Two Local Baseball Teams Take to the Field
There’s a growing spectacle in Sonoma Wine Country.
Healdsburg and Sonoma are teaming with talented collegiate ball players, and some are headed for the big league. Games are about to begin, offering a glimpse of raw talent, ripe for the picking.
During the 19th century, average citizens formed friendly neighborhood games in communities like Healdsburg, organizing matchups between mechanics and clerks and other tradesmen. From amateur leagues to minors, teams have come and gone around the county, but after a century, the Healdsburg Prune Packers remain.
A befitting homage to the fruit laborers of the region, the Prune Packers’ name reflects the era when plum trees replaced grape vines during Prohibition and prunes had a moment. In fact, in 1924, Healdsburg won a $100 first prize in a contest for best town slogan with “The Buckle of the Prune Belt.”
The Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, which held the contest, opened Recreation Park in 1921, creating a home for the Packers baseball club. The Packers had two successful decades during the ‘20s and ‘50s, then played actively until 1963. They fell dormant for nearly 50 years, until 2012, when retired educator and now president Richard Bugarske acquired the baseball club. As a historian, Bugarske says the team’s dormancy likely started when MLB games became televised. The arrival of the San Francisco Giants in 1958 and the Oakland Athletics in 1968 were other factors.
In 2014, Bugarske transitioned the baseball club from a for-profit to a 501(c)(3) non-profit, then hired head coach/general manager Joey Gomes. The former outfielder and first baseman started as a Tampa Bay Rays draft pick from Santa Clara University before leading a 10-year pro baseball career in the minor leagues.
By 2016, the Packers joined the California Collegiate League (CCL), funded in part by Major League Baseball. Teams from Northern and Southern California divisions compete each summer. The five NorCal teams are located in Walnut Creek, Lincoln, Solano, Healdsburg, and Sonoma.
From 2016 – 2018 and again in 2021, the Packers led the Northern Division. As they celebrated their centennial milestone last year, heavy smoke and blazing wildfires east of the Lincoln, California, matchup thankfully didn’t interfere with their first win of the CCL state championship title. Also significant last year, three Packer alumni were 2021 MLB draft picks—one of whom was pitcher Ian Villers, drafted to the San Francisco Giants.
Today, the Packers are a nationally ranked team. Coaches from UC Berkeley, Texas Tech, and others compete each year, hoping to add their talented athletes to the Packers team roster. The endgame is specific. Gomes explains, “We develop to win. Our team is a destination for major league scouts. We’re putting these guys in the major leagues.”
It’s clear that the Packers enjoy being part of their community. “We are a catalyst to bring people together and help regain our sense of place,” says Bugarske. “Coming to a Packers game can offset the loneliness that many of us have been feeling.”
Homegrown Healdsburg native Justice Brilliant has had a soft spot for the Packers since his family hosted a player in their home during the 2014 season, when he was 11. “He just kept showing up to all our games,” says Gomes. At 13, Brilliant became a volunteer and then was eventually hired. Now a business major at the University of Oregon, he remains the sole office employee. Each summer the sports business management hopeful returns home for the baseball season to work with the Packers.
Co-owner Melissa McDowell says, “Our employees all want to work at the games… they all grew up going to them so being part of it is a big deal.”
The 2022 baseball season marks a new beginning for the Sonoma Stompers, since joining the CCL after a six-year run as a Pacific Association Minor League team. The Stompers are ready to take on the Packers, their only other Sonoma County rival within the same collegiate league. They also offer several opportunities for community involvement, including auditions to sing the national anthem, become a bat kid, or host a player.
During the Stompers’ 2016 season, while a minor league team, they garnered national attention when they signed the first ever all-female professional battery (catcher and pitcher) with catcher Anna Kimbrell, and pitchers Stacy Piagno and Kelsie Whitmore. “Historically the CCL has not been co-ed, but this is something the Stompers are exploring, given our views towards equality for all,” Stompers General Manager Eddie Mora-Loera says.
The formation of the All-American Girl’s Professional Baseball League served its purpose during World War II, to help boost morale and keep a beloved tradition alive. During these complex times, a little baseball can help put our minds at ease. So grab your hat, and bring the kiddos, and for a few hours leave the weight of the world at home. Baseball season is here.
Stompers vs. Packers Games
June 10 Arnold Field
June 21 Recreation Park
July 6 Arnold Field
July 7 Recreation Park
July 12 Arnold Field
July 13 Recreation Park
July 15 Recreation Park
July 18 Arnold Field
July 23 Recreation Park
Healdsburg Prune Packers: Recreation Park, 515 Piper Street, Healdsburg, Ticket: $8
Sonoma Stompers: Arnold Field, 180 1st St West, Sonoma, Ticket: $10
June 17 Pride Night
June 25 Autism Awareness Night
July 4 4th of July Night
July 6 Wine Country Showdown
July 29 Bark in the Park
July 30 Bocce Night
Photos by Brian Sinigiani and J.W. Toy III