In summer ball league, you see the goodness of this grand old game

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

BANCROFT, Iowa, Aug. 17, 2019 – In this summer of mass shootings, suspicion of those different from ourselves, and outright hate, thank God for baseball, you know?

Almost daily, the grand old game gives us good lessons – prepare well, get out of yourself, sacrifice for others, work together as a team, focus on what unites us, there’ll be a good chance we’ll win, and it’ll probably be fun.

So, let me take you to the Friday night, Aug. 2, championship game of the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League here in Bancroft (pop. 732), a north central town which despite its small size may be the baseball capital of Iowa, because of its history and tradition with the game. The Carroll Merchants were challenging the Bancroft Bandits in 71-year-od Bancroft Memorial Park, a real field of dreams.

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The Bancroft Bandits’ Shawn Ross, from Puerto Rico, takes a close look at a pitch being caught by Carroll Merchants catcher Ben Berg, a native of Carroll, in the championship game. The umpire is Taylor Sheeks.

The Pioneer league teams are made up of good college players from across the nation, playing two months of summer ball for teams in Carroll, Bancroft, Storm Lake, Fort Dodge and Ames in Iowa and Albert Lea in southern Minnesota.

These Bancroft Bandits came from 10 states, Puerto Rico and Canada. The roster included 8 or 9 players of Latino heritage, some African Americans, some whites.

When public address announcer Travis Neuman was introducing them, as they came to bat with their preferred “walk-up’ songs playing, he’d use nicknames that he’d in some cases invented – “Coco,” “Cowboy,” “Wild Thing,” “Thor” and more. With the Latino names, Neuman would expertly roll his r’s and get the accents in the right places.

The 30-year-old Neuman sounded like a professional on the microphone. Is he? “Oh no,” said his mother Crysti Neuman, who is the city clerk & operations director for the City of Bancroft and who serves as a sort of general manager of the Bandits. “He works in shipping at Aluma Trailers and he also bartends at the Main Street Pub. The reason Travis is doing PA at the games is because one night somebody didn’t show up, and his mother told him to get up there and do the best he could.

“It turns out that he loves it,” Crysti continued. “It’s kind of his personality. He’s always been one to know and use movie quotes, and he can imitate anybody. His Spanish? Well, he doesn’t really know the language but he sort of speaks slang Spanish. My husband is a masonry contractor, and he’s had a lot of Latino guys work for him over the years. As Travis was growing up, he’d be hanging around listening to them, and he picked up a few words, a pretty good accent and he learned to roll his r’s. And as you can tell, he’s very enthusiastic about it.”

So Travis Neuman can whip the Bancroft fans into a frenzy, and so could the Bandit baseball team.

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The Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League tradition is at the end of the sixth inning, everybody — fans, teams, even the umpires — stand and sing “God Bless America.” Here it was on championship night in Bancroft.

They came into the championship game with a 32-5 record this season. The old wood grandstand with the arched roof was filled for home games, usually 300 or more. For the championship game, there were more than 600, with maybe 100 of them having made the trip from Carroll, bringing along the cowbells they’ve inflicted on the league.

“I’ve never played in front of that many people,” said Ivan Melendez, 19, a Bancroft infielder from El Paso, Tex., who was probably the league MVP. He had a .418 batting average for the summer with nine home runs and a league-leading 39 RBIs.

But well into the game, the big Bancroft crowd was neutralized. The Carroll Merchants went up 2-0 on a home run by Brendan Larkin, a stocky slugger from Truman State University in Missouri who this night was the designated “beer batter.” (That means if Larkin would strike out, there would be instant discounts on beer prices, but he wasn’t cooperating.) Bancroft tied it, but then fell behind again, 5-2. Carroll pitcher Tyler Jacobsen, the acknowledged best pitcher in the league, had the Bancroft lads on their heels.

Then, as happens in baseball, Jacobsen wearied.  A Bancroft rally started up, the crowd came to life, and the Carroll defense wobbled. A walk, an infield hit, an error, a home run, a couple more “seeing-eye” singles, and the Bandits took the lead by what became the final score, 7-5.

