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June 24, 2022

Second Century of Baseball Begins at Rec Park

Sen. McGuire throws first pitch

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg native, threw out the first pitch. Some said it looked something like a strike from certain angles, but for the 42-year-old politician—the majority leader in the California State Senate, former assemblyman, former county supervisor and former Healdsburg mayor—it wasn’t about the strike zone, but the pitch. 

“Tonight was an absolute honor,” he told the Tribune between innings. “The Prune Packers are a legendary team here in town, and I grew up hearing all about it. When the Prune Packers started back up at Rec Park, it was like a dream.”

Rec Park was having its 101st birthday, and it was in 1921 too that the Prune Packers played their first games. The name is part of that history—a century ago Sonoma County was known for tree fruit, not fruit of the vine, though today’s fans call the team the Packers (usually not the Prunes). 

The team was popular for five years in the early 1920s, then folded, only to be resurrected off and on until 1952, when the Healdsburg Lighting Committee took over the team and the field. That committee was spearheaded by high school teacher and coach Art McCaffrey, and when they installed the lights the team entered its golden era. McCaffrey, a lifelong supporter of the Prune Packers, died in 2002, and the playing field was named in his honor. 

The grandstands too were named for a local baseball supporter, Clarence Ruonavaara, who helped raise half a million dollars for the park’s upgrade in the first years of this century. He died in 2012, at the age of 92. 

On this past Saturday, June 11, though the history is rich, the fans were in the moment, waiting for the game to begin as grandstands were redolent of Wurst Smashburgers and Bear Republic Racer 5. The opponent for this first home game was the San Francisco Seals, which though not a member of the California Collegiate League, is another regional team with an historic legacy. Until the Giants came to the City in 1957, the Seals were the biggest game in town, and had been since 1903. They were reborn in 1985 as a collegiate training team, and play a traveling schedule of their own outside the league.

Last year, after the pandemic year off in 2020, the Prune Packers dominated the California Collegiate League with a 29-5 record, going on to win the state tournament with an 8-7 victory over the San Luis Obispo SLO Blues. 

Saturday’s game may have been their home opener, but it was the third game of the season for the Packers. They lost their first league game against the Solano Mudcats on June 9 by a close 3-2 score, but broke open their second against the Sonoma Stompers with a wild 14-12 win. The schedule heads into the heart of summer with three or four games a week through Aug. 1, followed by the four-game CCL championships. 

They hoped for a win last Saturday night, and 21-year-old right hander Nathan Hansen was on the mound. He’s a sophomore at San Diego State—like all the players, this league is a summer gig between school years.

Hansen proved more than a match for the Seals, spreading out two hits over five innings and allowing no runs, but in the sixth he gave way to the bullpen. Morgan White came in for a crucial strikeout, then Francis McDonough took over. And how: the Wichita State junior struck out 10 of the 11 batters he faced, and ended up the winning pitcher. 

Despite the pitching heroics, the game stayed a scoreless tie until the bottom of the seventh, when the home team scored three runs on third baseman Braydon Runion’s three-run homer—“a monster bomb,” as manager Joey Gomes called it—followed by two more in the eighth for the 5-0 win. 

The last of the long day glowed pink in the west as the fans went home satisfied, ready to come back again the next time the Packers host a game at Rec Park—which will be tonight, Thursday, June 16, against the Lincoln Potters at 6pm. 

As Sen. McGuire wrote on his Facebook page after the game, “If you haven’t checked out a Healdsburg Prune Packers game—you’re missing out! It’s what baseball is all about.”