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Dehler Park / Billings Mustangs

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It is so hard to follow in the footprints of a legend. Dehler Park, home to the Billings Mustangs, is the replacement for Cobb Field, one of the great old ballparks in the minor leagues. Cobb Field ended up being one of the sadder ballpark stories in recent years: built in 1948 and housing a ton of history, it ended up being torn down because enough deterioration had occurred over the years that renovation simply was not an option. Dehler Park, alas, is not in the same league.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: 2008
Capacity: 3,500 (2,571 individual seats, 500 bleacher seats, berm seating)
Cost: $12.5 million
Owner: City of Billings
Architect: CTA Architects Engineers (Billings) and HNTB Architecture (Kansas City)
Dimensions: 335L, 410C, 356R
Playing Surface: Grass
League: Pioneer League (rookie)
Affiliation: Cincinnati Reds
Address/Directions: 2611 9th Av. N., 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. Dehler Park is on the eastern side of N. 27th Street.

It is so hard to follow in the footprints of a legend. Dehler Park, home to the Billings Mustangs, is the replacement for Cobb Field, one of the great old ballparks in the minor leagues. Cobb Field ended up being one of the sadder ballpark stories in recent years: built in 1948 and housing a ton of history, it ended up being torn down because enough deterioration had occurred over the years that renovation simply was not an option.

So, really with no other choice, Billings went ahead and tore down Cobb Field and went ahead with a new ballpark. In the span of 10 months, Billings went from a wonderful historic ballpark to a sparkling-new facility.

And how did that transition work out?

Not as well as one would have hoped. No, no one expected the new ballpark to have the same ambiance as found in Cobb Field; you just don't open with decades of history and memories. But Dehler Park is a disappointment, a bland facility that lacks the romance of Cobb Field and offering little in terms of ambiance or character. It is a ballpark that could be located anywhere.

Are we being a little rough? Perhaps. With attendance up at Mustangs games in 2008, it's clear the locals have responded well to the new ballpark. A Mustangs game is a more comfortable experience than in years past, with seating closer to the ballpark and concessions much more accessible. And we're guessing the Mustangs front office is just ecstatic about game-day operations in the new ballpark. But at the end of the day we feel replacing such a grand old facility with a new, bland ballpark was a huge opportunity lost.

Dehler Park is built on the same block containing Cobb Field, but the ballpark's footprint was expanded to encompass the entire block; a swimming pool on the 27th Avenue side of things is now gone. The expansion allowed for a bigger ballpark footprint as well as the addition of a parking lot past the right-field boundary. With the additional space, the ballpark designers -- chiefly CTA Architects, a noted local design firm -- added things never found in Cobb Field, such as a wide wraparound concourse, open concession stands, a picnic area, berm seating and batting cages. The orientation of the new ballpark retained the wonderful view of the rimrock past the home-run fence. All in all, it is a professional and accomplished ballpark.

Without a lot of personalization or distinctive signature touches, unfortunately. Take away the view of the rimrock and two commemorative statues in the outer courtyard, and there's nothing that says Montana or Billings baseball -- not even a commemorative display honoring Cobb Field or Mustangs history that we could find. The color choice of the brickwork evokes the rimrock, as does the curve of the main building on 27th Avenue. But there's nothing else strongly connected with the Mustangs. Heck, even something evoking a box seat -- one of the signature touches of Cobb Field -- would have been enough.

One question we did have: where did the $12 million budget go? True, nothing was reused from Cobb Field, and excavating a lower-level playing field certain added to the cost. (The six buildings that comprise the ballpark are at grade, however, and players must walk across the concourse to access the playing field.) But Dehler Park lacks any suites or an upper level, and the ballpark basically consists of six one-level buildings. A small press box/broadcasting booth is located behind home plate, and canopies cover much of the season tickets seats.

Compare the $12 million spent on Dehler Park with the $5.6 million spent on Melaleuca Field, the home of the Idaho Falls Chukars (rookie; Pioneer League). In both cases virtually new ballparks were built on an existing footprint, and more could be reused from the old ballpark (playing field, home-run fence, lights, utilities) on Melaleuca Field.

If you go, avoid the general-admission seats down the first-base line. On any average evening you're staring directly into the sun. If you can, sit down the third-base line; if you can't snare a seat there, head to left field and stand at the bar rail.

Yes, it's hard to replace a legend. But maybe we expected a little more out of the replacement for Cobb Field -- and we hope the current ballpark evolves in the next few years to be worthy of occupying the same site as the classic old ballpark.

Concessions
Two main concession stands can be found in back of the concourse. Both have separate tap areas, though the beer area is bigger down the third-base line. Standalone concession stands are also located on the wide concourse.

The food selections at Dehler Park are basic: the $2 hot dog was pretty mediocre, but the $5.75 buffalo wings were tasty. Throw in a $2 pickle, and you have a meal.
Good news: Stang burgers made the transition from the old ballpark. No, they're not made of horsemeat. But they're darn tasty right off the grill, and quite possibly the best burger we've ever had at a ballpark. Follow the smoke to the grill area in back of the third-base concession area.

The beer selections are great. Billing has evolved into a great beer town -- who knew! -- and one can have a really pleasant evening with friends by buying a few beers and hanging out beyond the left-field fence at a freestanding table or next to the bar rail. We went with a seasonal brew from the Deschutes Brewery (OK, not strictly local; that beer is from Bend, Oregon), but for $3.50 it was hard to go wrong.

Parking
Two parking lots are located to the south and east of the ballpark. There is also plenty of street parking in the area; watch the street signs, however.

What to Do Before/After the Game
Somewhere along the line Billings turned into a great beer town. No, it's not quite Milwaukee, but with the presence of four outstanding brew pubs in and near downtown Billings (as well as a good selection of local beers at the downtown organic coop), it's clear a beer lover would feel right at home in Billings.

We're recommend stopping at Angry Hank's (2405 1st Av. N.), if only because it's the most unique brewpub we've ever run across. Located in a former filling station and garage, Angry Hank's is open Monday-Saturday from 4-8 p.m. and does only one kind of business: sell pints of beer for $3. You line up for your beer, you take it to a table (some are inside, some outside), and you drink. If you like, you can nibble on some popcorn. But really, the whole point of Angry Hank's is to drink beer. And it's damn fine beer. Virtually all the beer brewed on the premises is sold onsite, with a little bit sold to other bars. Try the Anger Management Belgian Wheat.

Also worth a visit: the venerable Montana Brewing (113 N. 28th St.), in the heart of downtown. It's been around for many years. Like Angry Hank's, Montana Brewing sells almost all its beer onsite and offers a wide selection.

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.

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).