Justin Speer would probably never cut it in Major League Baseball’s current all-or-nothing climate in which home runs and strikeouts are piling up at all-time record levels.
Speer’s always been a proponent of small-ball baseball since his high-school playing days in Gresham, Ore., right on through to his early years of coaching at Mount Hood Community College and Sam Barlow High in Portland.
And these last three years as head softball coach at Walla Walla CC has only reinforced his philosophy.
“I am a small-ball guy and I play a lot of short-game stuff,” said Speer after it was announced last week that he would be replacing Dave Meliah as the Warriors’ head baseball coach.
Meliah is stepping aside after nine years as head coach to take on other responsibilities at the school, including assistant athletic director under Jeff Reinland.
“My emphasis is on the little things in baseball, like moving runners, hitting and running and bunting. Dave is a little more conventional, and probably the biggest difference between us is working the short game.
“But our overall philosophy is the same. We want guys to work hard and be tough minded.”
Speer grew up in Gresham and was a second-team all-NWAC outfielder during his two years as a player at Mount Hood.
He also played under legendary coach Ed Scheff at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston and finished up his playing career at Western Oregon University where he graduated in 2009.
He returned to Mount Hood as an assistant baseball coach and the Saints’ strength and conditioning coach.
He also coached the East County Knights American Legion baseball team for four summers and was Sam Barlow’s head coach in the spring of 2013.
He arrived in Walla Walla in the fall of 2014 as a health and education instructor at the community college.
He also took on the athletic department’s strength and conditioning duties and joined Meliah’s staff as a baseball assistant coach.
The Warriors finished 31-17 in the spring of 2015, placed second in the East Region, won the regional tournament championship and qualified for the NWAC Championships in Longview.
The following year the softball head coaching job opened up, Reinland asked Speer if he was interested and the young coach jumped at the chance.
In his three years on the job, the Warriors won 98 games and lost 48, finished second in the East Region all three years and qualified for the NWAC Championships the last two years, finishing third and fifth, respectively.
“It was a great experience,” Speer said. “I have no complaints and I enjoyed the game. It was kind of a different challenge.
“I have had this philosophy of playing the short game as a player and a younger coach, and when I got to softball my knowledge of the short game really helped me. And now I am a little more controlled as a short-game coach.”
Giving up softball to return to baseball wasn’t a slam-dunk decision, Speer said. But in the end, it was the right decision.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” Speer said of the chance to become the Warriors’ head baseball coach. “It was kind of one of those things I had to think about because I really loved those softball kids. That’s still a tough aspect for me.
“But deep down I am a baseball guy. I love the game. I’ve played the game and coached the game. Twenty years down the road this is what I want to be doing — my dream job.”
The biggest concern for Reinland, Speer and Meliah was a smooth transition. And that meant personally contacting each and every returning player in both programs not to mention reconnecting with all of the incoming baseball and softball recruits.
So far, so good.
“We have nine returning players and 12 incoming freshmen,” Speer said of WWCC’s softball program. “I have talked to every single girl and as of right now we still have those same numbers. And I have assured them that we are committed to getting the right replacement for me who will continue to build the program.
“The other thing is, this is a little different than the standard coaching change because I’m not leaving the school. My office will still be in the same spot, and I will be here as a mentor to them and someone who cares about them and wants to make sure of their success.”
And the fact that Speer has been at the school for the past five years gives him a head start as the new baseball coach as well.
“Because Dave and I worked so well together, there has been a good relationship between softball and baseball,” Speer said. “And because of my position in strength and conditioning, I worked with the baseball team all last year and I am really familiar with the sophomores. They know me and have worked with me and there is a certain level of comfortability with those sophs.
“The biggest thing is getting the freshmen to know me.”
Of the 14 potential returnees from this spring’s baseball team, Speer is confident that at least 12 will be on hand when he calls his first fall practice. And he’s reasonably confident that Meliah’s final recruiting class will show up basically intact as well.
“I’ve talked to them all,” Speer said, “and most of them plan to be here.”
Speer’s wife Chelsie, a Pendleton native who also played and coached at Mount Hood, begins her fifth season as WWCC’s head volleyball coach this fall. They are the parents of two young sons, Aiden and Braxton.
“We’ve been in Walla Walla for five years and absolutely love it,” Speer said. “We have no desire to ever go back to the west side. We have young boys getting into baseball and other sports, and this is a great place to raise kids.
“I feel incredibly blessed. I was offered my dream job and I can see myself being here for the rest of my life.”
Article by Jim Buchan of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin