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Funeral arrangements set for St. Scholastica baseball coach

St. Scholastica's Peter Burg (right) gets congratulated by teammates and head coach John Baggs (left) during a game against Northland College on May 8, 2008, at Wade Stadium in Duluth. Baggs died Tuesday morning after battling a rare form of cancer. [Derek Montgomery

DULUTH - Visitation for late St. Scholastica baseball coach John Baggs, who died Tuesday from a rare form of cancer, is 5-8 p.m. Friday at Holy Rosary in Duluth.

An additional visitation will take place from noon-1 p.m. Saturday, with the funeral service to begin at 1 p.m., followed by burial at Calvary cemetery. A reception at Holy Rosary will follow the burial.

Less than two hours after longtime coach Baggs succumbed to cancer, St. Scholastica baseball players and coaches met as a team Tuesday morning to decide whether the Saints should go ahead with their scheduled doubleheader against Wisconsin-La Crosse that night in Minneapolis.

It was unanimous: Play ball.

The Saints decided the best way to honor the winningest coach in school history was to honor his wishes. Throughout the past four months, Baggs, 42, insisted he didn't want to be a distraction as he was being treated for cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts. He wanted things for the team to go on as normal, and normal to Baggs this time of year was preparing for the upcoming baseball season.

"Coach would be mad to know we were even thinking about not playing, so it was almost a nondecision," said Joe Wicklund, a former Saints player and current assistant coach. "People grieve and go through this process in different ways. We're going to do this process together, and the No. 1 thing that people know us for together is playing baseball games."

Baggs, a Chicago native, was 531-197 in 17 years with the Saints, raising the program from relative obscurity to national prominence. He was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 24, not long after treatment for a hernia.

Baggs died about 6 a.m. Tuesday in hospice care at his home in Piedmont Heights.

He is survived by his wife, Colleen; son, Maddux, 8; and daughter, Josie, 3.

"It's been a difficult day," former Saints athletic director Tony Barrett said. "There is a pall over campus."

Barrett, a St. Scholastica economics professor, canceled his class Tuesday and arrived at the Baggs' residence at 7 a.m. He was there throughout the afternoon.

"I don't have any experience or rule of thumb in dealing with this sort of thing, but we could tell in recent days that his health was failing fairly rapidly," Barrett said. "Fortunately, the coaches, family and friends were able to come in from out of town to see him in the last couple days."

Despite mourning, the Saints played their doubleheader late Tuesday at the Metrodome and weren't available for comment, but Wicklund said the past four months had given them time to come to grips with the ordeal.

"This group was very optimistic until the end that coach was going to find a way to beat the unbeatable," Wicklund said. "That's a compliment to the type of person coach was."

Baggs was loose and laidback but could be unflinchingly stubborn and fiercely loyal when it came to his team. He created a baseball family based on a culture of caring. If a player needed a couch to crash on, a ride home or a few bucks, Baggs was only a phone call away.

"Anyone who has ever played for him knows that coach would do anything for them," Wicklund said. "He always said, and it's the same thing now, 'We're not your coaches for four years. We're your coaches forever.' Forever means regardless of whatever happened [Tuesday]. Coach is still our coach."

Current Saints athletic director Don Olson was taken aback last September when 70 of the 92 players who have graduated through Baggs' program showed up for an alumni dinner.

"I've been in college athletics for more than 30 years, and that kind of turnout is just amazing," Olson said.

Baggs helped make the Saints the winningest NCAA Division III program of the past decade. A 10-time Upper Midwest Athletic Conference coach of the year, he guided the Saints to 12 straight conference titles and a runner-up finish at the Midwest Regional last year, the Saints' best NCAA finish in program history.

"Dealing with John was great," Barrett said. "Look at his program. How could it not be great? He took care of things, was low-maintenance and ran one of the best baseball programs in the country. I never heard a complaint. Nothing. He ran the ideal athletic program."

Baggs' scope went beyond baseball at St. Scholastica. He graduated from Iowa State in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and English and went on to teach feature writing at St. Scholastica.

The Saints held an on-campus prayer service for Baggs on Tuesday afternoon. The Saints' five assistant coaches will continue to run the team for the rest of the season.

"Coach Baggs taught us that the No. 1 reason to be a part of a team isn't about wins or losses, but the love of your teammates," Wicklund said. "We're a program that does what we do because we love each other, and that hasn't changed throughout the last four months. If anything, it's gotten stronger."

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