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Music, Love, and Baseball

The eleventh annual Trans-Pecos Festival, at El Cosmico in Marfa, brings together not just top musical acts but a community of baseball aficionados.

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Jack Sanders watches from first base as Blake Gordon pitches at last year's "barnstorm," in Todos Santos, Mexico.
Dave Mead

For some baseball fans, the sport has gotten too big. The rising cost to attend a major league game, in order to pay players’ increasingly exorbitant contracts, has made it a prohibitive entertainment option for a lot of families. Baseball can’t be called America’s pastime if it can’t be afforded.

That problem will be solved this Saturday when the visiting Texas Playboys, a collective of middle-aged creative types from Austin, play nine innings at Vizcaino Park against the hometown Los Yonke Gallos, of Marfa, composed of Austin expats and Marfan ranchers not too far removed from playing ball in school. The game is part of the Trans-Pecos Festival of Music and Love, the eleventh annual weekend gathering at El Cosmico, the vintage trailer, teepee, and tent “hotel,” which this year is featuring acts like Kacey Musgraves, Neko Case, Calexico, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.

It will cost you to get into the concerts, but it’s free admission to the game and the price of beer and hotdogs is just right. Think Field of Dreams with some sideshow action. There will be a play-by-play announcer, goofy mascots—a squirrel for the Playboys and a rooster for the Gallos—and likely at least a couple of cars parked in the outfield whose drivers will start honking wildly every time the Gallos do something spectacular.

“It’s community baseball, where you’re supporting people you know,” said Jack Sanders, the general manager of the Texas Playboys. “You’re rooting for your co-worker or your friend, in addition to rooting for your town. That’s a lot different to me than rooting for Alex Rodriguez. I’m not anti-Major League Baseball, but I go pretty deep with this stuff.

In the nineties, Sanders matriculated at Auburn University to pursue his bachelor of architecture degree. As part of that program he worked with Rural Studio, a socially responsible architecture and design concern serving communities in need. Rural Studio is located in Newbern, Alabama—population 202, give or take—and Sanders became immersed in the world of the Newbern Baseball Club. He estimated that the town’s population would essentially double for the Sunday games. But the field was tired and needed a little help so Sanders and two classmates created a sculptural backstop out of chain-link fencing and hung it from suspension wires donated by the local electric company. The backstop, which became Sanders’s senior thesis, was displayed in 2002 at the Whitney Biennial, in New York, along with two other items to represent Rural Studio’s work.

Spellbound by the baseball club experience, Sanders founded the Texas Playboys after moving to Austin in the mid-aughts to acquire his master of architecture from the University of Texas. The idea was to travel back to Newbern from time to time and play against his old team. But after a couple of years, it became unfeasible for a number of reasons. Yet Sanders and the Playboys weren’t ready to hang up their cleats. That’s when they came up with the concept of what they refer to as a “barnstorm”: traveling outside of Austin to play games with a loose confederacy of adult recreational teams throughout the state and beyond. Then, each February, the Playboys host a black-tie affair during which members give presentations on where they want to travel next.

“What we learned is that this is a really interesting way to travel and to learn about place and people, and to engage with the community,” Sanders said. “Why don’t we try and do it in other cities? We’ve done this in New Orleans. Two weeks ago we went to Florence, Alabama, to play [fashion designer] Billy Reid’s team. And we played Third Man Records’ team and Jack White.”

When he formed the Texas Playboys, Sanders was also preaching in class about how his time in Newbern had influenced his architectural point of view. One of his professors, Stephen Ross, knew that Liz Lambert, the Texas boutique hotelier, and Sanders spoke the same language, so he hooked them up. Lambert was looking to build on the success of her Hotel San Jose, on Austin’s trendy South Congress Avenue. Lake Flato, the San Antonio architecture firm, had drawn up plans for a campground, to be located just outside of downtown Marfa, but Lambert had yet to bring it to fruition.

In September 2006 Lambert threw a party on the grounds of what was to become El Cosmico. At the time Sanders was sowing the seeds of his own practice, Design Build Adventure, a jack-of-all-trades creative firm with projects including ranch bunkhouses, landscape design, furniture, a public art piece for the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, and grills for the farm-to-table restaurant Dai Due. Sanders said Lambert billed the gathering as the “See It Before It’s There Party.” But it was really the first Trans-Pecos Festival. In the decade since, the fest has grown to occupy a rarified spot on the concert circuit for its communal feel and the open interaction between performers, vendors, and ticketholders.

