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Prune Packers baseball and Rec Park squeeze fun, good baseball and old friends into the storied stands

More on the 2021 Prune Packers season

For information on the Prune Packers’ roster, schedule and 2021 summer season, go to www.prunepackers.org

Two minutes before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Joe Gellura grabbed the microphone and belted out a traditional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the crowd at Rec Park stood, hats and hands over hearts.

Two hours later, there was Gellura, 82, out of his seat, arms raised, singing along to The Village People’s “YMCA” playing over the stadium loudspeakers.

Such is the mix of tradition and youthful exuberance that swirls around Healdsburg’s vaunted Rec Park on Prune Packer baseball game days. Rec Park is the stadium where the wood beneath your bum is more than 100 years old, where foul balls threaten to dent any car parked on Piper Street and top-level college players off for the summer swing wooden, not aluminum, bats.

Rec Park is also where they no longer sell water in one-use bottles (you can get a stainless steel bottle for $6), where the public address system plays Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” between innings, and where those with more “life experience” watch the game eagle-eyed with score books on their laps while kids run pell-mell around the park trying to scoop up foul balls or get an autograph from a player making a break for the loo.

It’s been dubbed, in these pages and by those who ought to know, as “the sweetest little ballpark in Northern California.”

100 years, off and on

Opening day June 8 marked 100 years, off and on, of Prune Packer baseball in the park on the corner of Piper and University streets. And it also marked the first time since 2019 that a Prune Packer game was staged there. Amid increasing pandemic health and safety restrictions, every game on the very abbreviated 2020 schedule was on the road last season.

So, Tuesday was a homecoming of sorts.

You had Dick Bugarske on the public address system, calling the game but also tossing in bits of both Prune Packer history and baseball gems from yesteryear. Did you know that it was June 8, 1961, that Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock and Frank Thomas hit consecutive homers for the Milwaukee Braves, the first team to pull that feat?

Bugarske did, and now so did everyone in the stands.

Bugarske, who also announces for all manner of Healdsburg High athletic teams, is a Prune Packer historian of sorts.

It’s he who tells me that the land on the corner of Piper and University used to be an old quarry that had to be leveled and seeded to make way for the ballpark. And he tells me that the Prune Packers came to be as the brain child of the local chamber of commerce, whose members were hellbent on bringing folks back into town after the flu pandemic of 1918 had done such damage to the local economy and psyche.

“Primarily, it was business,” Bugarske said of the launch of the team in 1921. “They wanted to let people know that Healdsburg had not disappeared during those years and wanted to get people back into town.”

When the Prune Packers formed in 1921, they quickly became one of the best semi-pro teams in the state, according to an article in the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society’s publication Russian River Recorder, penned by Holly Hoods and Marie Djordjevich. Games, played mostly on Sundays in those days, were said to draw up to 800 people.

The team played here in stops and starts over the years. It has not been a century of continuous baseball, but it has been that long for steady use of this beloved park and stadium.

“People loved baseball and the Pacific Coast League was small,” Bugarske said. “I think there was pride. Local communities took real pride in having a good baseball team, so the chamber of commerce understood that and they tapped into bringing that into the community.”

Fast forward 100 years.

That same feeling of a community coming together, emerging from a mysterious pandemic that sowed fear and kept people from gathering, was on hand last week. Baseball, or more specifically, the Prune Packers, brought folks together then and it brings folks together today.

“It was just a great feeling, a sense of relief. Part of this is that it’s another sign that we are going back to normal,” Gellura said.

Back in those old green bleachers

The sense of gratitude to be back in those old green bleachers was strong Tuesday.

“It was overwhelming among we regulars,” Gellura said. “I sit in a part of the stands with people who are there every game. I have kiddingly said to (Prune Packer board secretary Laurie North) we should get our names on the seats, that’s where we sit. That group of people, we are baseball friends, I haven’t seen them in two years, since the last baseball game.”

That feeling of relief, excitement and love was made all stronger after the home team, who dug themselves into a 8-1 hole early, rallied back to beat the visiting Solano Mud Cats 13-9.

More on the 2021 Prune Packers season

For information on the Prune Packers’ roster, schedule and 2021 summer season, go to www.prunepackers.org

On opening day, the faces in the dugout are all new. The Prune Packers play, and have dominated of late, in the California Collegiate League. Their roster boasts players from the University of Michigan, Harvard, Wichita State, University of Connecticut, Arizona State and Texas Tech and other top-shelf college squads.

The CCL, along with the likes of the Cape Cod Baseball League and the Northwoods League based in Minnesota, is for college athletes only. No one is paid, and players are housed with host families who open their homes from June through early August.

Gellura has taken athletes in. So, too, have Jack Chalmers and Lisa Smith of Santa Rosa, another pair of Prune Packers regulars.

Chalmers and Smith housed pitcher Ryan Shreve in 2018. They still keep in touch. Shreve is now with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the high-A team in the Minnesota Twins system. In fact, when I follow up later with Chalmers on the phone, he was prepping for a busy night.

“I was getting set up to listen or watch Ryan pitch in Cedar Rapids, until it’s time to watch the Packers play in Lincoln,” he said. “We aren’t crazy or anything.”

Kids 12 and under are free

Tickets are a more than reasonable $5, and kids 12 and under are free. At the snack table, where choices were limited by COVID-19 safety measures, Doritos were a hot seller. Fritos corn chips? Not so much.

And M&Ms were also hot, but the peanut variety, not plain, according to Chloe Tjogas, who was working the table. Sunflower seeds were free Tuesday, so they were flying off the table, too.

But good news on the food front: Officials say the menu should expand significantly after the rollback of pandemic-related restrictions on Tuesday.

From her vantage point, Smith said she sees the evolution of both the team and the folks in the stands as the summers and seasons wear on. On opening night, there are claps of general appreciation of a fine pitch or hustle for an extra base. But give it a week and the hometown crowd knows the roster and the support becomes more personal.

“Two or three games or a week into the season, you know all the players and everybody is cheering for the players,” she said. “People take that interest.”

Smith, like Chalmers, rarely misses a game. But Smith, who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, said she gives herself a pass every once in a while if her energy isn’t high enough to make it to Rec Park. But that’s a rarity.

It’s too much fun, sitting in those stands, having a hot dog and cheering for the latest lineup of who could be tomorrow’s stars of the game.

“It’s something we look forward to and missed terribly last year,” she said.

Why?

“It’s high-quality baseball, but it’s the community,” she said.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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