WALLA WALLA — There’s a definite change in the air.
Days gradually warm, songbirds reappear and the snow line inches its way up the slopes of the Blue Mountains.
Dave Meliah and Jason Grove notice the changes out on Tausick Way as they go about the business of preparing Walla Walla Community College’s baseball team for another season. Meliah is in his fourth season as the Warriors head coach and Grove has been one of his assistants over that duration.
It’s a sweet time for the lifelong Walla Wallans, who enjoy a friendship bonded by baseball. But at times, perhaps, it’s bittersweet as well.
Because spring training is underway in Arizona and Florida. And fading memories of their years as professional baseball players are bound to bubble to the surface.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about how things could have been different,” said Grove, a 1997 Wa-Hi graduate who played baseball for three seasons at Washington State University before being drafted by the New York Yankees in the third round of the 2000 amateur June draft. Grove retired from baseball in 2007 after five minor league seasons with the Yankees, Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners.
Meliah, a 1995 DeSales grad, played collegiate baseball at WWCC and the University of San Francisco. He was drafted in the 17th round of the 1998 June draft by Texas and played six seasons in the Rangers’ minor league system before calling it a career following the 2003 season.
“It’s very mixed feelings,” Meliah said. “I definitely miss playing. It’s not as hard as it used to be, but I do miss it.”
Grove was a career .288 hitter who climaxed his career by playing two seasons at Class AA Trenton, N.J., in the Eastern League. He slugged 34 home runs, 16 triples, 85 doubles and drove in 215 runs over 415 minor league games.
He asked for and was granted his outright release from the Yankees following the 2004 season and later hooked on with first the Twins and then the Mariners.
“I didn’t like the future plans they had for me,” Grove said of his desire to cut ties with the team that drafted him. “At least I found out what life was like outside the Yankee organization. It just didn’t work out for me.”
Meliah’s career arc took him as high as the Oklahoma City Redhawks of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League, just one ankle sprain away from a chance to play in the big leagues. Meliah played in 511 minor league games and batted .275 with 46 homers, 18 triples and 102 doubles. He finished with 250 RBIs.
“It was the right time, the right thing to do,” Meliah said of his decision to retire. “Mentally I was exhausted. It was the right thing as to where my life was headed.
“Of course, I wish I could have taken it one step further and played in the major leagues. But everybody has those kinds of thoughts no matter what line of work they are in.”
Meliah returned to Walla Walla and served as a WWCC assistant coach before being promoted to head coach following the 2009 season. Grove, who had left WSU after his junior year, completed his degree in elementary education through WSU’s Tri-Cities branch and has taught at Davis Elementary School in College Place for the last four years.
“Besides baseball, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Grove said of his teaching career.
Both men have married since retiring from pro ball.
Grove met his wife, Tabitha Clairborne, while making a deposit at a local bank. They were married in 2011.
“We didn’t grow up together,” Grove said of Tabitha. “She graduated from Wa-Hi, but she was four years behind me.”
Meliah and his wife, former Wa-Hi star athlete Jill Watkins, are all ready busy raising a family. Daughter Emily is 5 1/2 and son Kellen is 1 1/2.
“That’s what makes even thinking about going to spring training easier,” Meliah said. “I couldn’t leave my family. It would be too hard to be gone.
“As much as I love baseball and love playing and competing, I am perfectly at peace because I want to be with my family.”
Jill has also been Wa-Hi’s head girls basketball coach for the last four seasons.
“I just stay out of her way,” Meliah said. “I don’t know enough about basketball to form an opinion.”
What strikes both former players is the realization that even if they had made it to the big leagues, they would now be approaching retirement.
“That is weird, really weird to think about,” said Meliah, who turns 36 this month. “Guys who I started out with like Michael Young and Travis Hafner, Carlos Pena, Mark Teixeira and Colby Lewis, those guys are all in the last years of their careers.”
“It’s reality,” said the 34-year-old Grove, who played on the same field with future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter when the Yankees shortstop was on a rehab assignment in Trenton. “There are quite a few players I played with and against who are now near the end of their careers.”
In the end, there are always the stories they can tell.
“It’s funny how something will trigger a story or an experience that we can relate to one another,” Grove said.
“We can laugh at things a little bit,” Meliah said. “And our stories get grander. We are a lot better in our minds.”
But there are no regrets.
“Not any more,” Meliah said. “I am over that feeling that I had when I was first done. Now when we go to a major league game, it’s great family time. We teach our kids the game and hope they love it as much as we love the game.”
“I will always miss playing the game, but there are no regrets,” Grove said. “Spinning my wheels as a career minor league player was not what I wanted to do. Baseball is not the biggest part of my life anymore, but it will always be a part of my life.”