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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.”

He introduced a nutty-looking exercise that had fielders palming baseballs in their glove hands while they played short toss. The drill was designed to help them transfer the ball to their throwing hands more quickly on relays and double plays.

Francis Christy, the 2013 Redwood Empire large-school baseball player of the year and now at Palomar College in San Diego County, considered playing in the Alaska Baseball League this summer but chose the Prune Packers because of Gomes.

“I’ve been hitting with Joey since I was like 12 years old, and I heard he was getting a team together,” said Christy, who followed Gomes at Casa Grande High. “I decided to play for him, because it’s basically like getting lessons from him every single day.”

Gomes has many contacts in baseball — he played for 13 different minor league teams, not counting Mexican leagues — and leans on them now as coach and GM of the Packers. His lifelines are college recruiting coordinators.

College coaches are limited in how much they can work with players over the summer, and most relish the opportunity to keep their athletes on the field if they feel the kids are getting good instruction.

Some of his players come with instructions. The colleges often request that their pitchers get a certain number of innings in before being shut down entirely, or that they work on specific pitches. One Packers position player is supposed to bunt at least once a game. Gomes obliges, acknowledging that his team can’t function without the blessing of the colleges.

“I honestly feel like I’m borrowing one of your prized possessions,” he added. “I’m not paying their scholarship. You know, (pitcher) Nick Gagliardi is getting $170,000 from Santa Clara. … You blow him out, we’ll never talk again.”

Gagliardi is one of four Broncos on the roster. The Prune Packers have three from Fresno State, plus guys from USF, Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount. Sonoma State’s Jourdan Weiks is here, too. Two of the Packers have been drafted by major league teams — Christy, selected by the A’s in the 37th round in 2013, and Joe Ryan, drafted by the Giants in Round 39 this year.

The roster includes a sprinkling of local talent, including familiar names like pitchers Anthony Bender (Petaluma High) and Brandon Poulson (Piner).

The goal is to increase the ratio of Division I players over time. As it is, Healdsburg native Ryan Rochioli said, the level of competition is stronger this year than it was in 2013 when he and the rest of the Prune Packers were minor leaguers.

“Comparing it to last summer, it is 100 times better,” said Rochioli, who pitches for the UC Davis club team. “Last year we had a lot of older players playing. This team’s got a bunch of DI athletes, and they’re all really good. … It’s definitely making me play at a higher level.”

Rochioli has a special connection to the team. His grandfather, Joe Rochioli, played for the Prune Packers in the 1950s.

Both of them played at Rec Park. With its covered grandstand and green benches with built-in back rests, it’s a fairly pleasant place to spend a summer evening. Collegiate summer teams use wood bats, adding to the nostalgic feel. And the Packers are playing well. They were 12-8 in the GSCBL and 21-13 altogether heading into Friday’s game against the Chili Gods — a lower-level college-based team that also happens to be owned by Sullivan and Gomes.

About the only thing the Prune Packers are lacking is fans. Average attendance this year, according to Sullivan, is about 180. There may have been 100 in the grandstand for that game against the Warriors.

“Have we bitten off more than we can chew?” Sullivan said. “Maybe, in the sense that we don’t have a lot of dollars to market yet. But the word’s getting out. And people have come here and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is the best baseball we’ve seen in Sonoma County since the Crushers.’ ”

The question is whether the word can spread fast enough to allow the Prune Packers to write another chapter of local history.

(Phil Barber can be reached at Phil.Barber@pressdemocrat.com.)