HEALDSBURG — Ever since Riley Sullivan willed the Healdsburg Prune Packers into existence 2 years ago, this small-town baseball club has honored history.
The team name is a throwback to the minor-league Prune Packers who competed here in the 1920s, and again the 1950s. They still play at Rec Park, the quaint ballpark a few blocks east of central Healdsburg that was home to those earlier incarnations, and Sullivan has incorporated old team logos and lettering into his uniform designs.
But when the league the Packers were playing in, the Sacramento Rural League, changed its format this year, Sullivan’s response was decidedly nontraditional. Rather than affiliate with another minor league, the Prune Packers would join the Golden State Collegiate Baseball League, which relies exclusively on college athletes.
It was a gamble, and deep into the Packers’ first season in the GSCBL, there’s still no guarantee it will pay off.
Because these players are so young and inexperienced, the product isn’t always as clean as a typical minor-league game, even a low-level one. But Sullivan and his new partner, Joey Gomes, are confident the Packers’ talent level will improve over the next few years. And they are banking that fans would rather watch a guy on his way up — perhaps even a future major leaguer — than a player who has plateaued, or is nearing the end of his career.
The GSCBL isn’t the first league to try this model. The Cape Cod Baseball League has relied on college talent since 1885, and has been officially sanctioned by the NCAA since 1963. The CCBL has produced more than 1,000 major league players, from Hall of Famer Harold “Pie” Traynor to current Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum.
Other collegiate leagues are established in Alaska and the upper Great Plains, and Gomes calls them “thriving and profitable.” The Prune Packers are not there yet. After breaking even for two minor-league seasons, Sullivan said they are likely to lose a little money this year.