I’ve seen a lot of ball games in Bancroft over the decades – high school, American Legion, town team, collegiate league. But I realized in the last couple of innings of this latest game that I was witnessing something I’d never before experienced here. Bancroft’s team is normally beating the stuffings out of opponents. This time the Bandits were coming from behind for not only a victory, but a championship, and I swear the hallowed ground shook and the nearby steeple of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church swayed.

A big, nearly all-white crowd in an Iowa farm town was standing, clapping, stomping, cheering, chanting and screaming in support of this ethnically- and racially-diverse team of young players who, two months previously, had come to Bancroft town as total strangers.

Thank God for baseball! In the post-game bliss, you could just feel that this is how America is supposed to be.

So, how much did the victory – the championship! – mean?

After the Bandits had dogpiled on the infield, and while the fireworks were exploding overhead after being fired from beyond the rightfield fence, the fans flooded the historic field.

“When we won it and then had people 60 to 70 years old crying real tears and hugging us,” said Michael Keeran, the 25-year-old Bandits field manager, “you knew it meant something special.”

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After the championship, Bancroft players (left to right) Cooper Denney, Shawn Ross and Tommy Reyes-Cruz with host family Eileen and Dave Hagist.

This whole Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League, which has just completed its third season, is something special.

I’ve told you before how the league owner Donnie Roberts is now 53, a partner in a family dairy farm outside the town of Spooner, pop. 2,500, in northwest Wisconsin. He has always worked at least two jobs, including 33 years as a welder and utility worker for a gas pipeline company – he recently retired from that one. He’s a lifelong nut for ice hockey and baseball, saying he “was better at hockey but liked baseball more.”

After high school, he and other young guys around the Spooner area wanted to keep playing ball, so Donnie and his parents built a ball diamond behind their farm. They formed a “town team,” the Spooner Bandits, to play there, and also offered the diamond for youth teams, American Legion teams and tournaments. Donnie’s own son, Donald “Bucko” Roberts III played on that Bandits team, wearing No. 7 on his uniform. But in the summer of 2013, the 20-year-old Bucko was killed in a tragic auto accident.

From deep in grief, Donnie Roberts hit upon an idea for finding personal relief and effectively memorializing his son – start a league of teams like the Spooner Bandits that would provide a place for young men to play summer ball. That became the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League. Look close at the logos of the teams Roberts owns, and you’ll see they all have a No. 7 worked into them.

In 2016, he organized the teams in Carroll and Bancroft. In 2017, he started the actual league, adding teams in Storm Lake and Albert Lea, and including a team he didn’t own in Sioux Falls, S.D. In 2018, “Peak Prospects” of Ames – which operates like a baseball academy – joined the league. This year, Roberts started a team in Fort Dodge, named them the “Gypsum Miners,” and they joined the Pioneer.

Roberts says each of the teams he owns operates on “about a $40,000 budget” for the summer. He pays a couple coaches for each, and they recruit about 25 players from the college ranks. A few come from NCAA Division 1 programs, more are from Division II, NAIA and community college teams. You see plenty of 90 miles-per-hour fastballs, power hitting, rabbits on the base paths, and snappy defense.

The players are not paid, and they do not pay to play. Roberts provides the bats, balls, other equipment, team buses and hires the umpires. He negotiates operating agreements with non-profit groups in the towns, and those organize host families for the players to live with, generally they operate the concession stands, ticket sales, and they solicit advertising and other sponsorships from local businesses. The non-profit group and Roberts then share the proceeds to defray their expenses.

Roberts’ fiancée Tracy Field, who is a nurse in the Twin Cities, handles the books and some of the logistics. After three years of operations now, they’ve grown the Pioneer league to be almost a break-even business proposition, and actually, that pretty well satisfies Roberts and everybody else.

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Tracy Field and Donnie Roberts may be two of the most unusual — but most devoted and hard-working — baseball executives in America. Roberts not only owns the team buses, he often drives them, too.