Sanders went out there a week or so before the party and dug a firepit, cleaned out a horse shed to create the bar that still stands today, and set up a dance floor and some temporary art installations. Lambert brought out two renovated trailers from Austin to act as showroom models. El Cosmico grew organically over the next few years, with Sanders serving as a project manager, helping to institute a theme for the space and source all the materials.

“If you try to imagine building El Cosmico and using nothing but Home Depot stuff, it isn’t going to work because Home Depot is four hours away,” Sanders said. “But you can go to what’s called Livingston Ranch Supplies and look at what they’ve got, and then you start shaping it from there.”

A couple of years into the Trans-Pecos Festival, Sanders and Lambert came up with the idea of a yearly rivalry game between the Playboys and Gallos; the action would serve a void in between the nightly music.

“Part of it was, ‘What are the Trans Pecos guests going to do at noon on Saturday?’” Sanders said. “They can’t all go to Chinati at the same time. They can’t all go to the Food Shark and eat at the same time. And Marfa’s always got this vibe of ‘What the hell do we do?’”

The bleachers are bound to be full of a friendly mix of weekend interlopers and locals. Because the field is elevated, there will certainly be an awesome view of the mountains and the sky. And Sanders, who plays first base as well as pitcher, will inevitably be on the mound. “I’m known for my really slow curve,” he said. “It’s called Purple Rain.”

For those who don’t have tickets to the festival, there will be an opportunity to hear some music from one of the slated performers: the National Anthem. “I don’t know who will do it this year,” Sanders said. “But last year was St. Vincent. I mean, how cool is that?”
Vizcaino Park, 12 p.m., September 24, elcosmico.com

Other Events Across Texas

AUSTIN
On the Lege
The politics of Texas has become national business. Case in point: the Sixth Annual Texas Tribune Festival, where in addition to the state’s finest thinkers, speakers will include Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times; Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate; and Phil Collins, the musician and Alamo fanboy, plus an array of U.S. governors, mayors, and members of Congress.
The University of Texas, September 23–25, texastribune.org/festival

BASTROP
Lost in a Book
At more than eight hundred pages, Lonesome Dove is an epic adventure in more ways than one. The same can probably be said for the Lonesome Dove Maze, a corn field that has been carved into a tableau of items synonymous with McMurtry’s story—a dove, a pistol, and a Texas Ranger badge—through which people will try to traverse before it gets dark and it seems like you are Gus and Blue Duck is on your tail.
Barton Hill Farms, September 24 to November 13, bartonhillfarms.com

BLANCO
Dance Hall for the Long Haul
Dance halls, those German-engineered community spaces for boot-scooting and roots music, have joined cowboys on the list of endangered Texas originals. Put some cash in the coffer at “Raise the Roof,” a fundraiser for Twin Sisters Dance Hall, with barbecue and chili cookoffs, a washer tournament, and musical acts including Zydeco Blanco, Grupo Folklorico de Bendiciones, and Jason Roberts, the Grammy-winning former fiddler for Asleep at the Wheel.
Twin Sisters Dance Hall, September 24, 10 a.m., twinsistersdancehall.com

DALLAS
Nosh Pit
In Texas, pitmasters are rock stars, so bands like the Toadies, from Dallas, and Shinyribs, from Austin, who are headlining Smoked Dallas, a one-day meat and live music fest, shouldn’t feel badly if the autograph requests go to the people manning the smokers. Many of them are from enterprises on Texas Monthly’s list of the fifty best barbecue joints, including Black’s, from Lockhart; Hutchins, from McKinney; Lockhart Smokehouse, from Dallas; Louie Mueller, from Taylor; and Cousin’s and Longoria’s, both from Fort Worth.
Main Street Garden, September 24, 2:30 p.m., smokeddallas.com

DENTON
All That Jazz
Grammy winner Norah Jones is taking this return-to-her-roots thing seriously. Not only does she revisit jazz on her new album, Day Breaks, but she will also return to Denton, where she studied jazz at the University of North Texas, to play the new songs at Oaktopia, a weekend festival including other Texas acts like White Denim, Erykah Badu, and Robert Ellis.
Downtown, September 23–24, oaktopia.com

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