Benefield: Healdsburg Prune Packers players balancing baseball, internships
Some of the Healdsburg Prune Packers are talking about floating the Russian River Monday. It is, after all, a rare day off.
But for two Prune Packers, there will be no floating down the river, and there is rarely a day off.
Pitchers Alec Rennard and Matt Blais are not only playing the nearly non-stop, two-month California Collegiate Baseball League schedule this summer, they are also both working nearly full time on internships.
Rennard, a 2013 Maria Carrillo grad who went on to star at Santa Rosa Junior College before heading to the University of Michigan last fall for his junior season, spends his days at St. Joseph Health's oncology center in Santa Rosa, doing, essentially, whatever he's asked. When his work day is done, he heads north to Healdsburg to work on another a wholly different skillset as a Prune Packer pitcher.
Blais, who prepped at Junipero Serra High in San Mateo and now pitches for U.C. Davis, is working as an intern with Regusci Vineyard Management in Napa.
For both, it can be 12-plus-hour days on a regular basis. Often, it's more.
That means Prune Packers manager Joey Gomes often adjusts his game plan to account for a couple of driven brainiacs on the roster.
He laughed talking about their “day jobs.” It's almost incomprehensible what they are balancing, he said.
“These guys are special human beings,” he said.
“If you knew what they had to do,” he said. “You are ... a molecular biology major? Who are you guys?”
But that question gets to the best part of all of this. Blais and Rennard are more than just ace baseball players.
They are guys who have their academic houses in order and are driven enough to secure internships that will give them an idea of what's out there for them away from the baseball diamond.
Rennard spends his days at the oncology center, getting exposed to clinical trial research.
Blais is based in Napa, learning about vineyard management operations.
They both do a little bit of everything.
Blais is usually up at 5 a.m. and at work by 6 a.m. He checks crop yields, puts data into Excel sheets and completes “pressure bombs.” The name is a little more exciting than the action - he's simply running a test on grape leaves to see if vines are getting too much or too little water.
It's a far cry from last summer, when Blais played summer ball in Victoria, British Columbia, where the drinking age is 19.
Sometimes Blais works out on his own in Napa, rather than making the way-more-than-an-hour drive from Napa to Healdsburg through afternoon traffic.
“I've been around long enough to know what I need to do,” he said of his workouts.
When he takes the mound for the Prune Packers, it can add up to a hellaciously long day.
For one outing, Blais was up at 5 a.m., working until 3:30 p.m., raced up to Healdsburg to change clothes and be on the mound by the Prune Packers' start time of 6 p.m.
To help, Gomes usually gives both Blais and Rennard an early sign of when they are starting so they can make arrangements in their schedules.
Blais is slated to pitch Saturday at home against the Auburn Wildcats.
Rennard is scheduled to take the mound Thursday against the Neptune Beach Pearl.
The Prune Packers - who are 25-11 overall and 19-7 in the CCL in a heated race for first with the Pearl - let players not only focus on winning, but really zero in on the parts of their game they need to work on.
Summer is for tweaking and adjusting, without the pressure of a Div. I program riding on immediate results.
“This is where I can push the limit and find out exactly where that line is,” Rennard said. “I don't feel the pressure.”
And baseball is where he can tune out the rest of the world.
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Rennard is doing data entry, fetching equipment and sitting in on a tumor review board. But by 3 p.m. he's on the field, working on the mechanics of his delivery away from the glare of a Div. I program.
“This is what I need to do to make a better version of myself,” Rennard said.
As driven as Rennard is in school, he also wants to see where baseball can take him.
He was the California Community College state championship MVP in 2016, when the Bear Cubs won it all. He was also named Big-8 Conference Pitcher of the Year, all-state pitcher and first-team All-American.
He's kept it up at the University of Michigan.
He pitched 65 innings in 18 appearances, including 10 starts. He tallied six wins with an ERA of 4.43. He struck out 65 batters and walked only 15.
For the Prune Packers, Rennard has found time to toss 11 innings with a 0.82 ERA, including 18 strikeouts and just one walk.
The fact that Gomes has Rennard penciled in to start Thursday at home points to his gifts on the mound.
It's a key contest. The Pearl are just a half-game ahead of the Prune Packers heading into the home stretch of the season. It also marks the first game of a four-game homestand.
Playing at the next level “is definitely a big dream in my life,” he said.
“I think I owe it to myself to chase the dream,” he said. “Even if I fail, there is no failing.”
Blais, too, would like to make a run at the pros if possible.
“I'm kind of split right now,” he said. “If I get drafted, I'd totally go,” but “if baseball doesn't work, I won't be down in the dumps. I'm excited to see what in store for me in the business world.”
That sounds like a guy who has been smart enough give himself a solid foundation in both athletics and, let's call it, “the real world.”
The only downside so far? These two might go all summer without ever putting a toe in the river.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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