The late Jack Butterfield and John Winkin put both the University of Maine and the state of Maine on the national map through their successes during their tenures as the head baseball coaches at the institution.
Butterfield guided the 1964 team to the College World Series for the first time in school history and the team finished third. Winkin succeeded him in 1975 and led the Black Bears to six College World Series appearances between 1976 and 1986.
Winkin’s lofty goal of national prominence was hailed by some of his friends who became big-time financial backers. Those included Bill Palmer, Harold Alfond and Larry Mahaney.
But Winkin also needed an in. He needed a gateway to prominence.
Enter Ron Fraser.
Fraser, who died over the weekend at age 79, was one of the nation’s most revered baseball coaches. He built the University of Miami into a national contender.
His charisma, wit, salesmanship and vision also helped put college baseball on the map.
ESPN began televising the College World Series thanks to Fraser and his determination to provide college baseball with the exposure he felt it deserved.
The colorful Fraser was a marketing genius. His home games were more than just games, they were events. His promotions ranged from bikini nights to raffles to free food and merchandise being tossed into the crowd.
His program became one of the best-known in all of college sports.
He took the hidden-ball trick to a new stratosphere in the College World Series when his Hurricanes picked off a speedy Wichita State runner by pretending a pitcher’s pickoff throw to first hit the dirt and rolled deep into foul territory.
Fraser and his staff had the play or ploy devised brilliantly.
The sun had to be setting in a certain spot so that the runner would be partially blinded; the pitcher had to step off the mound so he wouldn’t be called for a balk before faking a throw to first; the first baseman had to kick up dirt with his glove and begin running as fast as he could to chase the “errant” pickoff throw. The right fielder was on a dead sprint and the second baseman also got involved in the chase.
Miami’s bat girls were sitting down the first base line and they jumped up from their seats and scattered to avoid the ball. That became a hot topic in the media the next day as speculation was rampant about whether the bat girls were actually part of the ploy.
It worked to perfection. When the runner began jogging to second, the pitcher calmly tossed to the shortstop covering second and he applied the tag.
Fraser and Winkin were friends — a pair of New Jersey boys.
Fraser invited Winkin to bring his Maine teams down to Miami and play in tournaments and to also play series against his Hurricanes.
They played each other in regular-season games that were aired on ESPN.
That gave Winkin and his program valuable exposure and enabled it to flourish. It helped recruiting and helped fill the stands at Mahaney Diamond.
That paved the way for Maine to become a six-time host of the NCAA Northeast Regional.
State pride was at an all-time high. That era ranks up there among the all-time athletic highlights for the institution.
In 1984, the Hurricanes became the first national power to invade Orono for a memorable two-game series. Others like North Carolina, Oklahoma State and UCLA would follow.
Maine swept the Hurricanes 3-1 and 5-0. Miami got a measure of revenge later that year by eliminating the Black Bears from the College World Series 13-7.
Fraser was a featured guest at the annual Hot Stove banquet and was delightful. He was an engaging storyteller.
His story of the unknown pitcher was a classic. Fraser was a very busy man and he had a healthy staff of assistants who handled each specific area of the team.
During one game, his starting pitcher was getting shelled so Fraser decided to come out to the mound and relieve him.
He motioned to the bullpen and his big right-handed reliever began trotting in.
Fraser later told us as the pitcher approached the mound, a disturbing thought crossed his mind.
He had absolutely no idea who the pitcher was!
So he asked the catcher for the pitcher’s name.
Since Fraser didn’t know the pitcher, he was forced to give him a generic pep talk and simply tossed him the ball. Fraser’s facial expressions were priceless as he told the story.
In 30 years, Fraser compiled a record of 1,271-438-8. The College Baseball Hall of Famer won two national titles and managed 12 College World Series teams.
He touched a lot of lives. His innovative approach to promoting his program and his sport served as a blueprint for so many others and he helped enable an equally charismatic and passionate coach, John Winkin, raise his program to an elite level.
He will be missed.