The Heat is on
Serious summer baseball is back in Chico
Baseball can be frustrating and unpredictable, sometimes even cruel. Batters mostly fail. In the major leagues, .400 is the gold standard for a hitter’s on-base percentage (OBP). Another way to spin it: All-stars don’t reach first base 60 percent of the time.
A player needs a strong mental approach to be successful and preserve his psyche. Josh Falco, starting right fielder for the Chico State Wildcats, recorded a .410 OBP this year. It’s no fluke. He takes batting practice nearly every day and, over the years, he’s learned how to handle failure.
“My overall philosophy is to simplify everything,” he said. “I tell myself to keep calm, stay on top of the ball and hit it to right-center field. My body knows what to do; I just try and shut my mind down.”
Otherwise, Falco, who will play under bright lights this summer, might overthink things. The lineup isn’t set, but on June 4, he’ll most likely play when the Chico Heat takes the diamond against the Marysville Gold Sox at Nettleton Stadium and high-level summertime baseball returns to Chico after a five-year hiatus.
It’s won’t be exactly the same as the defunct Heat and Outlaws teams, which were both part of independent leagues—professional organizations unaffiliated with Major League Baseball that drew a mix of aspiring athletes and those nearing retirement. This time around, under the newly formed, all-wooden-bat Great West League, the players are collegiate, not professional, and subject to the standards of the NCAA system (read: don’t get paid).
We’re still talking serious baseball. The 30-man roster—half position players, half pitchers—is filled out by players from big-time baseball programs such as Arizona State, Dixie State University in Utah, Hawaii Pacific University and UC Davis, to name a few. Three players were recruited locally: Falco, relief pitcher Stuart Bradley and Kyle Kramer, an infielder, are Chico State Wildcats.
Heat Coach Fred Ludwig, also the coach of Pleasant Valley High School’s baseball team, says the level of play will match and perhaps exceed that of the old teams.
“I think it’ll be better,” he said. “The kids on this team want to get drafted [into MLB]; they’re not on the tail end of their careers. All these kids want to play at the next level and they have the passion to do so.”
For players, the Great West League serves as a possible stepping-stone. MLB scouts will be watching, Ludwig said. What’s more, the Heat is partially owned by Pat Gillick, a National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee and current president of the Philadelphia Phillies—definitely a good connection.
And, yeah, every kid who swings a bat imagines playing big league baseball, but that’s not such a crazy thought for top college players.
“That’s the dream, right? To go as far as you can,” Falco said. “It’ll be a step up playing for the Heat, and getting drafted would be the next step.”
He’s excited to play in front of big home crowds and be part of the production at Nettleton Stadium. Indeed, aside from the league’s new format, much looks to be the same as when the Heat played before—wacky promotions, hot dogs and Cracker Jacks, and the dragon mascot, Heater, dancing on the dugouts and racing kids around the bases between innings.
Oh, yeah, also: fireworks.
But hold the show. There are no guarantees in baseball or business. Previous teams have tried to stick in Chico and whiffed. Is this one different?
Well, Steve Nettleton, the donor for whom Chico State’s stadium is named, is still involved. He and his wife, Kathy, are co-owners with Gillick. The Nettletons were owners during the Heat’s original run from 1997 to 2002. That team led the Western Baseball League in attendance each year but, despite the strong local support, the whole league fell apart.
“The issue was that the surrounding teams couldn’t support themselves,” said Hunter Hampton, the Heat’s new general manager. “As these teams disappeared, the Heat didn’t have anybody to play, and the rug got pulled out from under them.”
Chico went without professional baseball until the Chico Outlaws began operations in 2005 as part of the Golden Baseball League. Chico took to the Outlaws and Rascal, their raccoon mascot, as the club led the league in average home-game attendance and made the playoffs that first year. They were league champions twice and moved a host of players on to MLB, including Daniel Nava, who hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw with the Boston Red Sox.
By 2011, the Outlaws were part of the North American League, which struggled with the financial and logistical hurdles of coordinating travel between teams as far afield as Illinois, Canada and Hawaii. It folded quietly that year.
Hampton believes the third time’s the charm. He anticipates at least covering the cost of travel, lodging, leasing the stadium and paying the staff (the team has hired more than 80 part-time employees) by the end of the season.
