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  • Because of accidental rules violation, Australia's Little League World Series team is in Williamsport, Pa. without its manager in the dugout. He's still not far, though.
By Stephanie Apstein
August 18, 2018

If you were on Virgin Australia flight 7 last week, you might have noticed an unusual pre-flight message from your captain. Conditions were good and he expected an on-time arrival, and of course there could be no congregating near lavatories or in the aisle.

Then he added: “We would also like to highlight the very special guests we have on board tonight. Australia’s Little League baseball team is on its way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. They’re representing Australia to the rest of the world. Out of more than 6,000 Little League teams around the globe, they’re one of 16 final teams who have achieved this. They’ve obviously put in hard work and they’re dedicated to their craft, and I’m sure you’ll do Australia proud in your pursuit of the world title. On behalf of myself and the whole Virgin Australia team, we wish you good luck and have fun, boys. Everyone, could you please join me in giving them a round of applause?”

The pilot never let on that he knew a little more about the team than that. Until a few weeks earlier, he’d been the boys’ manager.

“I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t be in uniform with the boys on the plane, then dammit, I’ll be in another uniform and get them there,’” says Klae Calvert.

In fact, even from the cockpit he was closer to the group of them than he’d been in some time. He had taken to watching his team’s games from atop cars in the stadium parking lot.

The mess began on June 6, when the boys of Gold Coast, Australia, finished the sixth and final inning of their first game of the national tournament that would determine who advanced to the Little League World Series. Calvert’s son, Thomas, had entered the game and played six outs on defense, but had yet to bat. When the Cougars won 5–2, he was standing in the on-deck circle.

Calvert knew immediately that there was a problem. Little League rules stipulate that each player on the roster must play six outs in the field and receive one plate appearance in each game; the idea, after all, is that everyone gets to play. As recently as last year, this might have been a blip, but after a coach in the New England regional famously refused to play one of his players last year, Little League officials voted to expand the penalty from two games’ suspension for the manager to the remainder of the season.

Calvert reported the violation to tournament officials, who he says told him he was barred from the premises. He gathered the boys in the hotel that night and told them, through tears, that he could not be on the field with them. The players wept and asked questions. He promised them that their bond would only grow stronger. “In 20 years,” he said, “If my phone rings and you need me, I’ll be there.” Then he stood on a sewer tank and watched them win the tournament.

Baseball had been Calvert’s life since he was a sixth-grader learning the game in gym class. He won a scholarship to a high school in Denver, then signed with the Red Sox. He made it as far as the Low-A Lowell Spinners. After eight years of independent ball he returned home, where he became a pilot, married and had two children—Thomas, 9, and daughter Madison, 6—and began spreading the gospel to the next generation.

Parents organized a letter-writing drive and sent their testimonials to the main Little League office. It was an honest mistake, they insisted. He’s a good coach. The boys love him.

Little League was unmoved. “We’re not unsympathetic to the situation,” says Patrick Wilson, senior VP of operations for Little League International. “But when you apply the rule, you have to do it based on the rule as written.” Wilson acknowledges that the organization will reevaluate the penalty this offseason, but he says he does not believe Little League should be in the business of evaluating intent. So Calvert was out for the World Series, becoming the first coach to be suspended for the championship tournament.

The boys cried again. Calvert cried again. Then: “That’s enough,” he told himself. “It’s gotta be about them now.” He encouraged them to do their homework—Australian schools are midway through the year, so the players took about three weeks off classes—and work on their fundamentals with his two assistant coaches, Brent Iddon and Beau Hyde. This was supposed to be a dream come true for them, Calvert decided. He wouldn’t take that away. He asked his bosses at Virgin Australia if he could fly the Brisbane to L.A. leg. He stocked up on blue and yellow supporters T-shirts. He told the boys how proud he was of them. He watched, alternating between joy and pain, as they marched in the Grand Slam parade and shopped at Dick’s Sporting Goods and generally had the time of their lives.

Little League International has no rule that bars parents from the premises, Wilson says. Officials informed Calvert as much, assuaging his fear that he would have to stand in the street in Williamsport and wait for Thomas—the youngest child in the tournament, and a fourth grader who only a few months ago became eligible to sit in the front seat of the car—to come hug him after games. Instead Calvert spent Australia’s first game, a 3–2 loss to Mexico, with his wife, Stacey, and the other parents in the seats above the team’s dugout. He’ll be there again Saturday, as his boys play an elimination game against Puerto Rico.

“I’d rather be sitting on a bucket of balls in the dugout,” Calvert says with a laugh. “But it’s better than a sewer tank!”

In the end, that sewer tank will provide him with one of his most lasting memories. When the Cougars beat the Adelaide Seahawks 11–0 in the national tournament to advance to the World Series, they celebrated briefly on the field before streaming out of the ballpark to find him in the parking lot. Their coach has watched the video of that moment so many times he can narrate it. “I’m in these boys’ hearts now,” says Calvert. “Nobody can take that away from me.”

His heart tightened again earlier this week when he saw his players taking batting practice with KLAE scrawled into their eyeblack. That tribute did not make it into the game, though. It’s against the rules.  

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