot about yourself and your teammates being crammed in hotel rooms with each other for two weeks at a time.”
Although the Cowboys are not affiliated with Major League Baseball, many players go into independent leagues hoping to advance their careers. That desire is what drives players like Smith and Hong to continue playing for the Alpine Cowboys.
“It’s such a grind. You’ve really got to want to play at as high level as you can,” Smith said. “It’s a stepping stone and gives you an opportunity to max out and give everything you can on a baseball field.”
Smith began to realize his full potential as a senior last season when he hit .290 with three home runs and 18 RBI while manning shortstop.
Smith said he is not done with his professional career yet, and plans to return to Alpine for another season next summer. The decision to return would not surprise Smith’s former coach at Occidental, Luke Wetmore. According to Wetmore, Smith’s positive outlook and love of the game allow him to handle the daily challenges of independent ball.
“Riley was always pure emotion and energy,” Wetmore said. “Easily the most excitable guy we’ve had and an all around great ballplayer. He kept us smiling while we were working hard.”
With a politics degree from Occidental in hand, Smith is taking the LSAT in the winter with the hope of attending law school when his baseball career ends.
While Smith is set to return to Alpine next summer, Hong is not as positive about his future on the diamond.
“You always go with the hopes of reaching a higher level of baseball,” Hong said. “I’m glad I did it, but taking it to the pro level, I don’t think it’s exactly my calling. I went in with those hopes, but at this point I’m still considering all my options.”
Hong finished his baseball career at Occidental with a stellar campaign in 2013. He hit .336 and led the SCIAC with 33 stolen bases, while also contributing a 1.39 ERA and four saves as the team’s closer.
Last season, he was a graduate assistant coach for the program, helping with base running and coaching outfielders before heading to Alpine. He hopes to take what he has learned playing at Alpine this year and apply it to his coaching and training aspirations.
“I majored in kinesiology at Occidental, and training specifically for baseball really interests me,” Hong said. “I’m looking to get involved with a baseball academy. I’ve learned a ton from playing pro ball and feel like I could give a lot back to younger players.”
While his stint in Alpine did not go exactly as planned, Hong recalls a specific game in Las Vegas as a highlight of his first professional season.
“It was one of the Las Vegas Train Robbers games,” Hong said. “I came in with the bases loaded, and ended up getting three outs without giving up a run. I think the game was tied at that point, so that was a big point for me, getting to secure the win like that.”
Hong’s teammates insist that he is no stranger to securing wins for his team.
“Scott was the type of player that his presence alone made the team play better, not even mentioning the handful of games he solely put the team on his back and got us a win,” catcher Victor Muñoz (senior) said.
Whether Smith and Hong decide to go back to Alpine or hang up their mitts for good, one thing is certain: their determination is consistently admired by their coaches and teammates. This work ethic allowed them to experience something most Division III athletes never will—the chance to play beyond the collegiate level.
“They are great baseball players and even better young men, fun to be around, with bright futures in pro baseball for the Cowboys,” Stevens said.
However long their baseball careers last, their coaches have high hopes for them on and off the field.
“I couldn’t be happier that they had a chance to pursue their dreams and that they both have a phenomenal education to fall back on,” Wetmore said.