Melbourne teens make baseball history

Proud players arm-to-arm with their coach. Left to right: Tim Lane, Harro Wills, Jack Larner, Jackson Boydand Jai Littleton.
Melbourne’s young baseball players take their talents to America, but have a motivation greater than personal success in mind, reports Alex Chapman.

The light snores of kids woken too early and the whispers of the adults could do little to dampen the excitement in the dimly-lit clubroom.

Thirty tired members of the Dingley Baseball Club have gathered around a television at 4am on a Sunday morning.

The American network ESPN is showing the grand final of the Senior League World Series being held in Maine, USA, where a group of 16 year-olds from Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs have been invited to compete.

It began in February, when the Southern Mariners Baseball Charter competed against other Australian teams for the chance to represent Australia in the Philippines.

“I wasn’t expecting to get as far as we did,” says pitcher Jackson Boyd after the tournament.

“As a team we took little steps each time and worked with whatever that outcome was.”

The outcome was good, as the Mariners went undefeated on their run through both Australia and the Philippines, defeating teams from the Northern Mariana Islands, India, Guam and the Philippines to earn the opportunity to represent the Asia-Pacific region in America.

The boys from Melbourne became the first Australian team to qualify for the series since it began in 1961.

Their motivation to succeed, however, wasn’t fame, but rather their ill coach back in Australia.

Jack Larner was diagnosed in February with three cancerous growths in his right leg.

Radiation therapy and surgery were successful, but still left Larner unable to travel with the team due to risk of infection.

Decorating the wall of the dugout in every game was a photo of Larner, next to an Australian flag.

“He made it apparent that we were the ones keeping him up and we really wanted his mentality to remain positive,” says Jordy Barnett.

“We just wanted to do him proud. He’d put so much effort and hard work in to us it’s the least we could do.”

Tim Lane dives in to score in front of teammate Jordy Barnett. Photo by Taylah Wills
Tim Lane dives in to score in front of teammate Jordy Barnett. Photo by Taylah Wills.

Interim coach Brenden Wilson echoed the thoughts of the team, saying of Larner, “he’s our number one fan.”

And so from his home, Larner listened to the radio broadcasts of his boys’ games, never missing a pitch.

The boys lost their first game in America against tournament favourites Illinois, but rebounded to win three-straight and propel themselves into the grand final game.

Having the support of people back in Melbourne played a huge role in their success, says outfielder Jack Dunn.

“I thought it was so cool having so many people back at home watching and supporting not just me but the whole team.

“Even my mates who have never watched a baseball game in their life tuned in to watch which was even better.”

The grand final game was broadcast on ESPN2, racking up 319,000 viewers worldwide.

“It was a little bit nerve racking at first like thinking don’t stuff up you’re on international TV, but the further it got into the game it didn’t bother me that much,” says Dunn.

And so, for the second time, the Australian boys matched up against the undefeated Illinois juggernaut, this time, in front of the world.

Harro Wills from Dingley came into the game with a chip on his shoulder.

“Australia aren’t really a team that people think of when they think of strong team, so I believed we had something to prove.”

“>Unfortunately, there wasn’t a fairy tale ending, as Illanois won with a score of 7-2.

But the Mariners hold their head high, far exceeding expectations and creating history for Australian baseball.

“I would love to do a competition like this again because it took me around the world to do the thing I love most in the world,” Wills says.

Coach Larner addressed his team, saying “I am truly honored to be with this program and cannot thank each and every one of you enough for what you have done for me.

“You guys were simply amazing, and I don’t mean just at the World Series but on the training track in the lead up to each tournament.

“Your hard work paid off and I want you to be proud of your efforts because you know what. Australia certainly is.”

Southern Mariners’ biggest fans cheer on their boys from home.
Southern Mariners’ biggest fans cheer on their boys from home.