Editor’s Note: Mark Cryan, former MiLB general manager and Ballpark Digest contributing editor, embarked on an epic ballpark tour this summer, and he filed regular dispatches from the road. Today’s stop: Great Falls.
A Great Falls Pioneer League team has been operating continuously for over 40 years, and it’s easy to see why. A classic ballpark — Centene Stadium — dating from the 1950s and updated since, a prosperous small city, and solid management make Great Falls a must-see in the Pioneer League.
On the night we visited there was perfect weather and a nice crowd on hand for a midweek game. The old main grandstand, with fold-down chair seats below the walkway and benches above, is sheltered by a steel girder roof with a press box in the center. As GM Scott Reasoner pointed out, the original grandstand also has the two infield light poles (also known as the “A poles”) rise out of the grandstand seats on the right and left.
Beyond this original grandstand, more recent renovations have added modern picnic areas, bathrooms, and club houses on the first-base side and a large new structure on the third-base side. This addition includes ticket windows, team offices, a very nice club area available for nightly rentals, and a concourse plaza. At the far end of this plaza in the left-field corner there is a nice new concessions building featuring food from Taco John’s.
Food and Drink
Speaking of concessions, the Taco John’s food was made fresh to order and the main concession stand in the concourse behind home plate featured a varied and reasonably priced menu with a regular hot dog going for just $2.50. There were also a wide variety of beer choices at several locations, including a standalone location for Great Falls’ Might Mo Brewery using the bottom-filling taps using a magnetic disc. It’s a good gimmick and got me to buy one of their beers (the Red Ale, which was very good).
Little Green Men
Why Voyagers? Perhaps a Lewis and Clark reference? Maybe a nod to the enormous travel times in the Pioneer League. No, it’s much more interesting than that: as the story goes, decades ago the team’s GM sighted a UFO while at the ballpark. Voyagers, then, is a UFO reference. Of course, the “UFO” could have something to do with the big Air Force base nearby, although believing in aliens is certainly more fun. There’s a lot the team has done with this concept, including UFO-style images, a logo incorporating a baseball orbiting the planet, and a little green mascot with antennae.
The signage all around the ballpark was crisp and bright, and the upper-level signs were each held up by a standalone frame, which gave them a nice look. The ballpark is not in the midst of downtown, but rather next to the General Mills plant, hard by the train tracks and across the road from the Missouri River. But the main entrance faces a nice big parking lot, there is some park-like greenery, and the overall atmosphere is very pleasant.
Kids’ Eye View
There was a kids’ play area down the first-base side with several inflatables, and a picnic are right next door where the parents can watch the game while the kids play. This also a definitely a ballpark where it felt like kids could roam the ballpark on their own. The food from Taco John’s was made fresh and the potato bites were a highlight.
After the Game: The Sip ‘N Dip Lounge
The night-life highlight of a visit the Great Falls is the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge, a truly unique bar in the third level of the downtown O’Haire Motor Inn. Unlike other states where the casinos are solely run the Indian tribes and limited to a handful, in Montana it seems every convenience store and bar bills itself as a casino. But the Sip ‘N Dip is truly unique; the third-floor bar has a tropical theme, it’s cozy, and it had a good crowd, even on a Wednesday. The legendary Piano Pat Spoonheim, who is still cranking out the tunes and taking requests, is a highlight. But, the centerpieces of the bar are the mermaids. There is a small public pool on the fourth floor of the hotel, and it has a big glass wall providing a view from the bar. Tuesdays through Saturdays there are two mermaids swimming in the pool for the enjoyment of the patrons. I don’t want to ruin the magic, so that’s all I’ll say, but you need to see it to believe it, and it’s won wide acclaim, including a 2003 citation from Esquire as the top bar worth a flight.
The Pioneer League has some excellent facilities and operators, and while I visited Great Falls with no preconceived notions, this was a great night at the ballpark. I am a sucker for the old ballparks, and it warms my heart to see a classic park like this one getting a renovation instead of being replaced. I’d call this the hidden gem of our trip. If you are in Pioneer League territory, it’s a must visit.