Like Fine Wine, The CCL’s Prune Packers Are Getting Better With Time

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Updated: February 15, 2021

Pulling up to the ballpark in Healdsburg, Calif. is like stepping into a different place in time — entering another realm where the baseball is as unique in the 98 year-old park it is played in.

“The town itself…it’s like Americana.” said Prune Packers General Manager Joey Gomes. 

Set in the rolling hills of California Wine Country, the Healdsburg experience is a special one. Fans are treated to not only top-quality baseball bolstered by a stable of MLB prospects, including 2019 No. 3 overall pick Andrew Vaughn, but also the history and heritage epitomized by the Prune Packers’ Recreation Park.

The Prune Packers may be known as the team with the memorable moniker located in a picturesque town, but their uniqueness has not stopped them from becoming a force in college summer baseball. The Prune Packers were recently ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation by the Collegiate Summer Baseball Register. With their relaxed attitude off the field and unrelenting ambition in the game, the Prune Packers have excelled under Gomes’ tutelage and put Healdsburg on the baseball map.

No one exemplifies Healdsburg baseball culture better than Gomes — a former professional baseball player himself who brings a distinctive outlook to the game.

“His knowledge and his approach obviously as a player, but even more so as a coach, really kind of stand out,” said Jason Sekany, a regional director for USA Baseball who works with Gomes.

Players ranging from middle schoolers in the North Bay to Spencer Torkelson, the first overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, have trusted Gomes and his unique vision to improve their games.

Prune Packers Manager Joey Gomes addresses the team. COURTESY OF JOEY GOMES

Gomes’ professional career began when he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 8th round of the 2002 MLB Draft. After spending 10 seasons in the minors, Gomes decided to call it a career and directed his passion towards coaching.

Gomes quickly was approached with an opportunity by USA Baseball. Gomes would scout players who would be invited to go through a trial process at the national team training facility in Cary, N.C.

As a talent evaluator, Gomes established connections with NCAA baseball coaches across the Northwest and around the nation, laying the foundation for future roster-building when he began assembling summer collegiate teams.

As a coach, he learned how to teach and implement the “you don’t take yourself too serious, but when you’re on the field, you take it serious” mentality he took on in his minor-league days. He also recognized the importance of encouraging players to work on their time management as part of an overall improvement strategy, as well as tapping into his own baseball knowledge when players came asking for help. 

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By the time former Prune Packers head Riley Sullivan first approached him, Gomes had already made a name for himself within the North Bay baseball scene. Gomes had not only built relationships with college coaches and other scouts around the country, but he also expanded his own personal coaching services, Gomes Baseball, to train players across the Bay area. 

In the winter of 2013, Sullivan offered Gomes an opportunity to lead a total reconstruction of the Prune Packers, a local team originally formed in 1921. However, the 2013 Prune Packers were a far cry from the franchise that formerly hosted Ted Williams and other top-notch baseball talent in the ‘Burg. The team’s rosters were composed mostly of junior college athletes and players past their prime, making the possibility of a rebuild a tall order.

Gomes was initially hesitant to become the organization’s lead man before he decided to take part in restoring the Sonoma County landmark to its former glory.

Gomes’ first task when he took over in 2014 was to clean house and start from scratch, which he now admits did not make him the “most popular guy around.” After seeing that the team had still not reached its potential after a full season, he chose to go independent for the 2015 season while he made up his mind on what the club’s next steps should be. 

“I knew it was going to be a step back not really being associated with the league and an organization and an affiliation,” Gomes said. “But I knew that [we took] one step back to maybe take three, four or five forward.”   

The Prune Packers’ next move came to light once Gomes took his team to San Luis Obispo in 2015 to play the Blues, a longtime CCL and summer ball stalwart. 

Gomes liked the way the league was run and felt the on- and off-field attitude CCL members adopted matched the one he wanted to implement in his own club. He also felt the Prune Packers could augment the CCL’s presence in Northern California.

“What has stood out to me first and foremost is the quality of play,” Gomes said. “We are player-driven league.” 

After joining the CCL, Gomes used his former relationships from USA Baseball to begin establishing his organization’s credibility with college coaches and programs, allowing him to put together increasingly competitive rosters.

 

The Prune Packers celebrate the Fourth of July. COURTESY OF JOEY GOMES

Four seasons later, the Prune Packers have turned into a CCL powerhouse and welcomed players from revered baseball programs at universities such as Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Arizona State and UC Berkeley. 

“It’s no surprise to me that the Prune Packers have become what they’ve become in such a short period of time,” Sekany said. 

While the Healdsburg organization itself has grown in stature, the true beneficiaries of the Prune Packers’ machine are the players who spend their summers there. 

For one thing, players can put extra focus into improving their hitting, taking advantage of Gomes’ years of experience as a hitting coach. Prior to each game, players take part in Gomes’ hitting “seminars” and work on batting technique.

Prune Packers athletes also have the flexibility to create their own daily routines before games, which are unlike the more structured ones they usually follow within their college programs. The practice helps players take responsibility for their own performance and better reflect on what they need to do to succeed, whether on or off the field, Gomes said. 

Gomes and his entire coaching staff focus on maintaining an improvement-first mindset while devoting as much time and as many resources as possible to player development. 

“It’s…we are very much here for you as opposed to you are here for us,” Gomes said. 

One of the Prune Packers’ main coaching philosophies is encouraging players to take the time to reflect on what they did during their college seasons instead of merely focusing on their summer play. 

“I think it’s just a place for [a player] to remove himself from the situation, but process everything that has been expected of him and what was thrown at him,” Gomes said. “And he’s able to conceptualize all that stuff a little bit better, and he’s a much more refined player when we give him back.

“I want you to go back and be a contributor for your team, so I think really the secret for guys that come out to the summer and then go back and excel a lot was because of summer baseball.” 

The strategy has proven successful, too — when Texas Tech players Cameron Warren and Cal Conley each came to Healdsburg, Warren was coming off a 22-at-bat season, and Conley had been a redshirt. However, after spending a summer with the Prune Packers, both were All-Americans in their next NCAA seasons. 

While players credit Gomes with improvements they made during the summer season, he also considers himself fortunate to be able to work with a variety of players who each bring a unique challenge and opportunity for growth to the table. 

“I’m somehow so humble and so fortunate to have the groups of guys that I have coming out, that are so hungry to learn and thirsty to get after it,” Gomes said. 

Fans attend a Prune Packers game at Recreation Park in Healdsburg, Calif. COURTESY OF JOEY GOMES

The legacy of Healdsburg is as essential to the Prune Packers as their play on the field, and Gomes credits the team’s location and culture for the success of the franchise. 

“I’m really thankful because, as far as Sonoma County is concerned with its baseball-rich history, there’s no better place to put a summer baseball team than in the heart of Healdsburg,” Gomes said.

Moving forward, Gomes hopes to continue putting together the driven, well-balanced teams he has assembled in past seasons, especially as more CCL teams figure to return to play in the 2021 season. Specifically, Gomes’ main goal is to establish sustainability within the organization, enabling him to put competitive teams on the field every season. 

However, no matter how much the team grows and changes, Gomes’ focus on putting players first and taking the time to do things correctly will stay the same.

“I think if you develop the right way, the wins come,” Gomes said. “This is not a place for just reps. This is a place to continue growing what potentially is started, and then you’re very much here to do things the right way and then win the game at the end of the day, and we have fun doing it.”

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