The love affair between baseball and Walla Walla goes back decades.
At least as far back as the 1950s and early ’60s when the beloved Walla Walla Bears served up semi-pro entertainment on warm summer nights and sizzling weekend afternoons at quaint Borleske Stadium.
Then, in 1969, professional minor league ball came to town.
First up was a Philadelphia Phillies’ rookie-league club, followed by a team operated by the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. The San Diego Padres took over in 1973 and entertained local baseball fans for a decade in which the likes of future MLB Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Ozzie Smith made their professional debuts at Borleske Stadium.
But minor league baseball began to peter out in the 1980s and Walla Walla and similar-sized communities throughout the country were cut out of the process. And it wasn’t until 2010 that the Walla Walla Sweets, a member of the wood-bat West Coast League, reinvigorated Borleske Stadium with college-level baseball and an entertainment-oriented atmosphere reminiscent of an earlier era.
Through it all, however, high-school baseball has been a Walla Walla staple that has survived the ages. More than survived, it has thrived.
And Monday night, thanks to the financial support of the Sweets and the backing of the Walla Walla YMCA, and propelled by the ambitious recruiting efforts of JC Biagi and Jason Magnaghi, former high-school baseball players will convene at Borleske Stadium for the first alumni game between Wa-Hi and DeSales.
JC Biagi, a 2000 DeSales graduate who will represent the Irish Monday night, dreamed up the idea of an alumni game between his Irish and the Blue Devils during his tenure as the Sweets field manager from 2010 to 2014. It came about during late-night brainstorming sessions between himself, his wife Katie, at that time the Sweets general manager, and Sweets president Zachary Frazier.
“We were just floating some fun ideas to host events at the stadium,” recalled Biagi, who joined the Sweets after a successful collegiate baseball career at Walla Walla Community College and Centenary College in Shreveport, La. “The Sweets were talking about adding events at the ball park that would be interesting to the community, and it was a collaboration between myself and Katie and Zachary.”
Biagi took on the responsibility of recruiting DeSales players for the first of what he hopes will become an annual event. And he engaged Magnaghi, a 1996 Wa-Hi grad, to take on the task of assembling a squad of former Blue Devil players.
“I needed a partner on the Wa-Hi side, and it happens that Jason is married to my cousin,” Biagi said. “And Jason and I were fishing and talking about it, and I got him involved in it. That got the ball rolling.
“I reached out to about 20 guys and got 15 yeses right away,” Biagi added. “I thought it might have been a little more challenging for Jason, but he put it out there on social media and the next thing you know he’s getting the word back. He had no problem.”
The rosters are riddled with familiar names from the past dating back to the late 1980s, many of them athletes who went on to play college baseball and a few who played professionally.
Jason Grove, class of 1997, is perhaps the best-known name on Wa-Hi’s alumni roster.
Grove, who played three seasons at Washington State University, was selected by the New York Yankees in the third round of the 2000 June amateur draft and played for several seasons in the Yankees’ minor-league system, climbing as high as Class AA Trenton, N.J. He was later signed by the Minnesota Twins before retiring from professional baseball in 2006.
Grove recently completed his fourth season as head coach of the College Place High School Hawks baseball team and is looking forward to Monday’s game at Borleske Stadium.
“I think everybody wants to have fun and enjoy it,” Grove said. “We didn’t play each other while I was at Wa-Hi, other than a couple of times in jamborees, but I played with and against some of those guys for sure during summer baseball.
“And it’s a good fund-raiser for the community and the schools.”
All net proceeds from the game will go directly to Wa-Hi and DeSales, with the winning school awarded 55 percent of those proceeds and the loser getting the remaining 45 percent.
At the same time Grove was working his way up the Yankees’ chain, DeSales 1995 grad Dave Meliah was excelling in the Texas Rangers’ system after a successful collegiate career at Walla Walla Community College and the University of San Francisco. Meliah was picked by Texas in the 17th round of the 1998 draft June draft and made it all the way to Class AAA Oklahoma City, Okla., before his retirement after the 2003 season.
Meliah, who just finished his ninth season as WWCC’s head baseball coach, is listed as one of the DeSales coaches for Monday’s game. He recently underwent hip-replacement surgery and is unable to play.
“Doctors tell me it is probably at least partially a baseball-related injury,” Meliah said of his medical issue. “It’s a yearlong process to heal up, but I’m doing pretty well and I’m able to do most things, just not baseball.
“But I’m guessing JC has already got me penciled in for next year,” Meliah added.
Another former pro is David Bingham, a 1989 Wa-Hi graduate who led the Blue Devils to their only Class AAA state baseball championship in the spring of 1988. Bingham was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and played five years professionally.
And Ryan Block, Wa-Hi class of 1995, was a hard-throwing right-handed who was drafted by the Houston Astros during his time at Walla Walla Community College.
One familiar name local baseball fans would dearly love to see play Monday night is Eric O’Flaherty, a 2003 Wa-Hi graduate who recently retired from professional baseball after a 12-year career in the big leagues in which he pitched for the Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics and New York Mets.
O’Flaherty was a sixth-round pick by the Mariners in 2003 and compiled a 23-15 record, a 3.70 earned run average and chalked up 318 strikeouts in 416.1 innings pitched over the course of his career. In 2011 out of the Braves bullpen he became the first pitcher in major league history to record a sub-1.00 ERA with at least 70 appearances, and in 2007 he was the first pitcher in Mariners’ history to begin his big league career with seven consecutive wins.
O’Flaherty declined to participate in this year’s alumni game, but Biagi remains hopefully that the most successful pro player in the annals of Walla Walla baseball will do so at some point in the future.
Players must be at least 30 years old to participate in the game and DeSales product Chris Meliah appears to be the oldest. Chris, Dave Meliah’s older brother, is a 1988 Irish graduate who went on to play at Texas State University.
Interestingly, Chris Meliah had graduated by the time DeSales began its run of 19 Class B state championships in a span of 26 years. The Irish finished second at state in 1986 and ’87 and did not place in 1988, Meliah’s senior year.
DeSales won its first state championship in 1989. Father Jeff Core is the lone representative of that team on Monday’s DeSales alumni roster and is serving as team chaplain.
Kim Cox, the hall of fame coach and the architect of DeSales’ baseball success, will coach the Irish Monday while Keith Gradwohl, a one-time Blue Devils’ pitching star who is in his second tenure as Wa-Hi’s head baseball coach, will take charge of the Blue Devils.
Neither coach knows quite what to expect Monday night.
“I’ve been to one of their practices,” Cox said of his Irish old-timers squad. “Some of them look pretty good, and some of them not so good. Just like before.”
“It’s going to be fun, and I’m looking forward to some old acquaintances that I haven’t seen in a while,” said Gradwohl, who pointed out that his first tenure at Wa-Hi was in the mid-1980s and his second didn’t begin until 2010.
“Most of the guys I coached in the ’80s are probably too old to play, and the guys from 2010 on are too young. But I was a varsity assistant from 1997 on, so I probably coached most of them either on jayvees or as varsity assistant.”
Biagi has been pushing ticket sales for several weeks and is hopeful of a big crowd Monday night. Tickets are priced at $18 for premium seating behind home plate and in field boxes and $14 for general admission.
“Concession stands and the beer garden will be open just like Sweets games,” Biagi said. “Fans are going to be walking into a Sweets environment with a real local flare on the field.
“The place hosts 2,200 fans,” he added. “Can you imagine 1,100 fans in each school’s colors in the stands on a summer night in Walla Walla. That would be more people than any of us ever played in front of as high school players.
“That would be cool.”