ORONO, Maine — The championship trophies were featured prominently upon entering the Wells Conference Center dining room at the University of Maine.
So were several retired baseball jerseys, as well as game programs and media guides from the glory years.
And hanging from the ceiling were several television monitors, all sharing a video biography of the featured guest, former Black Bear coach Dr. John Winkin, who was honored during a reception and dinner Saturday evening.
Scores of former players, colleagues and friends came back to campus to pay tribute to the legendary Winkin, who coached at Colby College of Waterville, UMaine and Husson University of Bangor from 1954 to 2007 until suffering a stroke while taking his daily walk in Bangor.
More than 18 months later, the 89-year-old Winkin continues his rehabilitation at the Lakewood Continuing Care Center in Waterville, but on this day those in the state’s baseball community welcomed the opportunity to see him in public again.
And as he arrived, the gleam that spread across Winkin’s face was unbroken by age or illness, yet the coach of more than 1,000 victories during a 53-year career — including 642 wins while guiding the University of Maine program from 1975 through 1996 — sought to deflect attention for his College Baseball Hall of Fame career elsewhere.
“It’s the players,” said Winkin from his wheelchair. “It’s all about the players.”
Yet on this day, it was all about the coach.
“This is basically a celebration of coach Winkin for what he’s meant to all the players and the teams that he’s been part of,” said former Maine shortstop Mike Bordick, who went on to play in the major leagues from 1990 to 2003 and is now a roving minor league instructor for the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I think it’s awesome, and personally I think they probably should do this every year, he’s been that important to this university.”
Bordick and three-time All-American Billy Swift, two of the nine former major leaguers Winkin coached at Maine, were the evening’s primary speakers. But every player on hand — many who competed on at least one of Winkin’s six College World Series teams from 1975, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986 — had his unique perspective on the coaching legend, and how Winkin’s disciplined approach to his craft helped to shape their lives both on and off the diamond.
Take Mike Ballou, who played on three College World Series teams under Winkin.
His last pitch as a senior for the Black Bears was hit out of Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., a home run that enabled Arizona to rally past Maine 8-7 in an opening-night game of the 1986 College World Series.
While Arizona went on to win the national championship, Ballou was devastated, but Winkin was instrumental in the healing process.
“I remember going home after that feeling like the world was at the end,” said Ballou, “but then I got a letter from coach Winkin saying ‘A. the world’s not ending, B. he thought the guy was struck out on the pitch before, which is what he would have said anyway, and C., never look back at just the last moment, look at the whole four years and how wonderful it was to be a part of all this.’
“It meant a lot. When I first got the letter from Maine, I thought it was my grades, but then I read it and it was just very touching that he would think to do that, that he cared enough about me to say not to let one day bother you for the rest of your life.”
Maine typically entered those College World Series encounters as a significant underdog due to climate and geographic considerations, but Winkin’s renowned indoor practice regimen and his legacy of dedication and discipline often leveled the playing field.
“He was incredibly prepared, an amazing competitor all the time, and that’s really what set this program apart,” said Bordick, who played with the Oakland A’s, Baltimore Orioles, New York Mets and Toronto Blue Jays. “I’m not saying the players who came up here were the best players in the country, but we fed off his energy and we became great competitors — and most of us overachievers — because of him.”
Swift, who grew up in a family of eight children in South Portland and went on to play with the Seattle Mariners, San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies between 1985 and 1998, remembers the father-son relationship he shared with Winkin while on the Orono campus in the early 1980s, as well as other lessons he now shares with players as the baseball coach at Scottsdale Christian Academy in Phoenix.
“He taught us that when we stepped on the field to be gamers and not to be intimidated by anybody,” said Swift. “You could see that when we’d go to the College World Series in the way we played those teams. We didn’t go out there afraid, we played like we were going to beat those guys.
“I’ve been coaching high school kids now for eight years, and that’s what I tell my guys. You’re going to face teams that are better than you, but if you go out there and act like you’re going to beat them, it changes the whole complex of the game.”
Swift, Bordick and Ballou were among several generations of players, coaches and managers influenced by Winkin.
“He’s always had a passion for what he’s doing, and he never lost it,” said Carl “Stump” Merrill, a former UMaine assistant baseball coach under Winkin who went on to manage the New York Yankees. “We all think we have a passion to win, but how many of us have a passion to prepare to win? Obviously that’s what you have to do in that capacity, and he’s done it well.”
Winkin originally hired Merrill as an assistant football coach while athletic director at Colby during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Another coach hired by Winkin during that era was Dick Whitmore, who has compiled more than 600 wins of his own since taking over the Colby men’s basketball program in 1970.
“John’s the most disciplined and most organized guy I’ve ever come in contact with professionally,” said Whitmore. “The first two summers I was at Colby, John was directing the Ted Williams Baseball Camp. He took his new basketball coach from Colby down there with him for two weeks each summer, and for me it was the experience of a lifetime.”
Whitmore, who lives in Waterville, visits Winkin frequently at the rehabilitation center.
Another recent visitor was Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci, who also attended the Winkin Day dinner.
“John has been such a part of so many different aspects of the Bangor, Eastern Maine and statewide communities,” said Baldacci, who fondly recalls seeing the World War II veteran join Morrill Worcester of Columbia Falls and the Worcester Wreath Co. in the distribution of wreaths on the gravestones of fallen servicemen in Washington during the Christmas season.
“He hasn’t changed. He’s going to be 90 at the end of the month, and the nurses’ aides and the CNAs there were telling me how he was running them into the ground. He would work out in the morning after breakfast, he’d work out in the afternoon after lunch. And he just didn’t work out, he’d work out for 30 minutes or an hour. He’s determined that he’s going to get back to being 100 percent, and he’s just an inspiration.
“John Winkin never quits. He never gives in and he never gives up.”