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Cobb Field / Billings Mustangs

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This is a baseball stadium without pretension, providing one of the purer baseball experiences in the minor leagues. If you don't have an interest in baseball, you're not going to like Cobb Field. But if you like baseball, you'll love Cobb Field. Home to minor-league baseball since 1948, Cobb Field offers the same basic baseball experience that you would have enjoyed at almost any time in the past.

FAST FACTS

Year Built: 1948
Capacity: 4,200
Last Visit: September 2007
Address/Directions: 901 N. 27th St., Billings. 27th Street is a main drag on the eastern side of downtown Billings. If you're coming from the I-90 freeway, take the N. 27th Street exit (number 450) and head north. Cobb Field is on the eastern side of N. 27th Street.

Cobb Field was torn down in September 2007 to make way for Dehler Park. The photos in the slideshow below were taken by Nelson King on Sept. 17, 2007. The folks in Billings sure love their baseball. The reserved box seats -- folding chairs expensively priced at $6 per game -- are sold out for season-ticket holders. The rest of us must do with $5 general-admission seats ($4 for seniors and students, free for children 5-years-old or younger). This is a great deal: we sat in the third row of general-admissions seats directly behind home plate and had a great view of the game. Seats under the canopy have backs, while outfield bleacher seats do not. There really isn't a bad seat in the house, and the main advantage to sitting under the canopy is to stay out of the sun, which can be quite severe in the midst of summer.

With a steady stream of customers, the Mustangs management hasn't yet been forced to take a bread-and-circuses promotional approach to games. While there are the usual game-day promotions like you'd find at any ballpark -- cup, schedule magnet, and cap giveaways -- there's no between-innings shenanigans, no bat races, no sumo-wrestling matches sponsored by liquor companies. Indeed, the only diversions to the actual game come when the boosters sell 50-50 tickets, a raffle where the winner keeps half of the proceeds and the Mustangs Boosters Club keeps the other half, and a beer batter (if the designated Mustangs beer batter gets a hit, you can buy four beers for $5 during the remainder of the inning).

Cobb Field has a rather interesting history. It's named for Robert Cobb, the owner of the Pacific Coast League's Hollywood Stars, in recognition of his efforts to bring organized professional baseball to Billings. Today, Cobb is better known as the founder and owner of the legendary Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and as the man who claimed to have invented the Cobb Salad. (There appears to be some debate over this among foodies; we'll let it go at that.)

The ballpark will be replaced in 2008 with a new ballpark. And for those fans who regularly attend Billings Mustangs games, it will surely provide a more comfortable experience than Cobb Field did. Yes, the concourses were small and dark, the restrooms a little dank, and the seating uncomfortable. But there was something awfully reassuring about Cobb Field: no matter how far you wandered from Billings and Montana, it was always there waiting for you, a constant in a sea of change. And as Billings grows out of its cowtown roots and becomes more cosmopolitan (indeed, take a walk up and down Montana Avenue to take in all the trendy restaurants and art galleries), there probably wasn't a place left for Cobb Field, a wooden anachronism at a time when fans and team owners want picnic areas, large concession stands and plenty of merchandise shops.

CONCESSION HIGHLIGHTS
Carnival food dominates at Cobb Field. The cotton candy is made fresh on the premises -- none of that stale crap that's been sitting on a shelf for a month -- and both Sno Kones and slushies (the equivalent of Icees or Mr. Mistys) are available -- in fact, there's usually quite the line into the room housing the Sno Kone and cotton-candy booths. The signature meat by-product is a Cobb Dog, an eight-ounce foot long costing $3.

There are a few roving vendors, but they're limited to peddling pop and candy.

The beer selection is better than it's been in recent years and limited to beer stands in the main concourse and down the third-base line. In the main concourse, your selections are Bud, Bud Light, Michelob Amber Bock and Yellowstone Grizzly Wulff (from the Yellowstone Brewing Company), but the prices are very reasonable: $2.50 for the Anheuser-Busch beers and $3.50 for the Yellowstone Grizzly Wulff. There are similar selections at the booth down the third-base line.

PARKING
There's a smaller lot adjacent to Cobb Field, but it fills up quickly, as swimmers visiting the next-door public swimming pool vie for parking spots on a hot day. There's a slew of "No Parking" signs on the street, but we parked on the street and didn't receive a ticket. You can also park in the streets in the nearby residential area. As you might expect on the wide-open prairie, all the parking is free.

BEFORE THE GAME
Billings is a town in transition, and it's changed dramatically since I first visited it eight years ago. Back then, Billings was a dusty cowtown full of railroad transients, ranchers coming in to buy supplies, and not a whole lot else. Downtown Billings was on its way to becoming a ghost town, and except for a few malls on the western edge of town, there just wasn't a whole lot going on. (Why did I visit? Because Billings is a convenient location for entering Yellowstone Park's northeast entrance.)

Today, there's a lot of vibrancy to Billings. While there's still an emphasis on the agricultural and railroad economies, tourism is a more important part of the city, as folks heading to Yellowstone National Park or the rest of Montana will find reasons to spend more time in Billings. And the population in Billings has stabilized, meaning that there's a captive audience for some of the finer things in life. Downtown Billings is a mix of stores geared for cowboys (you still can buy custom-made cowboy hats in Billings), the businesspeople who work for the many banks with a sizeable presence (Wells Fargo, US Bank) and the rest of us (coffeeshops, cigar shops, even a brewpub).

