Chico Heat calls it quits

There is no joy in Chico; the hefty Heater has struck out.

A few weeks after they announced they were leaving the Western Baseball League, the owners of the Chico Heat baseball team said the company itself will cease to exist, effectively putting the nix on professional baseball in Chico for the near future.

Negotiations to bring the Visalia Oaks, a single-A Major League-affiliated team, to town fell through when Oaks owner Tom Seidler announced the team would stay where it was for the 2003 season.

Purchasing the Oaks outright would have cost upward of $4.5 million, said Heat co-owner Jeff Kragel. He said he and team founder Steve Nettleton were hoping to lure the Visalia team here and become minority owners.

“We saw our future with the WBL winding down and the league becoming insolvent,” Kragel said. “We didn’t want to ignore that and then go ahead and sell tickets and advertising.”

So, for the first time since 1997, Chicoans will not hear the crack of the wooden bat inside Nettleton Stadium.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Nettleton. “The main sticking point was the inability with the long Class-A season to co-exist with the Chico State Wildcats.”

The teams would have to share the on-campus stadium once called Bohler Field, before Nettleton, former owner of several Food 4 Less stores, poured $2 million into renovations and created the 3,500-seat home for the Heat. The franchise cost $250,000.

The Heat played 45 games at home each year as a WBL franchise; a class-A schedule would be considerably longer.

Nettleton said both sides worked hard to reach a compromise, but in the end “it couldn’t happen.”

In the spring the university baseball team can’t start practice before 2:30 in the afternoon, which is when the other club would start as well, said Nettleton.

He said the Colorado Rockies checked in on the Chico scene but was put off by the lack of available and adequate practice fields.

“They didn’t want one of their bonus babies stepping in a hole and breaking an ankle,” Nettleton said.

There is a chance, Nettleton said, that the California League could start a short-season A league that would begin in June and end in August, but that would not happen soon.

Nettleton and Kragel both mentioned the city-owned property off of The Esplanade that is slated to become DeGarmo Park eventually.

“Maybe one day we could open a municipal ballpark there,” Kragel said.

“I’m very proud of what we did,” Kragel said. “Having this team was a very healthy thing for the community.”

He said there are six people on the year-round staff, nine working during the season and anywhere from 45 to 75 working the home games, depending on the attendance.

“It was a great way to employ kids from Pleasant Valley, Chico High and Fairview High,” he said. “You know the news is sad now, but we’re really going to feel it when spring comes around.”

Nettleton, the man whose vision and money started it all, sounded resigned to the reality of losing his team.

“I was very grateful with what we had,” Nettleton said. “I’ve had calls from old ladies crying and asking what are they going to do next summer.”

Nettleton and Kragel said they will be meeting with their attorney and accountant next week to dissolve the company and that the offices on Memorial Way next to Christian & Johnson will be closed in December, when the lease expires.