The reason break-even is O.K. is because there are other payoffs from this baseball league that are just huge, although many of the players and townspeople don’t at first think about them. Those are summer entertainment for your fans, the relationships between players and host families that endure years later, and real economic development.

“What we see already is that these young players are having great experiences with their host families and in the towns where they’re playing,” Roberts said. “They’re going back to their schools, and telling other players ‘you won’t go wrong playing summer ball in Iowa.’ They’ll be talking about our towns and the positive experiences they had there for the rest of their lives. Oh, it’s about baseball, of course, but it’s really about connecting these young men, when they’re on their way to college educations, with your towns and area. That will last for years.”

There are changes – and opportunities – coming in the Pioneer league, Roberts says.

He has suspended operations in Albert Lea.

“Our model just never worked quite as well there, even though they won the championship in 2018,” he said. “The host families have been great there, but we just never developed as much of a following there as we’d have liked. Maybe there’s just too much other recreation there for people. I’m glad we tried to make it work there, but we’re going to move on somewhere else.”

He sees the Carroll, Bancroft, Storm Lake and Fort Dodge “franchises” as solid and growing in the future.

Check these impressive attendance figures from Chris Whitaker, one of the active members of the baseball committee in Carroll: “For 2019, our season attendance total was 9,730; up 3.4 percent over 2018. Average attendance was 445 in 2019. Our largest crowd was our home opener on May 31 with 680 attendees.”

Roberts would like to see an organization in Ames start-up a team that would be more similar to the four others he owns than the Peak academy team is.

He has had conversations with a group of baseball enthusiasts in Granville, pop. 307, a very small town in northwest Iowa that, like Bancroft, has a deep baseball tradition.

“The Granville people have come to see how we operate in Carroll and Storm Lake, and so far, they’re concerned that they might be just a little too small to generate the kind of support they’d need,” Roberts said. “I tell them that once they meet the young men they’d have on their team, they’ll really want to make this work. So far, I probably have more confidence in them than they have in themselves, but we’ll keep talking.”

Roberts said ideally, he wants to have at least six teams in the league, “maybe eight,” but “for sure an even number because it’s s much easier to schedule.”

He says he envisions the Pioneer “becoming a new version of the old Iowa State League.”

That started in 1905 as a “Class D” professional minor league and lasted maybe a decade. In the late 1940s and ’50s, it was revived as a league of teams that used local men, some college players and a few paid players. In the Iowa State League’s heyday in the ’50s, there were teams in Carroll, Bancroft, Audubon, Estherville, Fonda, Clear Lake, Mason City, Spencer, Storm Lake and possibly a couple other towns.

Is he open to invitations or offers from other towns now? “Of course,” Roberts said.

One thing he is putting a priority on is trying to keep Michael Keeran as a manager in this league.

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Bancroft Bandits’ coaches Michael Keeran (left) and Jacob VanVacter in the dugout during the title game.  Best testimony to the level of play in  the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League is that six Bancroft players signed professional baseball contracts during or just after the current season. Most of those signed with independent league teams around the country, finding a way to keep playing ball and getting paid while hoping for a chance with minor league teams affiliated with teams in the majors.  Several younger Bancroft Bandits players are also now being recruited by NCAA Division 1 baseball programs.

Keeran, a native of the Clear Lake-Garner area in north central Iowa, in 2018 skippered Albert Lea to a 34-6 record and the league championship. He moved to Bancroft this summer, rang up the 34-5 record and another league championship. The Bancroft community wants Keeran back, of course. Roberts is well aware of that. “If I try to take him out of Bancroft now,” Roberts said, “I’d be the first owner to get fired and run out of town.”

The bigger question may be whether Keeran will be available.

He played his high school baseball at Clear Lake High School and his college ball nearby at Waldorf University in Forest City. During his college summers, he served as an assistant coach in baseball at Clear Lake High – and the team won three Iowa state championships then. His first year after graduating from Waldorf, Keeran was an assistant coach in softball at Grinnell College. For the 2018-’19 school year, he was hired as an assistant baseball coach at Valley City State University in North Dakota, and he is returning there now for a second year.