“We have to generate enough revenue through corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, concessions and advertising to supplement our costs,” he said. “Hopefully, at the end of the year, we’ve sold more than we spend. It’s pretty simple.”
There are several points in his favor. From a business perspective, recruiting college players is a major financial relief, he said. Now, ownership doesn’t have to pay 30 players $10,000 or $15,000 each.
“That’s a lot of revenue we don’t have to generate,” he said. “The model itself is a much better one that’s going to enable us to come back year after year.”
Travel expenses will be more manageable, as well. The six teams in the Great West League—the Portland Pickles, Medford Rogues, Lodi Crushers, Sacramento Stealth, Marysville Gold Sox and Chico Heat—are all based in cities more or less along the I-5 corridor. The league will stay close-knit as it adds more teams in coming years, Hampton said.
Hampton also points to leadership’s breadth of experience. Great West League President Ken Wilson, a former broadcaster for the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics, helped launch the West Coast League in the Pacific Northwest using the collegiate model. Since establishment in 2005, it’s thrived and expanded from six to more than a dozen teams.
In terms of structure, the Great West League is a carbon copy. “Ken Wilson has done this before,” Hampton said. “He’s built a successful league.”
The owners, which includes the sports ownership group CSH International, have a track record of success. Gillick, for example, is a former general manager of the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies. The owners have final say in all business decisions, Hampton said.
Gillick, a Chico native, owns two World Series rings and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011. He’s visited Chico from his home in Seattle a handful of times leading up to opening night. During an interview, he said he’s supporting the Heat in memory of his late father, Larry, who was a professional pitcher before serving as Butte County’s sheriff for 32 years and had “very strong feelings for Chico.” (Larry’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times noted that he once “felled a fleeing criminal with a well-aimed rock.”) The Little League field by Chico Municipal Airport is named in his honor.
“This feels like the right thing to do,” he said. “Young guys on their way up, hopefully we can improve their skills over the summer and they can move on, if they want to be professional players. If not, it’ll be good to remember their summer playing baseball here in Chico.”
For the young men who want to spend all summer on buses, sleeping in hotels and eating road food, it’ll be a taste of professional baseball’s daily grind. The schedule is packed—57 games in 70 days.
“It’s going to be like Bull Durham,” said Ludwig. “When we finish a game in Portland, get on a bus and play again the next night in Lodi, these kids are going to be feeling it. So will I.”
Ludwig was unabashedly excited while discussing the roster, which he’s spent months constructing. He believes fans will adore Cameron Olson, a left-handed first baseman and designated hitter for the UC Davis Aggies. In April, he became the first Aggies player in 15 years to hit for the cycle—singling, doubling, tripling and homering in the same game.
“He’s going to be a crowd-pleaser,” Ludwig said. “He hits bombs.” (A “bomb,” in baseball lingo, refers to a towering home run that, once it’s reached its steep downward trajectory, appears to have been dropped from a low-flying plane.)
There’s Jerome Hill, a center fielder, one of three recruits from Dixie State, consistently one of the top Division II baseball programs in the nation. He’s big, fast and strong and has played error-free defense this season. There’s his teammate, Miles Bice, who “comes off the bench in crucial moments when they need a hitter,” said Ludwig. There’s Tanner Tokunaga, a speedy, 5-foot-7, 150-pound outfielder from Hawaii Pacific University who obviously needs a creative nickname.
But don’t forget the Chico State guys. Ludwig is confident that Bradley, the relief pitcher, is going to find a new level of success in the wooden bat league with his funky three-quarters throwing motion.
“That’s his advantage; his ball really moves,” Ludwig said. “He’s going to get some ground balls and broken bats.”
Bradley throws a two-seam fastball, which tails into a right-handed batter, as well as a slider that breaks the opposite direction. “I just try to keep the ball down in the zone,” he said. “I work on hitting my locations, mixing up the movement and hopefully getting weak contact.” He might start a few games, but will mostly come out of the bullpen to hold leads in late innings.
Kramer, the freshman infielder, is more of a mystery. Ludwig hasn’t seen him in game action (he’s redshirting at Chico State, which means practicing with the team but not playing) and is relying on the word of his friend, George Horton, the head coach at the University of Oregon. At 19 years old, Kramer led the Ducks’ fall practice season in hitting against left-handed pitching. The team, however, had too many players heading into the regular season, so Kramer transferred to Chico State at the beginning of the spring semester.
