‘Tough and talented’: Healdsburg Prune Packers thriving nearly a decade into skipper Joey Gomes’ tenure
When the Healdsburg Prune Packers tapped local baseball legend Joey Gomes as their new head coach and general manager in 2014, the move was seen as the organization making an investment in its future.
Gomes, the younger brother of former Major League Baseball player Jonny Gomes, had fostered relationships in the wider baseball world through his work as a talent evaluator with USA Baseball and locally as a private hitting coach on the heels of a 10-year minor league career. To the Packers organization, his mix of coaching acumen and baseball connections had the potential to take the team, still in its early stages of modernization, to the next level.
Nine years later and that investment is paying off — and then some. Under Gomes, the Prune Packers have become not just a staple of summers in the cozy wine country town — a popular and nostalgic source of entertainment — but also an ever-growing hub that’s showcasing and producing some of the best baseball talent of tomorrow.
On Tuesday, the Prune Packers put the finishing touches on another outstanding regular season in the California Collegiate League — a summer baseball league that features some of the brightest talent in college baseball — finishing with the best record in the two-conference, 11-team league.
With their 13-2 win over the Walnut Creek Crawdads, the Packers head into the CCL playoffs on Thursday looking to repeat as champions with a 37-10 record and as a winners of eight of their last 10 games.
The success is nothing new for the Packers under Gomes. Since he took over in 2014 and revamped the club into a destination for top-tier college players, the Packers have an overall record of 291-98, have finished no worse than third in the CCL standings and won the debut CCL state championship last season.
And while the wining is nice and has created a fun environment for the fans at the old Recreation Park in Healdsburg, that’s just a byproduct of Gomes’ primary goal with the Packers — player development — which has arguably been the organization’s biggest calling card.
Since 2014, the Prune Packers have had 59 players sign MLB contracts, including 10 who were selected or signed in the 2022 draft.
“It’s a fun, exciting and kind of daunting thing that’s going on right now and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it,” said Richard Bugarske, president and PA announcer for the Packers.
Bugarske’s involvement goes back to the early 2010s in the first years of the organization’s current resurgence, when most of the roster was comprised of local junior college players. He’s been with the team every step of the way as Gomes has transformed the organization into one that’s been dubbed one of the best collegiate summer ball programs in the country.
“There’s always going to be baseball around (Sonoma County), but Joey brought a connection to the big, wide world that I don’t think any of us understood right away,” Bugarske said.
The Packers had nearly overnight success when Gomes took over in 2014, but both he and Bugarske say in recent years they’ve noticed the program start to grow in other regards. They’ve always boasted Division I talent from elite programs all over the country, but now the quality of player they’re being sent is starting to rise.
A lot of that has to do with the organization that Gomes has created.
“The reputation that he has, that’s why guys want to play for him,” said Tom Francois, an assistant coach at Santa Rosa Junior College who is helping on the staff of the Prune Packers this season. “Guys want to play for him because they know that he can get them to the next level.”
While Gomes considers past teams from 2014, 2015 and 2020 as his best and most talented, in a few years he could be looking back at this year’s team and saying something similar. Aside from featuring 11 players from the North Bay, this year’s roster included players from powerhouse Division I programs like Tennessee, Texas, Michigan, Texas Tech and top-tier West Coast programs like Cal, Cal State Northridge, St. Mary’s and UC Santa Barbara.
Just this past week, the Prune Packers hosted the head coaches from Alabama, Long Beach, Cal and Tennessee. At most games they routinely have three or four MLB scouts in attendance. Gomes has even seen an increase in outside media attention. He said he’s regularly appearing on national podcasts and making spot TV appearances whenever one of their former players is in the spotlight.
“We’ve led California in nearly every hitting category every year since 2014,” Gomes said. “So, there’s a lot of hitting talk that I’ll have, how our offensive culture works, how to organize a lineup, things like that.”
Gomes recognized that the organization has reached some incredible heights over the last decade but does his best to remain humble through all the success. “Tough and talented” has always been the identity he’s strived to instill in his teams, and so far he feels that’s been a success.
“That’s what we are in Healdsburg,” Gomes said. “We play every day, we use wood bats, we get to the field at 2 p.m. for 6 p.m. games, we hit three times a day. The guys love the game, they grind it out with us, and when you have a good foundation, a good culture, the team kind of creates its own identity.
“I’d say since I took over in 2014 that tough and talented has been the culture.”
The Prune Packers will head into the CCL playoffs down in San Luis Obispo on Thursday as the No. 2 seed. They’ll face the host SLO Blues, the No. 3 seed, in the first round of the three-day, double-elimination tournament.
Healdsburg won’t have its full roster for the playoffs this weekend. A host of players had to return home due to injuries or to fulfill other playing obligations. But that’s the name of the game for summer league baseball, and Gomes is plenty confident with the group he has left.
“The guys that we got are healthy and they’re tough and talented,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or email@example.com. On Twitter @JustGusPD.