City gets baseball fever?

Chico fans are missing their hometown baseball, and the city is being asked to help bring the boys of summer back to town.

Proponents of the idea are not asking for money, but rather a commitment of philosophical support, explained Bob Linscheid, who, along with local radio station manager Dino Corbin, planned to speak before the city’s Economic Development Committee on Feb. 12. They’re also assembling a “steering committee” of community members to investigate the possibilities.

City Councilmember Steve Bertagna said he’s already gotten a call from someone offering to donate a piece of land for a stadium.

Linscheid said that since the Western Baseball League went bust in 2002, ending the relatively successful seven-year run of the Chico Heat, “I can’t go anywhere without somebody asking when baseball is coming back.”

Joe Gagliardi, president of the 10-team California League, which is a Minor A affiliate of Major League Baseball, called Chico a “very sports-minded community” and said, “It’s a green light from our standpoint.”

Gagliardi and his location committee prepared a report for the city indicating its interest and mentioning that stadiums built for California League teams in recent years have ranged in cost from $6 million to $18 million.

“This league is much more viable than the independent league,” Linscheid said. “We could recruit a California League team. We just need a place for them to play.”

There’s the rub. Steve Nettleton, Chico businessman and philanthropist, in 1996 poured $2 million into the old Chico State University stadium and then donated the structure back to school. The Heat played there, but the California League could not, because its spring schedule conflicts with that of the Chico State Wildcats.

Attempts to lure the California League’s Visalia Oaks were dashed when 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 former Heat co-owner Jeff Kragel. He said he and Nettleton were hoping to lure the Visalia team here and become minority owners.

Bertagna said he can’t yet reveal who has offered up land, but the buzz about the idea says a lot about community spirit. Even though the city can’t afford to put up cash for such a project, he’s on board in theory. “I’m really excited,” he said.

One thing supporters don’t want to do is ask voters to pass a bond to build a stadium. But the city could be involved both by encouraging the deal and then by managing, perhaps through the Chico Area Recreation District (CARD), the use of the stadium during the 290 days of the year that aren’t part of the baseball season. Corbin mentioned potential uses as varied as concerts, bicycle racing, church services and flea markets—"anything where people need space to gather.”

Linscheid, who heads the Chico Economic Planning Corporation (CEPCO) and contracts with the city for job development, was a minority owner of the Heat and then president of the WBL but said he is only acting as a “facilitator” in this case.

The most likely scenario is that, if a stadium were built, “an existing owner would move here,” Corbin explained. Investors own the franchises but the players are paid by Major League Baseball.

“We have several franchises that could be moved,” Gagliardi said. Top possibilities include teams from Bakersfield, Visalia and Stockton.

The architectural firm of Nichols, Melburg and Rossetto has already drawn up an example of what the stadium could look like.

The California League is a couple of steps down from Major League Baseball’s top farm teams, and is where players including Mike Piazza, Ken Griffey Jr. and the infamous Joe Charboneau started their professional careers.