Are the Outlaws outbound?

The future of Chico’s pro baseball club looks bleak

The Chico Outlaws may have played their last home game at Nettleton Stadium.

The Chico Outlaws may have played their last home game at Nettleton Stadium.

file PHOTO by Greg Stimac

For a Chico Outlaws baseball club that stumbled to the finish of the 2011 season, it may not come as a surprise if they don’t get started at all in 2012.

Brian MacInnes, CEO of the Outlaws’ parent company, Diamond Sports and Entertainment, has submitted a proposal to lease Chico State’s Nettleton Stadium for another summer of Outlaws baseball. The proposal is being reviewed by school administrators, but some think it is already too late in the year to get the process rolling.

“As former president of the Outlaws, I can tell you they would have to be on their way to selling tickets and sponsorships [by now],” said Bob Linscheid, who stepped down as team president in 2008. “They are way past that time frame. There is no way they could logistically make this year work.”

MacInnes declined to comment in detail on the pending decision, saying simply, “We are currently in lease discussions with the university.”

As Chico State President Paul Zingg and his staff review the proposal, they will likely consider the following factors: the university’s ability to recover stadium operating costs, the concerns of neighborhood groups protesting game-related noise pollution, and scheduling around the Wildcat baseball team.

“Leasing Nettleton Stadium is not necessarily beneficial, as there are several weeks that our baseball team shares the stadium with the Outlaws,” said Joe Wills, Chico State’s director of public affairs. “There is no question Nettleton is an outstanding baseball venue and Chico an outstanding baseball city. We want to make sure any lease agreement with a baseball team is in the best interest of campus and the community.”

Zingg will also take note of the team’s position in the financially strapped North American Baseball League, which has been hindered by the travel costs of teams playing away games as far as Illinois, Hawaii and Canada. The budget got so tight last season the league schedule was shortened by a week. Following the season, Outlaws General Manager Mike Marshall reported he had been laid off, and the team office has been closed ever since. Marshall could not be reached for comment on this story.

“We are aware the team and the league have struggled financially and had leadership changes, so certainly that is taken into consideration as we move forward,” Wills said.

If the two sides cannot reach a lease agreement, Chico will be without a professional baseball team for the first time since 2005, the year the Outlaws began operations. That summer marked the end of Chico’s baseball drought—it had been three years since the Chico Heat, who occupied Nettleton Stadium from 1997 to 2002, disbanded as the Western Baseball League folded.

Chico quickly took to the Outlaws and Rascal, their marauding raccoon mascot, as the club paced the league in average home-game attendance and made the playoffs that first year. The Outlaws were league champions in 2007 and 2010, posting records of 44-32 and 55-30, respectively. The club saw a host of young players move on to higher levels, including former outfielder Daniel Nava, who hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw as a member of the Boston Red Sox in June 2010.

The Outlaws also made international headlines that year with the sensational signing of female pitcher Eri Yoshida, an 18-year-old knuckleballer who managed to finesse her way through a full season facing batters twice her size.

To some, it seems strange for an operation with a recent history of success to lose its way so suddenly. But the rumor mill is rampant with word that the Outlaws have seen their final days in Chico.

“I believe they have lost touch with the community,” Linscheid said. “I think it had a lot to do with their hiring policy—it was always my goal to hire as many Chico State students as possible. [The organization] just became disconnected from the fabric of the community.”

Fans of high-level baseball will be disappointed if the Outlaws do not renew their lease this summer, but more would be lost than just a baseball team. No Outlaws games would mean no Bandit raccoon mascot, silly between-inning publicity stunts, fireworks displays and, perhaps most important, no heckling a washed-up Jose Canseco. While the possibility remains that the Outlaws will play under the bright lights of Nettleton Stadium once more, Linscheid believes the team’s run is over.

“I believe professional baseball will return to Chico, but I think the Outlaws are done,” he said.