Editor’s note: This is part of a series on each of the Pioneer League baseball teams in Montana and their stadiums. Each summer, the players come in and leave in the fall, but the fans and people who work there return year after year so we wanted to see what makes each one unique.
GREAT FALLS – On August 5, 2017 Frank Cernocek took the mound at Centene Stadium for the first time in 55 years. Dressed in a cream jersey with blue and red lettering for the Great Falls Electrics, Cernocek threw out the ceremonial first pitch a bit slower than the 93 mph fastball he threw in his prime.
“I almost started crying when this (replica jersey) came out,” said Cernocek after.
It was an emotional moment for a man from South Texas who spent one season in Great Falls as a member of the Dodgers organization in 1962.
Great Falls has had professional baseball since 1948 as members of the Dodgers, Giants and now White Sox organizations and since the stadium’s completion in 1941, it has undergone multiple renovations beginning in 2002.
“Great Falls was always a nice park, but I guess what surprised me was the beauty of how you all have refurbished the park,” says Cernocek.
Cernocek is just one of many with ties to baseball in Great Falls which has managed to blend the old with the new, much like the stadium itself. Since 1947, the Great Falls Baseball Club, a group of local businessmen have supported baseball and served as local ownership of the team.
The main entrance is on the third base side and fans walk up the stairs to find themselves looking out over the field above the home dugout. A diamond with memorial bricks rest in the concrete fans pass over. The bricks commemorate donors who helped with the renovations in the early 2000s.
From this vantage point, the main grandstands stretch to the right and additional seating, a patio for the suites and a concession stand along with food tents for local vendors extend to the left.
Bleacher seating is above the walkway and below are blue box seats where ushers like Jill Trovatten run back and forth all night.
“I have the greatest sections in the ballpark and the greatest people in them,” says Trovatten who takes care of sections 6, 7, and 8. “It’s a wonderful place to be. I can’t imagine what I would do in the summer if I wasn’t out here.”
For 13 years, her smile has greeted fans both in her sections and around the ballpark.
“I had a nice elderly lady tell me right at the beginning of the season when she saw me, she said my husband and I said, ‘Look Jill’s back. Baseball season has officially begun.’”
But like many people in Great Falls, her history with the team goes farther back than that. She and her family were actually season-ticket holders themselves prior to her employment.
“My kids have grown up out here,” says Trovatten. “They started coming to this ballpark when they were three and four months old.”
Now, her daughter Lauren works in the third-base concession area selling beer.
Seated on the third-base bleachers with their baseball gloves are Joshua Lewis and his son JJ. Lewis is a military member who is a year into being stationed for a second time in Great Falls.
“He hadn’t been thought of yet and coming back now, it’s his first times coming to the games since we’ve been back this time,” says Lewis. “We don’t make every home game, but just about every home game.”
Usually, they sit in the grandstands under the press box, but move when the temptation of catching a foul ball gets too strong.
Up in the press box, is Mike Lewis has been the official scorekeeper for the last 15 years. He sits in front of a laptop with the windows swung open and a slight breeze blowing through.
“It’s the best seat in the house,” says Lewis.
The only exception is when an occasional foul ball comes flying up over the net and into the small area occupied by Lewis, PA announcer Chris Evans and a few other staff.
From their vantage point, they can see across the river, including the occasional thunderstorm which sometimes fails to reach the ballpark when it loses energy coming back up over the river bank.
The flagpole in center field is actually located inside the field of play, encircled by a small chain link fence covered in ivy. If a ball hit the wall and bounced back into play, it was still in play, but if it fell into the small fenced area, it was a home run.
“This is one of the bigger yards in the league. It’s 415 to center,” says Lewis. “It’s a big yard which you don’t get as many home runs to center.”
But regardless of the vantage point, when the Voyagers get a hit, the fans make themselves heard.
“We have a rather vocal group of fans that make things interesting,” says Lewis.
The fans are boisterous and noise makers, cowbells and even a vuvuzela can be heard. Calls of “Cold beer!” and “50/50” rise above the murmur until the next hit when the crowd comes to life again.
The crowd is a unique mixture of people: families who have been coming for multiple generations, military members who may only be in town for a few years, crowds of students walking around, young professionals and farmers enjoying a night in town away from their fields.
Luella Walsh and Lee Mattingly have been attending games together for the last 10 years. Walsh is 92 and Mattingly is 86.
“I love baseball. We used to drive 90 miles to come down here and watch the games,” says Walsh who grew up in Gilford, a small town on the Hi-Line.
Walsh and Mattingly come prepared for any weather.
“I like the excitement and the people and seeing the kids play,” says Mattingly.
Kids run back and forth along the aisles. And in between innings, they go out onto the field for various on-field promotions and games. During the fourth inning, there’s even a Junior PA for the Night where a child helps Evans call the game. Sound effects and personalized walk-up music provide additional flavor.
Perched above the Missouri River, the stadium sits right above one of the waterfalls the city is named for and that posed such an issue for Lewis and Clark on their voyage up the river. So one could be forgiven for mistaking that the team name is in tribute to that. However, it’s not.
The team and mascot are actually named for a UFO sighting on the field by the General Manager in the 1950s. Orbit is a green alien mascot who enters the stadium to the sound of the Star Wars theme and dances on the roof of the home dugout to “Cotton Eyed Joe” after the 7th inning stretch.
Below the grandstands, is a souvenir shop, concession stand and restrooms. It feels like a true concourse like those at many major stadiums and comes in handy by providing shelter to fans during the occasional rain delay.
At the main concessions under the grandstands, they serve up typical fare, including a local favorite of chicken tenders and fries, where they are the only venue in the county to carry those particular chicken tenders.
And above ground at the third-base concessions area, they offer a Mac Attack Dog: a hot dog topped with mac and cheese made in-house and two slices of deep fried bacon.
“I always like to think we have some of the best food made from scratch in all of Pioneer League baseball. I always say, if we have to eat it every day, it better be good,” says General Manager Scott Reasoner. “All of our stuff is either made in house or local here in Montana so we take a lot of pride in what we’re doing on food and beverage as well.”
They also partner with three local breweries and have the only bottom-up beer unit in the state.
However, no other park in the state melds its past with the present so seamlessly by taking what was old and making it new.
“Being able to have that Great Falls touch where you get that classic old school ballpark feel that few ballparks have any more around the country,” says Reasoner.
And tucked above the main stairs and to the right is a room called the Logan Hurlbert Hall of Fame Room, celebrating all the years of baseball in Great Falls. Reasoner says that almost weekly they have former players return from decades ago who want to see the ballpark and how it’s changed.
“Pedro Martinez, who just got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame actually thanked his host family in Great Falls, Montana in his speech,” says Reasoner with a laugh.
“It’s very nostalgic because of course the baseball field is always the same dimensions you know, but the stands are the same,” says Cernocek. “It feels great to have been part of something that is an ongoing legend like that. Great Falls has always supported the baseball team.”