COMO — Friday night lights have a strong association with football in Texas. But in the heat of summer, lights beckon players and fans to baseball diamonds. For some communities, fields represent a social center.
Fields are places where families, friends and neighbors connect over hot dogs and preferred beverages. Como Field is one such place.
Como, Texas, is a homecoming town. Like so many others in East Texas, it's a one-store hometown for salt-of-the-Earth folks. It's a place where the most criminal act to occur within its limits in eons was the premeditated murder of a 100-plus-year-old sprawling oak tree that shaded Dale Miller's fueling station decades before it became a dollar store parking lot.
"It's between Winnsboro and Sulphur Springs on (Texas) Highway 11," is the best description locals can give as to where Como lies on a map.
Como is best known for its farms and farmers, but a handful of successful "businesses" straddle the highway.
Most children of Como are lost to bigger cities, from Philadelphia, San Diego, San Antonio, Dallas and Tyler. They leave for work, family and opportunity. Thanksgiving, Christmas, the annual crawfish boil and class reunion/homecomings are big events, but homecomings happen year-round in Como.
Como is not a town with much distinction. The city limit sign reads 702 residents live there. It shares a school district with nearby Pickton.
There may be few claims to fame associated with Como but its cathedral of baseball and softball built in the center of its "downtown" square is one of them.
Como Field is ugly by baseball field standards. The house that Ruth built, it is not. But for its rusty pipe fence, its lights that cast a golden glow over its dirt infield and areas of a patchy grass outfield, Como Field is a place with a mystique attached to ballparks like Fenway and Wrigley.
For every bad hop or adventure between the chalk-lines, it returns the essence of playing ball on a hot summer night tenfold.
The field's dimensions are a dream for big swingers, especially lefties. It's 200 feet from home plate to the right field fence. At 220 feet, the left field fence offers little more resistance.
The measure of a great home run at Como Field is not clearing the fence. A statement home run includes clearing Farm-to-Market Road 69 and rattling a car parked in the First Baptist Church of Como's parking lot to left field and putting a visible dent in the siding of the former Pepsi distribution center to right field.
But its tight dimensions and a three-home run limit also can level the playing field and showcase the merits of hustle, base hits and defense.
Mike Flora, 55, a Como farmer, helped set the cinder blocks for its concession stand and chain link along its drill-stem pipe fence.
Games and tournaments were major events for the town, he said. Teams came from all around, he said. They came from Texarkana and Dallas, Brashear and Royce City, Alba and Oklahoma.
In the 1970s, the field's heyday, big tournaments started Monday night, Flora said. They continued on weeknights until Friday, when games ran 24-hours until play was suspended for Sunday services, he said.
Play resumed with the championship game after church, Flora said.
Generations of players, including Sam Matthews, a semi-pro ball player from Como born in 1912, Richard Teer, Robert Clark, Milburn "Catfish" Hettich, Henry "Steppin" Stone, P.J. Ponder, Mark Matthews and Eddie McGregor showcased their speed, power, throwing arms and defensive "leather" in front of hundreds of spectators over the decades.
"Robert Clark's crew was as good as I ever saw," Flora said. "They traveled all over the place and there wasn't a place you could go from here to Arkansas where people wouldn't recognize Robert Clark. People knew Como because of softball."
Richard Teer, 72, watched fast-pitch games at the field as a boy. He played fast-and-slow pitch games there until he turned 50.
Teer said there were multiple fields where games were played in Como, but the downtown field was the one everyone loved.
"It was the only show in town," he said. "I don't know what it was but teams from Dallas and all over loved to play there."
Hettich, 64, a longtime dairyman, said the field's relaxed atmosphere made the field a player favorite.
It was a place where area churches and neighboring towns sent their best players to compete, he said. Play was competitive enough that Hettich and Mark Matthews spent a winter working on a pitch that would fade away from Brashear's lefty-heavy lineup that "smeared" Como when there was no limit on home runs. It worked and Brashear never beat Como on its home field again, Hettich said.
"Slow pitch is designed for scoring lots of runs, but we got where there were one-to-nothing games because we learned to pitch there and played with our heads," he said. "Other teams did, too."
Since its heyday, the field has hosted Little League games, pickup softball games, tackle-the-man-with-the-ball football and "ghost runner" baseball games between Como children too few in number to roster two teams.
The field fell into ill repair for the past few decades. The concession stand became a roofless hollow shell. The left-field fence rusted beyond repair and the lights grew fewer in number and candlepower and its scoreboard stopped reporting.
But the field has experienced resurgence of late. Pickup games spontaneously erupt into multiteam, "winner keeps the field" affairs. Tournaments draw teams from around the area and there is talk of the field's "old days."
Phillip Kincaid, 37, a 25-year Como resident and city commissioner and other residents, young and older, are putting sweat equity into restoring the field. Restoration of the concession stand is near completion. The stands have been repaired and repainted. But there is work to do on its fencing, lights and diamond.
"It's been a community effort to try to bring the field back to what it was," he said. "We're trying to raise money with tournaments and find other ways to pay for the major improvements like new lights."
The latest tournament of note on the fabled field was a 16-team, two-day, double-elimination benefit for one of Como's salt-of-the-Earth sons last year, which split games between Como Field and the Como-Pickton High School field.
The eventual champion was a co-ed team of Dallas ringers that toyed with teams until play weeded lesser opponents. In the championship game, the visitors faced a team laced with locals, and in true softball fashion, the game hinged on a few close plays — a hit here and catch there — and ended with the local team falling one run shy of a bottom of the ninth rally to extend the game.
Como Field holds a special place in the hearts of many, including Flora.
He met and got to know his wife of 33 years, Tina, at the field during tournaments there. It was the only place she was allowed to stay out past 11 p.m.
There is hope among Como residents the field can be restored to its former glory for future generations to play ball.
"I'm glad to see they got it going again," Flora said. "There's people from all over the country that have played ball in Como. They loved playing there, too."