Ownership changes are always a challenge for Minor League Baseball fans. Change is hard, and there are three ways fans can react: resist it, embrace it, or ignore it. All three were on display for the Billings Mustangs (rookie; Pioneer League) season opener.
The June 18 league opener at Dehler Park had plenty of pomp and circumstance, including an introduction to new owners Dave Heller and Bob Herrfeldt of Main Street Baseball, along with a ceremonial appearance by league president Jim McCurdy. Main Street Baseball bought the Mustangs from a group that included Woody Hahn and Jim Iverson, as well as a slew of community investors. The former owners were key in transitioning the Mustangs through what could have been some rough times, dealing with the loss of Cobb Field (which was literally falling down) and the financing of Dehler Park, which opened in 2008.
And the new Mustangs? Pretty much the old Mustangs, still led by GM Gary Roller. Which is not a bad thing: Dehler Park is a nice, if low-key place to take in a game, the Stang Burger is still one of the best in all of baseball, and downtown Billings is a great place for summer baseball, even if Angry Hank’s has moved from the garage. Dehler Park is still basically the same ballpark it was since it opened in 2008.
Which is a good thing and a bad thing. Though the Mustangs have been a solid, profitable draw in Dehler Park, there’s still a tremendous upside: the large ballpark footprint is relatively underutilized, with plenty of space for more group areas and specialty offerings. The new Mustangs owners have already pitched a ballpark expansion that would see a second deck added behind home plate for a group area doubling as a meeting space year-round – a pitch that’s received plaudits from the city’s CVB director.
Of course, this all represents change – and not everyone embraces change. We spent a fair amount of time wandering the concourses and overhearing conversions between fans and team owners. Some fans warned against change, such as children on the playing field between innings, because that’s not the way things are done in Billings. Other fans were cheering on the new owners, saying they were enthused by the energy shown by the new owners and their commitment to the market. Other fans were enthusiastic about the new ownership because they represented change and progress. But most fans were happy to partake of the great food and beer options, happy to see their team back on the field after a long, long offseason.
In the end, change is good: through the first nine games the team is averaging 3,256 fans a game, up from last year’s 2,927 fans per game and 2013’s 2,928 fans per game.