For Sean McGrath, it’s one strike and you’re out.
The longtime Little League manager from South Burlington, Vermont, has been suspended for the rest of the season.
Because he violated the newly toughened mandatory play rule in a District I game against Williston last Wednesday at Schifilliti Field in Burlington.
In short, the one South Burlington player who hadn’t batted in the game was left in the on-deck circle when the team made its third out in its final at-bat.
And when Williston told officials of the oversight, that meant curtains for McGrath’s season as a manager.
This means he won’t be on the bench while his team seeks to make the New England regionals in Bristol, Connecticut, at this week’s Vermont state tournament.
South Burlington went on to win the district title without McGrath, doing so in a 9-7 victory over Colchester on Saturday. The team will continue with its remaining coaches, Mike Kelly and Mike Moore, when the state tournament begins this weekend at Schifilliti Field.
“I didn’t do anything on purpose,” McGrath said, “We made a mistake, I’m the one responsible and I’m getting punished big time. The mistake doesn’t fit the punishment.”
Little League rules state that every player on a 12-member team must play in the field for six consecutive outs and appear at the plate for at least one at-bat. McGrath, though, failed to get his 12th player a plate appearance despite him playing three innings in the field in what turned into a 2-1 victory over Williston.
“The whole thing is really unfortunate,” Williston coach Tim Rickert said. “Sean’s a great coach, loves the kids, he loves the sport. It was just a miscalculation.
The participation rule has been a long-serving mandate in Little League. But the hard-line stance — a one-and-done dismissal of a manager for the infraction — is a new penalty enacted this season.
The previous penalty called for coaches to face a 1- or 2-game suspension. What changed?
Blame the actions of Goffstown, New Hampshire, coach Jeff O’Connell at last summer’s New England regionals in Bristol during a semifinal contest televised on ESPN. By choosing not to let one of his players have an at-bat, ESPN commentators indicated O’Connell had shined a dark light onto the sport.
Subsequently, the Little League International Board of Directors altered the consequences for violating the mandatory play rule after its congress meetings in New Orleans in January.
The language of the specific code, called Tournament Rule 9, clearly states the price for the offending manager. But the cut-and-dry of it has left McGrath pleading for any sort of reversal.
“I feel like it’s very unfair to suspend me for the rest of the international tournament,” McGrath said. “I think it was pretty easy to see there wasn’t any malicious intent.
“I can admit I made a mistake. I can accept the consequences. But I think they need to fix this flawed rule.”
Attempts to reach Chuck Schifilliti, the Vermont District I administrator, and Corey Wright, the East Region director, have so far been unsuccessful.
Kevin Fountain, director of media relations for Little League International based in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, issued this statement Tuesday regarding McGrath’s suspension:
“South Burlington Little League’s manager has been removed for the duration of the Little League International Tournament for a violation of the Little League Mandatory Play rule.
While the player received the required outs in the field, he did not receive his required at-bat to meet the mandatory play requirement. As stated in Tournament Rule 9, A manager’s failure to insert players into the line-up as outlined in the rule shall result in immediate ejection of the manager and removal for the remainder of the International Tournament, without replacement.”
How it happened
Last Wednesday, the 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from South Burlington and Williston waged a pitcher’s duel at Schifilliti Field.
McGrath said his three bench players entered the game by the top of the fourth inning in the six-inning game. But the third substitute was standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the fifth when Williston recorded the third and final out to end the frame.
In the top of the sixth and with South Burlington ahead 2-1, Williston threatened, putting a runner on third, but couldn’t muster a game-tying play. Because designated home team South Burlington was victorious, it didn’t need to bat in the bottom of the sixth inning. And that left the one player — who the Burlington Free Press is not naming — from getting his required one at-bat.
Had Williston tied the game or taken the lead, the game would have continued and South Burlington would have fulfilled the mandatory play rule. Had one more South Burlington runner gotten aboard in the fourth or fifth innings, the issue would’ve been moot.
“When do you think a kid’s going to get nine outs in the field and not an at-bat?” McGrath said. “We had handled everything pretty easily up to that point and then we got in a tight game and made our subs like we always do, we just didn’t put him in the right spot in the lineup.”
McGrath said he can prove it was “an honest mistake” by his managerial actions in the top of the sixth.
“We didn’t make a travesty of the game or cheat the game of a baseball. I didn’t have my pitcher throw it across the field and let their runner on third tie the game,” McGrath said. “We are not blaming anybody, but you are really penalizing the home team for winning.”
McGrath also said the two managers, the umpire chief and official scorekeeper didn’t have their required meeting before the fourth to make sure both teams would fulfill the mandatory play rule. Yet, according to the rule book, that would have no bearing on McGrath’s fate.
While no formal appeal was made, Williston did notify Schifilliti, the District I administrator, of the violation to see if a forfeit would be issued. That set in motion a decision handed out by the Little League Tournament Committee to remove McGrath as manager for the remainder of South Burlington’s season.
“I didn’t want anything to happen, and I wish I could go back and undo it,” said Williston’s Rickert, who emailed a letter to the East Region offices in Connecticut, asking that McGrath stay on as South Burlington’s coach.