For most of his adult life, Calvin Sanders has been a champion of youth athletics in the Big Horn Basin, as a coach and as a longtime umpire for Little League Baseball.
But after years of watching young athletes battle on the field of play, Sanders now faces a battle of his own. The umpire-in-chief of the northwest region was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer; he is scheduled to begin treatment next week.
“He knows there’s no cure for it, but he’s ready to fight it,” said Sanders’ sister, Melanie Sanders-Smith. “He’s going at it as aggressively as he can. He wants to extend his life as much as he can. It is possible to live with it. It can’t be cured, but there are cases, and they’re rare, of people who can treat it like a chronic illness. He knows the odds are against him, but he wants to be that exception.”
To show their support, friends and family have organized Prayer on the Mound, a special event to honor Sanders and what he’s meant to the community. The event is scheduled for Saturday at Legion Field, beginning at 6 p.m.
“Calvin has dedicated his adult life to Little League and Legion as an umpire,” said Shelly Schultz, president of Powell Little League. “He’s done it all as a volunteer. ... He’s given so much.”
Schultz pointed to a recent minor league tournament Powell hosted as an example of Sanders’ commitment to baseball, as well as the kids who play it.
“The way he sat up there and talked to those ‘young men,’ as he called them, and the boys eyes are all on him,” she explained. “Everything he said was heard. He respects the boys, and he absolutely gets their respect back.”
“He brings a sense of authority that nobody else does,” said Angie Spann of North Big Horn Little League. “He comes in, he’s very professional, he talks to the kids and the coaches with the same respect. He’s very knowledgeable and extends that with everybody. And he’s a blast — he can be as ridiculous behind the mound as he is serious.”
In 2013, Sanders was recognized for his years of hard work and dedication to Little League baseball, as he was chosen to represent the West Region as an umpire at the Little League World Series regional qualifying tournament in San Bernardino, California. The moment was bittersweet, however, as his mother passed away during the tournament. Convinced he needed to come home to be with his family, Sanders-Smith said they told him his mother would have wanted him right where he was.
“That was just a dream of his,” Sanders-Smith said of umpiring at the tournament. “Calvin kept saying ‘I need to come home,’ and we said, ‘No, you don’t.’ We told him there’s nothing our mother would rather have you do than be there.”
Sanders-Smith wasn’t sure how he was able to keep it together, but suspects his fellow umpires had something to do with it.
“The other umpires probably just rallied around him,” she said. “Of course, they loved him, too. They made it possible, and he did a great job. That was his dream to do that, and we were not going to let him come home.”
Saturday’s Prayer on the Mound event is open to coaches, parents, fellow umpires and players of all ages, as well as those in the community, Spann said. Attendees are encouraged to wear their rally caps in support of Sanders’ battle.
“Baseball is such a passionate sport, I think it supersedes any other sport when it comes to patriotism, and I think everyone wants to be a part of it to some extent,” Spann said. “This event is all Calvin — he has brought this event together. It would not be happening without Calvin. If you ever want to experience one of those baseball moments, you need to be at this event. This is going to be exceptional. That thing is going to be packed, and it’s all him.”
Like anyone exhibiting bravery in the face of adversity, Sanders-Smith said her brother isn’t a fan of the attention his diagnosis has created.
“He doesn’t want all this fuss, but I just tell him, ‘Get used to it,’” Sanders-Smith said.
Sanders has trained most of the umpires in the region at one point or another, as well as many from around the state. Powell hosted the 2016 state baseball tournament, and the respect the other umpires had for him was evident, according to Spann.
“Calvin is one who has led the stampede,” Spann said. “He’s trained these guys [the other umpires] and has a following like you would not believe. These guys really admire him. He digs in and is involved in every game, giving the younger guys guidance. There’s not an off game for Calvin. If he’s not on the field, he’s using it as a training moment.”
Spann went on to say when it comes to planning tournaments, there isn’t a person who works harder than Sanders to make sure it comes off without a hitch. Spann is involved in several different travel leagues, and she’s sent out a request for coaches and players alike to attend the event Saturday.
“We want as many people as possible to attend and help cheer on Calvin to defeat this disease,” she explained. “We’ve got some pretty amazing activities lined up for all athletes, young and old. It will be worth your time. This will be one of those baseball moments you will absolutely want to be a part of. Our goal is to have that thing packed with people.”
For everyone involved with the planning of Prayer on the Mound, having the opportunity to show their support for the man who’s meant so much to baseball in the area is what drives them.
“When I first heard of his diagnosis, I called him,” Schultz said. “He said ‘I’m planning on being on the field next summer.’ I said, ‘Good, because we’re not doing it without you.”
“If there’s a success story out there, Calvin is the one that’s capable of it,” she said.