Election Day 2006 was a defining moment in Billings history as 21,710 voters said they wanted the city to replace creaky old Cobb Field, the stadium that emerged in 1948 from an $80,000 renovation to an even older baseball stadium.
Nearly eight years later, the $13.7 million Dehler Park draws a near-capacity average crowd of 2,968 fans.
“It means the world to the city — literally,” said Gary Roller, general manager of the Billings Mustangs. “Cobb Field was rapidly falling apart, deteriorating before our eyes. It was getting to the point where it wasn’t meeting league standards. We could have lost our minor league franchise.”
The park, which has a seating capacity of 3,071, has become the home field for the minor league Billings Mustangs, the Montana State University Billings Yellowjackets, and two American Legion teams, the Scarlets and the Royals.
It was financed by voter-approved bonds and donations, including a $1 million gift from Billings businessman Jon Dehler.
And it didn’t take long for the community to recognize what it had. It was a hit from the start. Attendance at Dehler Park in 2008 totaled 114,714 for the season, an average of 3,019 per game. In the final year at Cobb Field, season attendance was 95,309, or 2,576 per game.
It is an icon in the city, said Jeff Ballard, chairman of Billings American Legion baseball. Dehler Park gives baseball an identity in Billings — just as Cobb Field did.
“When I have guests in town, I never hesitate to point it out,” said Ballard, a former Major League Baseball left-handed pitcher, playing from 1987 to 1994 for the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. “Billings has always been a strong baseball town and it remains that today.”
The new stadium is testament to a community that holds baseball in such high regard that its people were willing to invest in a state-of-the-art facility, Ballard said.
Fans have multiple ticketing options: They can sit in stadium seats or bleachers, snag a piece of lawn on the grass berm or stand. One of the more popular spots among fans in the ballpark is the “329 Club” on the concourse above the left field wall.
And the park gets better with age.
It now boasts a new sound system and a scoreboard that includes a video board.
It is a family friendly destination that has a little something for everyone, including a bounce house for children and a speed-pitching booth that tells fans how fast they can throw a baseball.
There is a picnic pavilion that includes tents and tables for a pre-game barbecue.
For all of the new features, Dehler Park carries popular holdovers from Cobb Field. The Mustangs held on to longtime promotions that were popular among fans, including the Beer Batter, bobblehead nights, Friends and Family Day and “Kids Run the Bases.”
“We have continued the strong tradition of baseball in Billings,” Ballard said. “And what we did in Billings, building a new stadium, is similar to what’s happening in major and minor league ballparks across the country.”
Fourteen ballparks, representing 47 percent of all the parks in Major League Baseball, have been built since 2000.
In past decade, there have been 35 newly constructed ballparks in Minor League Baseball, including major renovations in Grand Junction, Colo., which is also in the Pioneer League with the Mustangs.
Barb Berreth, 74, of Billings has been a fan of local baseball since she was 8, and Cobb Field emerged as a downtown fixture.
As much as she hated to see Cobb Field deteriorate, she supported its replacement.
“We needed it bad,” she said.
Today, she is a season ticket holder, missing only two games this season. She considers it her home away from home and is a fixture at games.
She is what you might call a superfan. She works the crowd during the games and was named “Fan of the Year” in 2004. She is the resident cheerleader, leading the crowd in cheers throughout the game, complete with red and white pom-poms.
She enjoys the new amenities, especially the greatly expanded handicapped seating.
“Older people still like baseball," Berreth said with a laugh. “It’s so much easier to get in and out of than the other place.”
She’s also a fan of the kid-friendly attractions.
“Baseball is a sport for the whole family,” she said. “It’s just good, clean fun.”
Oh, and don’t forget the ever-popular concessions — funnel cakes, snow cones, hot dogs, lemonade and ice-cold beer.
Berreth, however, is content with a ballpark hamburger.
“It’s one of the best around,” she said.