John Winkin’s college coaching resume stretches all the way back to 1954. The legendary college coach, who piloted six UMaine teams to the college world series, suffered a stroke last Thursday. The latest reports are that Winkin is out of intensive care and is in fair condition at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
At the age of 87, Winkin is the oldest college baseball coach in the country. Now piloting the Husson Eagles, a Division III program based in Bangor. Maine baseball fans best remember this baseball legend as the man who put Maine college baseball on the national map. Winkin’s Black Bear squads made six appearances in a ten year span at the College World Series in Omaha, beginning in 1976, twice finishing third, during his 22-year tenure at Maine, which unceremoniously ended in 1996, when unpopular Athletic Director, Susan Tyler, chose not to renew Winkin’s contract. There are a myriad of stories and much conjecture about what transpired at the time. Some cited Winkin’s age at the time (76) as the primary reason. Others speculated that Tyler and Winkin didn’t hit it off and this ultimately led to his not being asked back. Whatever the reasons, Winkin’s dismissal was poorly handled.
If you’ve never been to Orono, Maine in the spring, you can’t appreciate having a Division I program located so far north, let alone one that was a national power during the Winkin era. Forced to practice indoors until they boarded a plane and headed to Florida, where they usually faced the elite programs in the country, Maine regularly took their lumps on their southern swing. Yet Winkin knew that the soul of his clubs would be forged during those trips and pay dividends once they began their conference schedule back on the frozen diamonds of New England.
Winkin, who hailed from New Jersey, before coming to Colby College in 1954, quickly came to appreciate the baseball talent that resided in the far-flung reaches of the Pine Tree State. Winkin recognized that Maine’s shortened window of opportunity for playing baseball wasn’t a detriment and that anyone who is willing to play baseball in April, in Maine, when temperatures are regularly in the 30s and snow delays are not uncommon, had a special toughness that a kid from Florida, or California couldn’t possess.
Each and every summer, while at Colby and then later, when he held the Black Bear job, Winkin would scour the diamonds of Maine, showing up to watch American Legion prospects and evaluate their potential to play Division I caliber baseball. Many a former high school star remembers the butterflies in the stomach and the whispers and nods that accompanied a Winkin appearance at a summer ballgame.
I remember seeing the slight of stature and deeply tanned Winkin, during the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I was a 17-year-old hard-throwing right-hander, logging some serious innings for a very good and sometimes great Coombs-Mountfort Post 158 squad, during the summer of 1979. We had just won a Class B state championship at Lisbon High School I had gone 8-0. Winkin had obviously heard about my exploits and he came to see what the buzz was about.
I remember that first audition like it was yesterday. We were playing a very tough Topsham squad, made up of a combination of two Class A high schools in Mt. Ararat, of Topsham and Brunswick High. Our Lisbon squad, with a few additions from Oak Hill High School, in Sabattus, could hold our own with any squad in Maine that summer.
Trying to impress Winkin, I got off to an inauspicious start, giving up a leadoff home run to lefty slugger, Jimmy Thibault. Later, trying to throw, instead of pitch, I’d give up a solo shot to Amherst-bound Kyle O’Brien, who would one day play minor league ball. I finally settled down, however and started mixing my pitches. In the fifth, with runners at second and third, I blew a 2-2 fastball past O’Brien and pumped my fist on the way to our bench on the third base side of the diamond. My teammates would rally and I’d leave with a 3-2 win and heard Winkin say to with his typically understated style, “you did a nice job keeping your team in the game, young man.” For a Maine baseball prospect that was like hearing the voice of God.
At that point, other schools, like the University of Vermont, coached at the time by one of Winkin’s former players, Jack Leggett and Amherst, coached by another legendary coach, Bill Thurston, had shown much more interest than Coach Winkin. The baseball scuttlebutt was that he was interested in a couple of other pitchers from larger schools, which was typical of Winkin. He liked his Class A players and stud pitchers from Massachusetts. That would all change late in the summer, at Edwards Field in Brunswick.
Our summer club was talented, but for some reason, we were either red hot (two seven game winning streaks), or ice cold (two five game losing skids). In late August, not only were we looking at a second place finish in our zone, but we were in danger of not even making the state tournament, in Togus. Tied with Caldwest Post of Portland (Deering High players), we would take part in a one game playoff, to see who got the wild card slot for Central/Southern Maine.
The Caldwell team was stocked with some good high school hitters, including left-handed slugger, Anthony Cimino, himself headed to UMaine.
After a long summer and too many innings and a stretch where I had experienced a “dead” arm, the weather turned fall-like and warming up, my arm felt rejuvenated. I told my catcher, Mike Sawyer, that he wouldn’t need to be putting down anything but a single finger, for fastballs.
We lost the coin flip and would lead off as the visitors. We went down in order, 1-2-3. Playing at Edwards Field in Brunswick, a neutral field, neither team had a particular advantage. One good omen was that the mound was a bit higher than most, which I always liked.
I struck out the side on 11 pitches, all fastballs and I knew that if I could get one, or two runs, we had this one.
While I was pouring fastball, after fastball, past the Caldwell hitters, my mound opponent was mixing up an assortment of junk, keeping our hitters off balance. In the fifth, with a runner on second, I managed to get out in front of a breaking pitch and looped it into left-center and we were on the board. That was all she wrote.
We won the game, 1-0. I finished with a one-hitter and 18 strikeouts, throwing all fastballs, save about five breaking pitches. Coach Winkin was at the game and saw me pitch the best game of my life. With the win, my 10th of the summer, I had now won 18 games, since April, and had only lost twice.
I received a phone call from Coach Winkin the following week. Later, one of his handwritten recruiting letters followed.
My senior year was a bit of a disappointment. Unbeknownst to me, I had injured my shoulder and while I tried to pitch through the injury, it would get progressively worse. Later, at Maine, I would eventually quit the ball club in the spring of my sophomore year, after being red-shirted as freshman.
That was nearly 30 years ago. I can still see Coach Winkin, standing above the three practice diamonds at Maine, watching intra-squad games my first fall. He had his clipboard and never said much. Occasionally he’d call you over, but his assistants, Bobby Whelan (now coaching at Dartmouth) and Brian Cox ran things on the field.
I’ve run into Coach Winkin a couple of times over the years. Once at a state American Legion Tournament game and later, at a state high school playoff game, involving my own son. Coach Winkin was kind and obviously remembered me. He commented on my son’s ability as a hitter.
In the fall of 2005, while in Bangor, delivering copies of my book, When Towns Had Teams, I saw Coach running on Broadway, near the Husson campus. He regularly walk/ran three hours every day. I swear he hadn’t aged a day in the past 20. While 85 at the time, he could have easily passed for being 30 years younger.With his signature tan, close-cropped hair and trim physique, he looked like a little drill sergeant.
Like the men that I interviewed for my own book, Coach Winkin is a throwback to a different era. A time that, while far from perfect, was a time when integrity, honesty and loyalty mattered. Back in the days when he was just getting his start, major league baseball was not a lucrative career. Even the star players, like DiMaggio, Mantle, Williams and Willie Mays, while well compensated, still didn’t make an excessive amount of money. Players didn’t charge for autographs and a father could take his family to a big league game without taking out a second mortgage on his home.
He’s obviously been knocked to the canvas by the stroke. While no doubt serious, something tells me that if I was a betting man, it might make sense to put my money on seeing Coach Winkin, back in the Husson dugout at some point this spring. Baseball needs men like Winkin, now, more than ever before.
Here's a well-written article on Winkin that ran this spring in the Christian Science Monitor.