With his managerial successes at Albert Lea last summer and now Bancroft, Keeran is attracting attention when full-time college head coaching jobs are opening.

“I’ve had a couple interviews for head jobs, but so far, nothing stuck,” he said. “Probably what I do best is recruiting – for Valley City State and at Albert Lea and Bancroft. That’s given me a lot of connections, from the junior college level up to D1. So I feel like I’ll eventually get a chance at a head coaching job. For now, I have to be patient and wait my turn. It’s possible a scouting position for professional baseball could happen, too. That probably wouldn’t be full-time. It’d be more like being an ‘area scout,’ checking out high-level players in a certain area for part of the year.”

But there’s a bigger factor for Michael Keeran now.

On July 20 this summer, he married his long-waiting fiancée Kaitlin Murphy in a ceremony at “Barn on the Ridge” outside Burlington, Iowa – about halfway between his home area and Kaitlin’s hometown of Centralia, Illinois.

“Yes, it was late in the season for the Bandits, and I had to miss a couple games – well, just one because there was one rainout while I was gone,” Keeran said. “Kaitlin and I had set the wedding date back in my senior year of college, before I even knew I’d be coaching these summer teams.”

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Michael and Kaitlin Keeran after the championship.

During the Friday evening wedding rehearsal dinner, Michael was using his cell phone to watch an internet stream of the Bandits’ game back in Bancroft. He carried on a conversation by text with pitcher Austin Atwood, who wasn’t going to be throwing that night, so Atwood was allowed to break the team rule of “no phones in the dugout during the game” to keep the manager informed. However, all decisions about the team were completely in the hands of assistant coach Jacob VanVacter, who also coaches with Keeran at Valley City State.

Michael and Kaitlin met at Waldorf U., where she was a softball player after transferring from a community college. She’s now starting her third year teaching middle school math and coaching varsity softball and freshman volleyball in the Garner-Hayfield-Ventura school district.

Yes, that means the newlyweds will be 6 or 7 hours away from each other during much of this school year.

“It’s not ideal,” Michael said, “but she’s doing really well in her career now and loves the school, and we’re making a lot of progress with our program at Valley City State. So we decided we’d make this work for now. We’ll see what opportunities come for us later.”

As grand as the baseball experience was in Bancroft this summer, the community and the Bandits team did have to deal with one shocking jolt.

On Friday morning, July 12, Bancroft woke up to the news that three local people had been found dead from gunshots in a house on the south side of town. The deaths of Amy Lynn Manna, 30, and Mason Cederwall, 22, were ruled homicides. Officers said Manna’s estranged boyfriend Austin Bernhard, 30, shot himself to death after shooting the other two.

When league owner Donnie Roberts, who’d driven into Bancroft that morning, heard the news, he immediately called city director Crysti Neuman and “offered to cancel our home game that night, and help any other way we could.”

Neuman said she consulted with other town officials, and they made a quick decision to go ahead with the game. “Thank goodness we did have a game already scheduled that night,” she said. “It let our people focus on something besides this horrible tragedy. Right before the game started, we had a moment of silence for all the victims. You know, we had a pretty good crowd at that game, and I think people just wanted to be together.”

It shook all the Bandits coaches and players, Keeran said.

“That was a moment when I first fully understood just how close all the people in this town are,” Keeran said. “It seemed like everybody in town knew all three of the victims.

“When we got the players all together, I told them what had happened, and I said something like, ‘Look, this is really a super-unfortunate situation, a real tough example of how you can’t take things for granted. Life can be gone so quick, before you know it.’ I told them this was a time when we all needed to be even more respectful than usual of your host families and their feelings, because everybody in town was impacted by this.