He came with a strong recommendation from Horton.
“He’s athletic. He can play. He just needs to get his reps and get stronger,” Ludwig said. “He’s got plus-speed, which is a huge factor. Looking at those fall stats, he can swing it, too.”
Falco, the outfielder who gets on base, is a grizzled veteran by comparison at 21 years old. He plays smart—grinding out at-bats and waiting for pitches to square up—and he plays old-school—hard slides into second base and taking pitches in the ribs.
“He’s kind of mean,” Ludwig said. “Don’t let him fool you. He’s got a fiery side I’ve seen multiple times, and I like it. He’s going to be a leader.”
Bradley has been pitching since he was 4 years old, when his father built a mound in the backyard of his home in Yuba City. Like many players in his position, he’d love to get drafted and pursue professional baseball once his college career is over, but he’s realistic about his chances.
He isn’t gifted with a high-octane fastball that lights up radar guns and makes MLB scouts salivate. Bradley’s been clocked as high as 88 mph, but consistently sits around 85 mph.
“Scouts are looking for the 95 mph fastball, young kids who throw absolute gas,” he said. “I don’t have that.” In such a skills- oriented sport, he says, selecting players based on physical tools alone isn’t necessarily fair. “As long as you get outs, who cares how hard you throw? Some kids get drafted but don’t really know how to throw strikes.”
He’s developing a third pitch, a split-finger fastball, and wants to make better use of his lower half to gain velocity. “I hope to throw harder, to get up to 90 mph,” he said. “With the movement I have, maybe I can be a dominant pitcher at the next level.”
If not, Bradley has a backup plan. He’s earning a degree in exercise physiology and plans to pursue a career as a physical trainer for professional or college baseball teams. He wants to stay around the game any way he can.
The prospect of switching focus after investing so much time and effort into a sport can be daunting, even for a freshman like Kramer who has yet to play an official college game. He, too, intends to see how far he can take baseball, but keeps a grounded perspective.
“In most people’s lives, you’re probably going to have to go a different route than what you originally planned, whether it’s baseball or switching majors or whatever,” he said. “I think it’s best that I just appreciate what I have right now and not worry about stuff I can’t control.”
Falco has already faced life after baseball. While playing for Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, before he transferred to Chico State, he dove for a ball and popped his left shoulder out of its socket, resulting in a near-360-degree tear of his labrum (cartilage in the shoulder joint). After surgery, he focused on working out his lower body during rehabilitation, but then pinched a nerve in his back while lifting weights.
“So, my arm was in a sling, I was unable to walk for a few weeks,” he recalled, “I was thinking, ‘Am I even going to play again?’”
Now healthy, when he’s on the field, he doesn’t take it for granted.
“Each day I’m out there, I thank God for the opportunity to play,” he said. “It’s tough to remind yourself every day, but I think it’s the right frame of mind: Enjoy the game, take a step at a time.”
Players will trickle into town after the conclusion of the collegiate season, which varies based on how far individual teams advance. Those who are on teams making deep runs in the College World Series won’t join the Heat until the second week of the season. (The players will stay with local host families.) Before suiting up for opening day, the Heat’s players will practice together only twice.
Then it’s show time.
Dino Corbin will be there. Now with Deer Creek Broadcasting Co., he was a big fan of the original team and, 14 years later, is still enthusiastic.
“It was a wonderful Chico family experience from the get-go,” he said. “My mom and dad loved going to the games; my sons grew up going to the games and were bat boys.”
There are great expectations for this season and beyond, Corbin said, and he believes the new regime and players won’t disappoint. However, he might be most excited about the venue. Taken altogether, the scene—evening light on the trees, grandstand and diamond, trains passing behind the wall in right field—is a slice of Americana that Corbin describes as “a moving Norman Rockwell painting.”
For Hampton, who was a fan before he was helping lead the organization, the experience is less about the game itself and more about throwing a party for the community.
“When I think back on the Chico Heat, I don’t remember who hit the home run or won the game. I remember my daughter running up and down the stairs, the fireworks, the kid who did backflips off the dugout—the stuff that happened around the game. It’s not about baseball, it’s about bringing everyone together and seeing our neighbors.
“There just happens to be a baseball game being played.”