WATERVILLE, Maine — John Winkin knows he is fortunate to be alive.
More than 18 months after suffering a stroke while taking his daily walk in Bangor, he still exhibits the sharp mind and quiet intensity that helped make him a bona fide baseball coaching legend during more than half a century at three Maine colleges.
With his 89th birthday a month away, Winkin continues to battle minor speech issues and significant right-side paralysis, which has confined him to the Lakewood Continuing Care Center since January 2008.
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Winkin said during a recent interview in his small, neat room at Lakewood. “I’ve got one side of me that’s the trouble,” he explained, touching his right leg with his left hand while sitting in a wheelchair.
Winkin speaks fairly clearly, though more deliberately, with only occasional hesitation caused by the stroke. Though his body has been slowed, he remains engaging.
“It’s tough. I can think as much as anybody. Sometimes I just can’t get it out,” Winkin said. “It’s a bitch.
“I’m still smart up here,” he said, touching his head with a left index finger long ago twisted by arthritis. “I think I am.”
Winkin admits he doesn’t get out much. He has attended a few events, including a University of Maine baseball fundraiser last spring in Brewer and Husson University’s 2009 commencement in May.
Nothing could have boosted his sprits more than his most recent trip, the most extensive since he collapsed Dec. 10, 2007.
Winkin made a two-day appearance at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., where he had been a fixture since his UMaine team made the first of its six appearances there.
Winkin, who also served as a NCAA regional site director for many years, missed the CWS in 2008 for the first time since 1976.
“[After] what I’ve been through, it gave me a lift,” beamed Winkin, who explained his son David, of Winslow, along with American Baseball Coaches Association Executive Director Dave Keilitz, arranged the excursion.
“It was so nice to see them all,” Winkin said of his NCAA peers. “I was damned lucky. It was really heartwarming. They made me feel special; [it is] something I cherish.”
A nurse from Lakewood traveled with the Winkins to assist John.
“She was tremendous to me and I thank my son. He knew I needed it,” Winkin said. “Nothing could have meant so much to me.”
More than anything in life, Winkin has missed being actively involved in baseball. The walls of his room are decorated with pennants from his alma mater, Duke University, and Colby College of Waterville, UMaine and Husson, where he coached from 1954-2007.
Mementos on the walls include photographs of his grandchildren and others showing baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and longtime friend, the late Harold Alfond. Also prominently on display are a wall hanging that reads: And on the seventh day, God said, Play Ball!, and a large get-well card signed by many members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bangor.
“Isn’t that something?” Winkin said.
His only connection to the game he loves is the TV set in the corner of his room.
“I really follow baseball as much as possible,” he said, admitting his sometimes falls asleep at night with a game on.
Winkin has resigned himself to life without an active role in baseball. That doesn’t mean he has lost his will to live.
“I wish I could do something in baseball, but I’ve got to be realistic. I’m just so glad that I’m alive,” he said.
He usually performs two daily physical therapy sessions and has been able to use a walker to get around. He is thankful for the caring staff at Lakewood for helping him regain some of his function.
“They’re tremendous. I work like hell. I try to be as strong and as good as I can be,” Winkin said. “It’s not much fun but, geez, it’s better than being dead.”
Winkin said his doctors have credited his ability to survive the stroke to his years of dedicated conditioning — whether running or walking — on a daily basis. He enjoys the fact the daughter of his physical therapist is studying that field at Husson, where he coached and served as a sports fellow.
Winkin receives regular visitors, including many people with ties to UMaine and Colby.
This weekend, he will be reunited with a sizeable group of former players, assistant coaches and baseball friends. UMaine is hosting a dinner in his honor Saturday at 4 p.m. at Wells Commons.
Winkin is both honored and nervous about taking part in the festivities.
“I don’t know if I can do it justice,” Winkin said. “I want them to know I love them all.
“It’s a nice thing and anybody that makes it, I thank them,” he added. “If somebody can’t make it, I understand.”
Winkin is looking forward, in particular, to seeing many of his former players, especially standouts like Bill Swift, Mike Bordick and others with whom he shared the College World Series experience.
“It was special privilege to do that and those guys were great,” he said. “It’s the pinnacle of one’s life in [college] baseball. I’ll always been especially indebted to them for what they brought to all of us.”
In the meantime, Winkin continues to live each day grateful for all he has experienced and the friends he has made through baseball.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m in good health (points to head) and so far I’ve done all right,” he said. “Thank God for this place and my son and the loyalty of friends from Colby and Maine and Husson who have been very good to me.”