“Then one of our players told me he’d actually heard the shootings, which happened just a couple of houses away from where he was staying. He’d thought he’d heard firecrackers. That just stopped me. I stepped back and said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is hard.’ I told the guys to take whatever time they needed, but that we’d go ahead and play that night. And actually, we played pretty well.”

It was another thank-God-for-baseball moment in Bancroft.

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Mitchell Keeran in the press box at Bancroft Memorial Park, doing the play-by-play on the internet stream, stats and posts on social media all at the same time.

The stories of this Bancroft and Pioneer league season have been told in wonderful new ways – with more to come. That’s primarily because of the work of another Keeran, Michael’s brother Mitchell Keeran, 22.

Mitchell knows baseball. He played on two of the state championship teams at Clear Lake High, played at Waldorf University and played for his brother in 2018 at Albert Lea.

“For so much of my life, I’ve been all-baseball all-the-time, without a clue about anything else I should be doing, that it’d started to seem more like a job than fun,” Mitchell Keeran told me. “So after Albert Lea last summer, I decided to hang up my cleats. We won the league championship up there, I hit a home run in that game, and I decided, ‘This is a pretty good place to end my playing career.’ ”

And last fall when brother Michael landed the Bancroft job for 2019, a big idea occurred to Mitchell, who was then starting his senior year at Waldorf U., a communications major with an emphasis in digital media and graphic design.

“I needed to do a project for an advanced media class I was taking, and I decided I should do a documentary on baseball in Bancroft – the history, the tradition, the whole experience,” he said.

He pitched the idea to the new Bancroft manager, got his approval, got approval from his profs “and started an independent film-making career,” Mitchell said. He got professors Mark Newcom and Carlos Ruiz sufficiently excited about it that they volunteered to do the actual video and audio recording while Mitchell was doing the directing, interviewing, planning and handling of all logistics.

They taped interviews and scenics throughout the school year and into the first two or three weeks of the season. Mitchell Keeran is now starting to do a massive amount of editing and post-production work. He says “Summer Ball,” as he’s titled it, will be available “in about a year.”

I’ve seen some of the video work, as Mitchell shared snippets of it on social media, and some of the footage is stunningly good – like low-level aerial shots over Bancroft from a camera-carrying drone.

“We did this on no budget at all,” he said. He’d like to find some financial support to help market and distribute the documentary once he gets it completed.

While he was doing all that, he voluntarily took on the job of doing live-stream video of the Bancroft Bandit games this summer, not only the camera work but also the play-by-play commentary. And he handled social media postings about the Bandits on Twitter and Facebook.

His strong work on play-by-play and social media, both at Waldorf U. and early in the summer at Bancroft, led to him landing a full-time job at the KUOO radio stations in Spirit Lake. He started two weeks ago doing deejay work on two of the stations, and he’s getting ready to become the play-by-play voice of KUOO on coverage of high school sports.

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Mitchell Keeran with the play-by-play on the internet stream from the press box at Bancroft Memorial Park.

But the best Bancroft baseball stories from 2019 are going to be those that the players carry in their hearts and minds for decades to come. Players like the Galindo brothers, Bobby and Julian, from El Paso, Texas.

Both had played at New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, and Michael Keeran learned about them from his coaching contacts. And that led to five players with El Paso roots coming to Bancroft.

However, when Keeran first made contact with the Galindos about leading the way for their pals to Iowa to play this summer, their father Robert Galindo Sr. wasn’t so sure.

“So my boys called me and said they had this offer to play in a summer league up in Iowa, and they were all excited about it, and that they’re going to be placed in host homes,” said Robert. “My first thought is, O.K., so my boys aren’t little guys anymore, they’re young men in college. But I’m still a parent, you know? I’m thinking, so who is this coach and who are these people that would be taking them into their homes for two months? So first, I got on the internet and did my homework on Coach Keeran, and he seemed to be all right.”

Robert is a foreman of a railroad gang for the Union Pacific Railroad, and has worked all over the U.S. As he thought about it, he realized that he not only had worked through much of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota, but that a member of his crew Tim Zinnel lived somewhere in that area. So he phoned him “and asked him what he knew about this college baseball league, and about Bancroft and if he’d heard of players living in host homes.”

