Team will field all star caliber roster; eyes improvements to field

Famed American poet Robert Frost once wrote, “I never feel more at home than at a ballgame.”

For generations, the Healdsburg Prune Packers semi-pro baseball team has had a rich and storied history in a town that has embraced the past while welcoming the team into the 21st century. For many, it’s been more than a sport, serving as an integral part of the community through good times and bad.

The Prune Packers have been steeped in Sonoma County tradition since their inception in 1921. The name was derived from the largest local agricultural crop of the time and was run by Pop Artlett, a former Pacific Coast League pitcher with local ties, and managed by Bob Weston. In the early years the team was regarded to be among the top semi-pro clubs in the state before disbanding in the late 1920s.

The Packers were revived in 1951 by the Healdsburg Lighting Committee and local legends Art McCaffrey, Quinto Barbieri, Ernie Biasotti, Francis Passalacqua, Doug Badger, Maynard Boulden and George Smith, calling Recreation Park home. During this era, clubs from all over the Pacific Northwest would stay at the Plaza Hotel and play other college and semi-pro teams in the area. A golden age for local baseball, the Prune Packers fielded stars that included legendary players Clarence Ruonavaara, Ed Pisenti and Joe Rochioli.

Since their revival as an organization seven years ago, the Packers have enjoyed a meteoric rise in both on-field success and quality on the field, the last five seasons under the guidance of GM/Manager Joey Gomes. Last year, the Packers were among the top teams in the California Collegiate League, falling to the Orange County Riptide in the CCL title game to finish the season at 37-16.

This year, local fans will continue to get a heavy dose of nostalgia and quality baseball as the Packers field a collection of collegiate stars from across the country, playing a 48-game schedule from early June to mid August. The team will play some of the top collegiate teams in the country in 2018, with a list of visiting opponents that include the Orange County Riptide, Santa Barbara Foresters and San Luis Obispo Blues.

The rise in quality of play has been undeniable. In the past two years alone, nine players have been signed to Major League Baseball contracts.

“It’s all about spreading the word that we have the best young players in America playing in Healdsburg,” Gomes said, citing Cal star and current Packer Andrew Vaughn as the #1 collegiate baseball prospect in country. “People that come to a game are going to see some great baseball and we want to represent the city of Healdsburg well. It’s going to be a banner year.”

Field improvements needed

Despite all the positives that have happened for the team in the past decade, including a community effort to renovate the grandstand and field at Recreation Park, the baseball playing surface is in desperate need of a facelift. In recent years the team has worked tirelessly to maintain the field, arriving five hours before games to make it playable.

“The playing surface is terrible and we don’t want our guys getting hurt on a bad hop from a ground ball,” said Gomes, who has hopes of raising the funds to convert the park to an all-turf field. “We’d like to bring Rec Park up to the standards of both the team and city of Healdsburg.”

Among the many ideas to raise funds for field improvements has been to allow the sale of beer and wine at games.

“I believe we could raise $25-30,000 through alcohol sales, money we could use to improve the field,” Gomes said. “We want to work with the city to come up with a solution that is good for everybody.”

Healdsburg Community Services Director Mark Themig acknowledged that while alcohol sales may be considered in the future, a formal proposal would have to be submitted before any final decision is made.

“I think it would be open to discussion, but the city council would ultimately have to vote on it,” Themig said.

Another idea being bandied about is the possibility of hosting youth travel ball tournaments on various weekends during the summer.

“Sonoma County has over 50 travel ball teams for kids ages 8-19 and has no real venue to hold tournaments,” Gomes said. “If we could bring the field at Rec Park up to standards, we could create a lot of revenue for the city.”

A bone of contention has been the Packers’ inability to practice before starting the schedule in June without being charged for using the field.

“The city doesn’t allow us to practice without paying a usage fee,” Gomes said. “When I tell our players that we can’t practice before the season starts they think I’m kidding. As a result we don’t meet until our first game in June.”

As for the team’s place in Healdsburg going forward, it has yet to be determined.

“I think the following the Prune Packers have in Healdsburg is exciting,” Themig said, citing an ongoing assessment of Recreation Park that is due to be completed this month. “My concern is the capacity of Rec Park to accommodate their high level of play while considering the local residents. We have to better define our relationship with the team and figure out a way this can best accommodate them and the city.”

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