Prune Packers baseball a summer tradition in Healdsburg

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If You Go

What: Prune Packers baseball

Where: Recreation Park, Healdsburg

Admission: $5 for adults, kids 12 and under free

Information: www.prunepackers.org

As the honey-colored sun disappears behind the left field fence and after the sixth-grader sings the national anthem, an umpire orders “Play ball!” and summer baseball begins, stoking small-town dreams and big-league ambitions.

“This has the community of Little League with the quality of major league,” said longtime fan Jack Chalmers, keeping score in the Recreation Park stands at a recent Healdsburg Prune Packers game. “The talent of these kids is amazing.”

On summer evenings for the past eight years, the Prune Packers have provided solid entertainment for baseball aficionados and casual fans alike — while also helping college baseball stars develop into potential pros.

A member of the MBL-sanctioned California Collegiate League, the Packers are among a handful of West Coast developmental-style teams on which rising stars can continue improving their skills during the off-season.

These aren’t washouts or mid-level talents who couldn’t make it beyond high school. It’s good baseball.

Dozens of former Healdsburg players have played in the pros. Five were drafted last month in the MLB amateur draft, including No. 3 overall pick Andrew Vaughn, who signed a $7.2 million deal and is rapidly rising through the White Sox organization.

Nine current players were just named as top MLB prospects, coach Joey Gomes said, and played in a televised showcase game last week that will re-air throughout the summer on Fox Sports.

Two, Cole Stillwell of Texas Tech and Ian Villers of Cal, were drafted in 2018 but chose to play in college instead.

The Packers, 28-4 as a team, are ranked as high as sixth in the nation (by the Collegiate Summer Baseball Register), just behind four Cape Cod League teams, considered the gold standard for summer ball.

“People keep saying the baseball is really good. I know,” said Gomes, “but get to know them. As amazing as their skill sets are, they are phenomenal people.”

Summer Sebastiani knows that. She and her husband, Todd Fernandez, took over the concession contract this year, which means preparing hot dogs, hamburgers and caesar wraps for fans, but also team dinners for the players.

Owners of Summer’s Market in Healdsburg, the couple has provided a soft landing spot for some of the three dozen young men on the roster — all but seven of whom are from out of town, one from as far as Ohio.

Summer serves as a surrogate mom to some: “They hit her up for a ride or when they’re hungry,” her husband said.

“They’re all very appreciative,” she added.

Along with the kids, young couples, families, middle-agers and old folks, a group of 10 co-workers from Healdsburg’s Barrels, Brews and Bites took advantage of the balmy summer evening for a group field trip.

“We wanted to stay local and do something fun in the community, to support our community,” said owner Saunda Kitchen. “It’s awesome.”

Employee Jamie Corder was clearly the most prepared for the evening — donning her maroon Packers ball cap.

“They’re all kinda my age, so I’m doing a little husband hunting — kidding!” she said. “But why not come? This is fun, it’s affordable and a great way to support our community.”

The players, many of whom get a little homesick in unfamiliar environs, feel the love.

If You Go

What: Prune Packers baseball

Where: Recreation Park, Healdsburg

Admission: $5 for adults, kids 12 and under free

Information: www.prunepackers.org

“It’s a beautiful place to play,” said Elijah Birdsong, a right-handed pitcher who is among three players from the University of Pacific. “Even though it’s a weeknight it’s pretty full here. On the weekends, there is a lot of life out here.”

Chalmers, who keeps a score book, and his wife Lisa Smith have become host families for visiting players after falling in love with the loose and friendly Prune Packers.

“We used to go to Giants games all the time,” she said. “We were looking for a place up here to call home for baseball. We went to San Rafael and Sonoma, but they looked too structured. Two or three years ago, we came here. It’s the Field of Dreams. And we never left.”

Last year they hosted pitcher Ryan Shreve, who was drafted this year and is playing in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system.

“We’re still in touch with him,” Smith said. “Still in touch with his parents. It’s been a great experience.”

This year the couple is hosting John Lagattuta, a junior outfielder at Cal.

Longtime coach Gomes, whose family name is well known in baseball circles — his brother Jonny played in the bigs and is now a minor league coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks — hopes to continue building the team’s relationship with Healdsburg and the Sonoma County area.

“The quality out here is fantastic,” he said. “Right in our backyard. I want people to say, ‘We won yesterday.’ Our team.

“Some of the guys are actually going to be professional baseball players,” he said. “What they do on the field is done of passion. It’s not a cliche to say it’s done for the love of the game.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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