A week after the death of John Winkin, memories of the legendary Maine college baseball coach remain vivid for me after attending his wake in Waterville on Thursday night.
The University of Maine’s baseball team was en route to a ballgame on its annual spring trip.
Head coach John Winkin and assistant Mike Coutts were in the van with a bunch of players.
Winkin had been trying desperately to find a baseball game on the radio, and he finally found one.
And the timing couldn’t have been better.
It sounded like it was late in the game, and one team had a runner on third.
New York Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto was handling the play-by-play.
“The pitcher glances over, winds-up and it’s bunted … bunted down the third base line. The suicide squeeze is on. Here he comes, squeeze play, it’s gonna’ be close. Here’s the throw, here’s the play at the plate. Holy cow, I think he’s gonna’ make it.”
Just then, another voice entered the broadcast: “Stop right there. I gotta’ know right now. Before we go any further. Do you love me.”
That voice belonged to singer Meatloaf, and it came from his song “Paradise at the Dashboard Light” in which the baseball play-by-play was used.
A suddenly agitated Winkin, unaware it was a song, blurted out, “Oh no, we’ve lost the feed (for the game).”
Former Black Bear pitcher Mike D’Andrea once jokingly told veteran play-by-play man George Hale he wasn’t going to pitch for Winkin any more unless Winkin started pronouncing his name correctly.
For four years, “Dee-ANN-Dree-Ah” was called “DON-Dray” by Winkin.
Pitcher Stu Lacognata was called “Stu Lacognato” by Winkin for his four years. It’s no wonder Lacognata didn’t check his birth certificate to make sure he really was Lacognata and not Lacognato.
D’Andrea did get his measure of revenge, according to Coutts.
Coutts said when D’Andrea wasn’t pitching, he would go up to Winkin in the middle of a game and ask him an off-the-wall question, just to irritate him and create some levity on the bench. It would be a question like, “What do you think we’re having for dinner at the hotel after the game tonight?”
Winkin, known for his intensity and competitive nature, would bark, “Mike, not now. We’re in the middle of a game!”
There are no shortage of Winkin stories. Some have been verified, others haven’t.
But one thing is for certain: The former Colby College, University of Maine and Husson University baseball coach left a lasting legacy. Winkin died a week ago, five days short of his 95th birthday.
Having been recruited by him when he was the baseball coach at Colby College, it is easy to see how he was such a dynamic recruiter.
He knew his recruits, inside and out, and his charisma was infectious.
He made you believe being able to play the game of baseball was a gift. You believed you fit into his plans, and, under his tutelage, he would enable you to reach your full potential, which he did.
Winkin’s salesmanship and charisma served him well.
He was able to secure scholarship money and money for his program from the likes of the late Harold Alfond, Bill Palmer and Larry Mahaney. He convinced them he could put the UMaine baseball program on the national map, and he did so.
By putting the baseball program on the map through his six College World Series appearances, he also gave the state nationwide exposure because the majority of his players were from Maine.
The Northeast Regionals held at Mahaney Diamond were electric and fans ringed the field.
When a school from an area with such severe winters is able to compete with the likes of the nation’s elite, including Miami, Louisiana State and Arizona State, it is a no-brainer for the media to embrace the underdogs from the frozen north.
And Winkin took full advantage of the exposure. He would hold court with the media and parlayed that exposure into a positive recruiting tool.
It was a joy to cover Winkin and his teams because he worked in the media. He knew and respected our responsibilities and would do what he could to make our jobs easier. He never turned down an interview request unless the timing was impossible, and he always promptly returned phone calls.
He would address difficult issues, and his players were held accountable for their actions — on and off the field.
It was refreshing to deal with a coach who didn’t make you jump through hoops to obtain information. He knew you had a job to do, even if you wound up portraying him or his program in a negative light.
Winkin, who was inducted into 11 Halls of Fames, was also one of the most organized people you would ever meet and someone whose willingness to speak to groups was off the charts.
He also was a tireless recruiter. But, like everybody else, he had his flaws.
Some thought he had a large ego, but he backed it up with 1,043 wins.
He was away a lot, and family time suffered.
But after his stroke in 2007 left him partially paralyzed and with some communication difficulties, he wound up establishing a much stronger bond and healthier relationships with his son David and daughter Mary. He often attended his grandchildren’s events.
His relentless determination and tenacity enabled him to live seven years after the stroke and spend quality time with his family. He worked very hard in rehabilitation. He wasn’t going to just sit around.
He will be missed.
By the way, Coach, a reliable source identified the player who used to occasionally pull a prank by breaking the tips of the No. 2 pencils you used for your scorebook of every game, a routine that served as a valuable tool for you.
It was DON-Dray.