If you have time, spend it wandering around downtown Billings. Shop where the cowboys shop at Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters (123 N. Broadway) or Connolly's Western Wear (2911 Montana Av.), which has been selling spurs that jingle jangle jingle since 1912. Before the game we ate at the Montana Brewing Company (113 N. Broadway), which has a good selection of microbrews and your typical bar fare (burgers, fries, pizzas, pasta).

Two downtown museums are worth a visit. The Western Heritage Center (2822 Montana Av.) explains the history of the region, from the arrival of settlers to the 1940s, while the Yellowstone Art Museum (401 N. 27th St.) displays a fascinating collection of contemporary Western art. Snobs might snicker at the notion of Western art, but anyone interested in art will get something out of the Yellowstone Art Museum.

If you're into American Indian history, a visit to Pictograph Cave State Park (located seven miles southeast of Billings on I-90; take the Lockwood exit) is mandatory, with 4,500-year-old cave paintings showing life on the prairie, which at that time included the hunting of the now-extinct woolly mammoth.

Those up for a more ambitious day trip should make the 59-mile trek to Red Lodge (take Highway 212 from the Laurel exit west of Billings) or the 100-mile trek to Cody, Wyoming. Red Lodge is now a tourist destination, and its main street is full of trendy little shops, coffeeshops, good restaurants, and a good brewpub. Highly recommended is the Montana Candy Emporium on the northern end of the main drag. It features Montana specialties (such as huckleberry taffy, huckleberry preserves, and other assorted huckleberry delicacies) and retro candies that are hard to find in a larger city (like Skybar, Necco Wafers, Mary Janes, and Chuckles). The place is huge -- occupying most of an old movie theater -- and as a bonus they make their own fudge. Due south from Billings is Cody, Wyoming. It was named after Buffalo Bill Cody (no surprise there) and at the end of his life Buffalo Bill made this area his home base. There are tribute to Buffalo Bill everywhere: the Irma Hotel was named after his daughter, for instance. The more lasting and more surprising tribute to Cody is the Buffalo Hill Historical Center, probably the best museum dedicated to the Wild West. The center actually houses five different museums, all related to the Western Experience. There's the obligatory museum dedicated to the legacy of Buffalo Bill, featuring mementos from his long and varied career as a scout and an entertainer. This museum does veer toward hagiography, but it's fairly well contained.

The other four museums should convince you that there is some serious work done at the BBHC, however. The Cody Firearms Museum is a history of firearms in America, beginning at the Revolutionary War Era to the modern day. You don't need to be a gun freak to get something out of this museum, as it's much more interesting than you'd expect. The Plains Indians Museum is an unsentimental history of American Indians in the region, both before and after the arrival of whites. The Whitney Gallery of Western Art is a first-class collection of Western art -- which includes a large collection of works by Frederic Remington and C.M. Russell. And the newest museum, the Draper Museum of Natural History, is an ambitious attempt to explain the ecosystem of the Yellowstone region is a concise and understandable fashion, and by and large it succeeds admirably.

If you're truly ambitious, you can make the trek over the Beartooth Pass to Cooke City, which sits four miles outside of the northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. The Beartooth Pass was called the most beautiful stretch of highway by none other than Charles Kuralt, and it's a wonderful drive, encompassing breathtaking mountain views and glacier fields. Cooke City is little more than a main street with a few decent restaurants and quaint, turn-of-the-century general store. Be warned that you're entering Yellowstone Park from one of the most remote points, and you'll need to spend some time on the road before hitting the geyser fields in the western part of the park.

After the Game
Gambling is a popular pastime in Montana, a legacy of the lawless frontier days. In the past gambling was limited to dark, cool taverns and bars. However, it seems as though the gambling laws have been liberalized in Montana, and as a result you're seeing gambling in family-oriented families and other high-traffic areas. If you like gambling, you'll like spending some time in Billings. It takes the form of video machines (playing slots, blackjack, and keno) and live poker games.

If you yearn for dark taverns and country music, check out the Crystal Lounge (101 N. 28th St., downtown Billings). There's live poker games and video gambling, as well as cheap drinks and live music.

Where to Stay
The Rimrock Inn (1203 N. 27th St., 800-624-9970), the Rimview Inn (1025 N. 27th St., 800-551-1416), the Juniper Inn (1315 N. 27th St., 800-826-7530), and the Dude Rancher Lodge (415 N. 29th St., 800-221-3302) are all within walking distance of Cobb Field. All are older motel-style drive-up establishments, but they all have a reputation for cleanliness and affordability; the Dude Rancher features ranch oak furniture and branded carpet.

If you're travelling with children, you may want to consider one of the many chain hotels on the western side of town, off of exit 446: C'Mon Inn (2020 Overland Av., 800-655-1170), Quality Inn (2036 Overland Av., 800-228-5151), Holiday Inn Billings Plaza (5500 Midland Rd., 406-248-7701), or Comfort Inn (2030 Overland Av., 800-228-5150).