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Schwantes steps down as Rails' manager: Backlunds into Trotters HOF

Spring training starts this month, so let's talk baseball.

Rick Schwantes has announced he won't manage the town's amateur team any longer.

He's been calling the shots the past three summers. No successor is in the wings.

This is a particularly important time in the century-long history of Willmar town team.

In late summer of 2010, the city will co-host the Class B and C state tournament with Bird Island. It's the first time either town has had the honor. It would certainly heighten local interest if the Rails were to qualify for the Class C 32-team field.

The Rails have one year to get their act together.

They last made the region tournament in 2006 and state in 2003.

A Rails' manager faces unique challenges.

"I did expect more help," Schwantes said. "It's not like an overwhelming job, but it can burn you out and (the program) will end up going through a lot of coaches."

There's fundraising, the coaching, the scheduling, arranging the umpires and making sure there's money to pay them.

There are concerned people, he said, and there is a board that is supposed to oversee the team. Former manager Rick Maursetter helped him get started.

"It doesn't take a lot of money," he said. He estimates $1,500 a summer. New players pay $125, which includes uniform and a jersey they get to keep. Veterans were charged $50 during his tenure.

A hat is passed in the stands -- a town team tradition -- to help defray the cost of equipment.

Getting enough young men out hasn't been a problem. But Schwantes notes that compared to other Cornbelt teams his players are almost entirely college age.

The older players, those with regular jobs, seem more committed. The college kids are thinking vacation and good times with their friends. The retiring manager expressed disappointment that some players were casual about playing winning baseball.

"I once asked one of the Milroy (Yankees) coaches how they had such a stable roster and so many long-time players?" recalled Schwantes. "He said, 'Hey, there's not much else to do down here. You got the lakes up there.' "

That's one reason Schwantes limited the Rails schedule to the 16-game Cornbelt schedule; he didn't feel the boys would buy into the long and busy schedules some teams play.

He believes there are a couple of players on the current team that could be player/managers.

Schwantes' past summers were for camping and fishing, which he still enjoys. There was little time for either on weekends while managing. He and his wife, Kathy, also have a new granddaughter.

Other factors leading to his decision are a bum shoulder that has left him unable to throw batting practice. He suffered loss of vision in his left eye the first year when he was struck in the forehead by a batted ball while throwing batting practice.

He has no intention of abandoning the amateur team. He vowed he would help with the transition in any way he could, beginning with a board meeting coming up soon.

For now, he's the one to contact about the vacancy. If interested, his evening number is 320-235-7956.

A Kandiyohi couple will be inducted into the Minnesota Harness Racing Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Allan Backlund and his wife, Iris, will attend the ceremony during the MHR, Inc.'s annual meeting at the Running Aces Harness Park, north of Blaine.

The Backlund's involvement in horse racing stretches over three generations. It began with Allan's father, who raced at Willmar in the 1920s and '30s. The couple's daughter, Janice, a four-time "Driver of the Year," continues to run at tracks throughout the Upper Midwest. A son, John, also raced the trotters, which have numbered more than sixty over the years.

Allan, a 1948 Willmar High graduate, was inducted into the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame in 2004.

The Cardinals Top Performers in the Central Lakes Conference:

Jan. 26: Chelsey Wierschem, senior, girls hockey, had three goals and three assists in win over St. Peter .... Alex Lippert, junior, girls basketball (defense), had 15 rebounds and 11 blocked shots over two games .... Dempsey Schroeder, senior, swimming, cut a total of 11 seconds off his previous-bests in the butterfly and backstroke at state True Team.

Feb. 2: Anna Burns, junior, Nordic skiing, had her best classic (29:29) performance at St. John's University, placing 25th ...Abby Weiler, junior, gymnastics, placed second in vault, second on bars, first on beam and tied for first on floor to win all-around against Fergus Falls.