HEALDSBURG — Ever since Riley Sullivan willed the Healdsburg Prune Packers into existence 2½ years ago, this small-town baseball club has honored history.
The team name is a throwback to the minor-league Prune Packers who competed here in the 1920s, and again the 1950s. They still play at Rec Park, the quaint ballpark a few blocks east of central Healdsburg that was home to those earlier incarnations, and Sullivan has incorporated old team logos and lettering into his uniform designs.
But when the league the Packers were playing in, the Sacramento Rural League, changed its format this year, Sullivan’s response was decidedly nontraditional. Rather than affiliate with another minor league, the Prune Packers would join the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League, which relies exclusively on college athletes.
It was a gamble, and deep into the Packers’ first season in the GSCBL, there’s still no guarantee it will pay off.
Because these players are so young and inexperienced, the product isn’t always as clean as a typical minor-league game, even a low-level one. But Sullivan and his new partner, Joey Gomes, are confident the Packers’ talent level will improve over the next few years. And they are banking that fans would rather watch a guy on his way up — perhaps even a future major leaguer — than a player who has plateaued, or is nearing the end of his career.
The GSCBL isn’t the first league to try this model. The Cape Cod Baseball League has relied on college talent since 1885, and has been officially sanctioned by the NCAA since 1963. The CCBL has produced more than 1,000 major league players, from Hall of Famer Harold “Pie” Traynor to current Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum.
Other collegiate leagues are established in Alaska and the upper Great Plains, and Gomes calls them “thriving and profitable.” The Prune Packers are not there yet. After breaking even for two minor-league seasons, Sullivan said they are likely to lose a little money this year.
If there is a reason to have confidence in their future, it is the involvement of Gomes, a popular presence in local baseball. Many know him as the younger brother of Jonny Gomes, the slugger currently in his 12th MLB season, and second with the Boston Red Sox. But Joey is an accomplished player in his own right. He played at Santa Clara and spent 10 seasons in the minor leagues, reaching the Double A level.
Gomes has also earned a reputation for his baseball instruction. He coaches in NCTB’s The League, a five-week program for elite junior-high kids, and is the head coach of the 16-and-under NorCal Team USA and hitting coach for the 17-and-under NorCal Team USA. The latter two meet for one week of the year at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, N.C.
The Prune Packers’ intensive schedule — 52 regular-season games shoehorned between June 1 and July 30 — means baseball on up to six nights a week, and they spend several hours on the field prior to every game, working on fundamentals. Gomes, constantly chattering, brings an infectious mix of baseball know-how and edgy humor. He can still hit some mean line drives, too.
Working with his infielders last Wednesday, before a home game against the California Warriors, Gomes told them, “I first saw this drill, and I thought it was impossible, and that you had to be a major league Dominican to do it.”