Healdsburg Prune Packers games a fun way to spend summer nights
What better entertainment for a balmy summer evening than quality baseball, ballpark food, family-friendly fun and a big brass band playing between innings?
The Healdsburg Prune Packers are in the midst of a five-game homestand that began Wednesday night with the first of two games against the Humboldt Crabs, who are on a rare road trip for the Arcata-based team.
Founded in 1945, the Crabs are the oldest continuously operated summer collegiate wood-bat baseball team in the country. In its seventh decade, the team is trying to venture out of its home territory a bit more than in the past, coach Tyson Fisher said.
What they’ll find in Healdsburg is good competition, Prune Packers coach Joey Gomes promises.
The Prune Packers are part of the California Collegiate League, and like the unaffiliated Crabs, typically pull their players from Division I colleges.
“The majority of the guys you’re going to see on the field are going to play professional baseball, whether it’s next year or the year after that,” said Gomes, who played in the minor leagues for a decade and whose brother, Jonny, has played in the bigs for 15 years.
“It’s an all-star team of college baseball players,” he added.
Healdsburg is 14-5 this year, while Humboldt is 10-3. Both have pitchers who can throw in the mid-to-upper 90s. Seven Prune Packers are from Sonoma County or the state champion Santa Rosa Junior College team.
Five players from the two teams were selected in the recent Major League Baseball draft. Some are still negotiating with MLB teams, some have decided to remain in college and at least one, Ryan Luna from the Prune Packers and Sonoma State University, has signed a contract and is moving on.
The Prune Packers Baseball Club was reformed in 2014 to revive the history and tradition of the original Healdsburg Prune Packers team, which was created in 1921. Recreation Park has been renovated for comfort and style while retaining the feel of an old-time baseball stadium.
Humboldt, meanwhile, has its long-standing traditions as well.
Accompanying the Crabs in Sonoma County is the Crab Grass Band, a group of musicians from the Humboldt Bay area who come together each summer to entertain at Crabs games at the Arcata Ballpark.
Since 1983, the band has provided musical interludes before and games and between innings. It also performs the “Star Spangled Banner” in the absence of guest performers.
Prune Packers fans have the unusual treat of welcoming the visitors’ band tonight. A raft of Crabs fans have made the trip as well.
“Our crowd is very rambunctious, not in a bad way,” Fisher said. “They’re into the game. The band plays between each inning and a lot of kids are there. It’s jam-packed, very family oriented.”
Both teams, and the band as well, are supported by donations. Both teams are run by nonprofits whose donations are tax-deductible.
Community members support the team in virtually every way, Fisher said.
Donations allow the 29 Crabs players, who come from as far away as the Dakotas, Minnesota and Louisiana this year, to live in Arcata and have some meals paid for during their 10-week summer league.
Attendance in Arcata far surpasses that of many teams. In a recent game against the Neptune Beach Pearls at Laney College in Oakland, there were about 50 in attendance, Fisher said.
A typical Humboldt crowd is 700, maybe 1,700 on holiday weekends like Father’s Day or the Fourth of July.
Recreation Park has seating for 500, most of them covered.
But Gomes stressed that this isn’t just beer-league baseball or nostalgia for the good ol’ days of summer ball.
“The top baseball in the country is played here,” he said, noting that his players are coming from schools including Cal, Clemson, Texas Tech, Michigan and the University of Houston to hone their skills.
“It’s the closest thing to the minor leagues other than actually being in it, which is why it’s so heavily scouted,” he said.
He said he speaks to a scout nearly every other day about Packers players. Fisher, too, said he keeps in touch with scouts and college coaches about how the young players are developing.
Both coaches have built connections with college coaches throughout the country who send their players to California to play in the summer league.
“For us, we’re not trying to change anything big, that’s not the point,” Fisher said. “They’ve gotten to a Division I school for a reason. We’re here more to help facilitate any changes their coaches may want to help them progress as players.”
Gomes, who has coached the team for three years, talks up the Prune Packers’ level of play. He has five pitchers and two infielders from the SRJC team that won the state championship in May.
He predicts the work some of these athletes put in over the next few weeks will propel them to professional careers.
“Some of these kids, what they’re doing this summer may be enough to get them drafted this year,” he said. “The competition is that good.”