2012 Short-Season Freitas Award: Billings Mustangs

The Freitas Awards, named after longtime minor league baseball ambassador  Bob Freitas, are awarded to honor minor league baseball clubs that show sustained excellence in the business of minor league baseball. Franchises must have been in operation for five seasons before they’re eligible to win.

Billing Mustangs general manager Gary Roller doesn’t spend time worrying about job titles. When asked what year he took over as GM, after spending his first decade with the team as an assistant GM, he couldn’t recall.

Roller’s focus is simple: Provide a top-notch minor league baseball experience for the people of Billings.

“All the credit goes to both our fans and our business partners,” said Roller, who has been with the franchise since 1993 and took over as GM in 2004. “That’s how we feel about it, anyway. Without them and the community in general, we wouldn’t be here.”

The Mustangs have strong ties to Billings that have only strengthened over time. The franchise came to town in 1948, and it has since become a treasured institution. Proof of the city’s devotion to the Mustangs came in 2006, when voters approved a new stadium to replace the aging Cobb Field, which was no longer a viable minor league stadium. It would have been too expensive to renovate Cobb Field, so the only option was building a new stadium.

“That speaks volumes about our support here,” Roller said. “The voters and the community of Billings stepped up and built it, and it has really made our lives that much easier.”

Two years after the vote, the $12.5 million Dehler Park opened, seating more than 3,000 and featuring a grass berm and an outdoor suite. While fans were sad to see Cobb Field go, they have embraced the new stadium, which has modernized the experience of going to Mustangs games.

The new stadium, as well as how its construction was handled by the Mustangs, has drawn the approval of Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner, who called the Mustangs’ front office a “model of efficiency” and praised the ballpark’s sightlines and charm.

“It’s effective but not over the top,” O’Conner said. “It’s not ostentatious. It has a great space for the clubs and a great atmosphere for the fans. I think they did an outstanding job.”

For their part, the Mustangs have done their best to keep fans coming through the turnstiles. They have seen an uptick in attendance and have worked hard to keep ticket and concession prices cheap. “We’re told all the time that (our prices) are too low,” Roller said. “But because of our structure and how we operate, we’re able to do that. We’re able to keep those prices where they’re at and pass them onto fans and business partners.”

As well as ensuring their product is affordable, the Mustangs are always searching for other ways to give back to fans for supporting the team. They have created programs supporting local schools, initiated a youth reading program, and they support local youth baseball and softball teams, in addition to other community-outreach efforts.

“We try to involve ourselves in community events as much as we possibly can,” Roller said. “We recognize the fact that without our fans and the city of Billings, we wouldn’t exist. So when it comes down to it, when we talk about giving back, it’s an easy decision most days, in terms of where we’re going to participate and how we’re going to participate.”

But Roller is not satisfied. He recognizes that no matter how much the Mustangs do, there is always more that can be done, and he’s eager to fill the needs of the community, which has given so much to the team for so long.

“We’re always looking to do more, and we’re always open to new ideas throughout the community,” Roller said. “We’ll do whatever we can to help the community to the best of our abilities.”

Apart from the support the franchise has received from Billings, Roller cites another factor in the Mustangs’ continued success. They’ve been affiliated with the Reds for 39 seasons, an association both Roller and the city are proud of. Roller said both Reds and Mustangs personnel have remained stable for several years, and that stability has allowed the relationship to flourish. The two teams recently extended their affiliation through 2016, even though their current agreement wasn’t set to expire until the end of the 2014 season.

“Our relationship with the Reds is, in my opinion, as good as it gets,” Roller said. “They know us, we know them, and it gets better and better each year . . . To be honest with you, I couldn’t point out one negative in that relationship. It’s a tremendous partnership, and I think the Reds would echo those thoughts.”