Small items kept appearing in the Twin Cities dailies revealing that the College of St. Scholastica was a baseball powerhouse. A Minneapolis sportswriter would see such an item and say:

"How can a small school from Duluth compete with the best Division III teams in this region?"

And then the Division III season would race past, and the reporter from the big city never got around to writing a column that answered the question.

Last week, it became too late to talk to the source of the Saints' success, when coach John Baggs, 43, died four months after being diagnosed with cancer. He is survived by wife Colleen, son Maddux, 8, and daughter Josie, 3, and, yes, the son is named in honor of Greg Maddux.

"Coach Baggs was diagnosed on Oct. 24th," assistant Joe Wicklund said. "He called in the coaches -- we all played for him -- and told us, then told the team. The diagnosis was daunting from the start, but we were optimistic.

"We all felt that if there was someone to turn around an impossible situation it was Coach. We had already seen him do that."

St. Scholastica started a baseball program in 1987. The winter workouts were held in a gymnasium. Home games were played at high school fields. The Saints won 34 games in five years.

Baggs had played at Iowa State and graduated with a journalism degree. Gene McGivern, the sports information director at St. Thomas, said: "I knew John at Iowa State, and I thought he was going to be a sportswriter."

St. Scholastica was hiring a baseball coach for the 1991-92 school year. Baggs was 24 and talked his way into a job that didn't have a long list of applicants.

The Saints were competitive by his second year, and 26-14 by his fourth season in 1995. The climb to excellence continued from there.

"The program had 34 victories in history when Coach Baggs arrived," Wicklund said. "Now, it would be a bad year if we didn't win 34 games."

The Saints have reached a minimum of 34 victories for the past decade. The record from 1999 through 2008 was 366-88. The largest of those victories might have come in eliminating St. Thomas in last spring's regional tournament.

"We always seem to have great games with the Tommies," shortstop Kyle Wojtysiak said. "Eliminating them meant a lot for us, since they had knocked us out a couple of times."

On Sunday night, the Saints split a doubleheader with the Tommies at the Metrodome, winning the first game 3-1 and dropping the second 2-0.

The Saints' bus ride to Minneapolis came after an emotional weekend, when there was a wake for their coach Friday and a funeral mass Saturday.

"It was the biggest church in Duluth, and it was full," Wicklund said. "Coach's impact went beyond our campus to the city of Duluth."

Wojtysiak, a senior captain from Proctor, said Baggs' formula for success did not include being a back-slapper.

"He set high standards for you," Wojtysiak said. "He might have said things you didn't like to hear, but he made you better as a player. He was a hell of a coach.

"He knew what he was talking about. You believed in him. You knew how he had taken a baseball program that was nothing and turned it into something special."

St. Scholastica now has a 5-year-old fieldhouse in which to practice. Home games are played at Wade Stadium, Duluth's city ballpark. And the Saints have gone from trying to assemble the best ballplayers in the "Northland area" to a roster that includes a dozen Twin Cities kids.

How did Baggs do this in Duluth, the Air Conditioned City, where the odds are it still will be freezing when the conference tournament [Upper Midwest Athletic] is played in early May?

"Coach preached that the worse the weather the better we were going to like it," Wicklund said. "If it's cold, we want it colder. If there's light rain, make it snow.

"That was Coach Baggs. He turned every negative into a positive. And now the players and the coaches are going to try to do that with this season."

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. •