The Heat is off
Chico’s professional baseball team quits WBL, hopes to join California League
Chico Heat’s owners want to play ball, but not with the cash-strapped Western Baseball League.
Steve Nettleton, the majority owner of the Heat, made the announcement on Oct. 10. “It’s been a very difficult decision,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Resigning from the franchise effectively leaves the Chico Heat’s owners with the team name and the baseball stadium Nettleton renovated for $2 million and then donated to Chico State University in 1996. Players were released from their contracts, and manager Charley Kerfeld and pitching coach Jeff Pico have found jobs elsewhere.
At the same time he made the announcement, Nettleton hinted at new life for the Heat. “Professional baseball in Chico is not dead,” he promised. The Heat’s owners are in talks with leaders of the California League, which would cost a lot of money to join since an existing team from another city would have to sell its franchise, or at least let Chico owners buy in.
The question seems to be whether the Heat owners would drop the curtain without having a sure thing waiting in the wings. (It’s usually the higher-level league that approaches a team, and Heat staff referred to Thursday’s announcement as “exciting news.") “The big hurdle, of course, is the financial commitment,” Nettleton said. On the up side, Nettleton Stadium looks like it will qualify for California League play.
“If everything works out, we will be playing baseball in Chico in the 2003 season,” Nettleton said. Very good baseball, he might have added.
The California League, which was founded in 1941, is affiliated with Major League Baseball, and if the Heat were accepted, it would be at the “High A” level, a few steps down from the majors’ top farm teams. California League players, compared to those formerly on the Heat roster, are at a different skill level or time in their careers: They could well end up playing Major League ball.
There are 10 teams in the league, organized in two divisions, North and South. All of the teams in the North Division—Bakersfield, Modesto, San Jose, Stockton and Visalia—have been in business for several decades. The South Division teams—High Desert, Lake Elsinore, Lancaster, Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino—are newer. Average attendance in 1996 was 2,702, slightly above Chico’s average.
No one was denying that the WBL was suffering financially. Nettleton described the 7-year-old league as running in “a crisis mode at all times.” Four of the five other teams in the league were suffering, and at the same time workers’ compensation premiums were on the rise.
The Heat, which took home the championship this year, had always drawn the highest attendance in the league. The scene at the ‘Net was never as fanatical as during the team’s first season, when it also took the league championship, but a night at the park with the family was still a popular community pastime. If the new deal goes through, Chico would actually see more baseball: The California League plays 140 games to the WBL’s 90, and Chico State officials have indicated any overlap won’t pose a problem.
Bob Linscheid, a Chico economic-development specialist and former president of the WBL who used to own part of the Chico Heat, had planned to start his own WBL franchise in the Redding area. But given the financial state of league, he said, he decided against it. “There’s a lost opportunity, but I would rather make the decision now than get the people in Redding all hyped up about the possibility.”
Sam Pepper, the current WBL president, could not be reached for comment. Nettleton said the Heat gave Pepper and another board member a heads-up on the plan, but when the news was broken at an Oct. 10 teleconference, "the rest of them were blindsided."