Zinnel not only gave the Pioneer league and Bancroft baseball enthusiastic thumbs-up approval. He also said he, his wife and their kids were in the process of moving from Swea City to Algona – the latter 15 minutes south of Bancroft – and he’d be happy to provide the host home for Bobby and Julian Galindo and a couple other players, too. And that’s what happened.

So in late May, Robert Galindo and his two sons loaded Bobby’s pick-up truck on a trailer, got in the dad’s larger truck and drove 24 hours straight from El Paso to Bancroft.

Bobby’s first impression of the Bancroft area? “Nothing but pure green cornfields, on the left and on the right,” he said. And after living with the Zinnels? “The host families are such a blessing,” he said. “To have them take us in and care for us like they did – they just made us part of the family – it’s eye-opening to know how many people are doing that here.”

And Robert Galindo, who played baseball for 21 years around El Paso and for a time in a professional league in Mexico, knew it was special when he saw Bancroft Memorial Park.

“It is unexplainable the feeling you get the first time you walk into that ballpark with that beautiful field,” he said. “And to think it’s been maintained all these years by volunteers. We met so many wonderful people there, it just made it all the more amazing.

“I’ll tell you, it was an honor for me to have both kids up there playing together. This is the first time they’ve played a whole season together like that.”

Imagine how he felt, down in El Paso, when on championship night in the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League, he tapped into the internet stream of the game on his computer and saw the opening battery for the Bancroft Bandits: LHP pitcher Julian Galindo to catcher Bobby Galindo.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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Sign on the U.S. Highway 169 on the edge of Bancroft.

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Game day reminder uptown.

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Back of the grandstand at the historic Bancroft ballpark.

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The classic view from the press box at Bancroft Memorial Park.

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Carroll Merchants skipper Cody Williams, of Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, in the coaches box during the Pioneer Collegiate Baseball League championship game.

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Bancroft Bandits players Jesse Johnson and Tanner Knight selling raffle tickets during the game. The 50-50 raffle resulted in the ball club and the winning ticket holder splitting $550.

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After the championship, Bancroft players Bryan Seamster (left), of New Mexico, and Chris Crosby (right), of Mississippi, with Tim, Madix and Emily Richter. The players were hosted for the summer by Tim’s mother Therese Richter.

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Bancroft pitcher Austin Atwood, from Michigan, is shown here with his mother Monica Atwood (left), his grandfather Earl Sykes, and his Bancroft hosts Ellengray and Charlie Kennedy.  Austin Atwood, one of the Bandits most effective pitchers over the season, played NCAA Division 1 baseball at Alcorn State in Mississippi, but is now transferring to finish closer to home at Wayne State University, a Division II program in Detroit.

 

5 thoughts on “In summer ball league, you see the goodness of this grand old game

  1. Fabulous article, Chuck! Thank you so much for being such a great supporter of Bancroft!

    Ellengray Kennedy, Bancroft IA

  2. Love this story! I grew up in Bancroft and though my parents are both gone now, our house used to be just three houses away from the ballpark. It is a very special place, and the Bancroft community is full of special people who love baseball and tradition. So glad the Bancroft Bandits are part of a new tradition in town!

    Cecilia Carey

  3. How exciting to see the baseball field in use again! I grew up in Bancroft and love the game. I was at the library recently and some of the players came in to help with story hour by reading to the kids and then playing games with them outdoors. I could see how much the kids and players were having a good time together. Great article and baseball season!

    Cathy Kelly

  4. Chuck, congratulations on a wonderful story about Bancroft, Iowa, and baseball. I lived in Bancroft until our family moved to California when I was 12. I have great memories of that field, especially the 4th of July fireworks. This article should be required reading for anyone dreaming of becoming a sportswriter if they have any desire to reach a reader’s heart.

    Chuck Coyne, San Dimas, CA ccoyne@rtrmag.com

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