When John Winkin was coaching the University of Maine’s baseball team, he was jogging with veteran broadcaster George Hale in South Carolina during a baseball trip.
Hale asked him when he was going to retire. Winkin ignored the question and they kept jogging.
A little while later, Hale posed the question again. Winkin ignored him again until stopping in an intersection and pointing his finger at Hale.
“When water runs uphill,” Winkin said.
The legendary coach, who had an unparalleled passion for the game and helped put college baseball and the University of Maine on the national map, died Saturday afternoon at age 94. He died peacefully in a health care facility in Waterville said his son, David.
David Winkin said there will be a service later in the week.
Winkin won 1,043 games during his time at Colby College, Maine and Husson University, and was inducted into 11 halls of fame, including the College Baseball Hall of Fame last year.
He finished with a record of 1,043-706-16.
“It’s a sad day,” said Mike Coutts, who was a captain at Maine under Winkin before serving as his assistant coach for 11 years.
“He was a great man. He changed the way college baseball is today because of what he did in the ’80s,” said Coutts. “What a lot of people didn’t realize was that he was a caring man who really wanted his players to do well [in life as well as baseball]. He told me he couldn’t get really close to his players because it would affect his ability to make decisions.
“He committed his life to baseball and every facet of it. He studied it. He wrote his doctoral thesis [at Columbia University] on the different ways to turn a double play,” pointed out Coutts.
“He impacted a lot of people. So many of his players are in coaching now. A lot of people are doing a lot of things because of him,” added Coutts, who is currently the assistant softball coach at Maine. “I talked to a guy at a clinic recently who played baseball at Oklahoma in 1994 and he talked about the Maine baseball teams in the ’80s.”
Winkin began his coaching career in 1954 at Colby College in Waterville, where he spent 20 years and was named the 1965 National Coach of the Year. He compiled a record of 301-202-5.
He then moved on in 1975 to the University of Maine, where his teams went 642-430-3 over 22 seasons and made six trips to the College World Series to go with 11 appearances in NCAA regional tournaments.
Twice the Black Bears finished third in the CWS under Winkin, who also was named New England Division I Coach of the Year in 1975 and Northeast Region Division I Coach of the Year in 1976, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986 and 1991 while at UMaine.
Winkin did not have his contract renewed at Maine after the 1996 season and was hired for a fellowship in sports leadership at Husson. He was also named an assistant baseball coach at Husson before taking over as the head coach in 2003 after John Kolasinski left to become the head coach at Siena Heights University in Michigan. Winkin had become the vice president of sports leadership by the time he was named to succeed Kolasinski.
He recorded his 1,000th career coaching victory on March 12, 2006.
He collapsed while jogging on Dec. 10, 2007, and was left partially paralyzed by a stroke. After being hospitalized for several days, he was eventually moved to a health care facility in Waterville.
In addition to his coaching career, Winkin was also a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II, was a founding editor of Sport Magazine and hosted the first Major League Baseball pre-game show with Mel Allen and Curt Gowdy. He also wrote four books, including the “Baseball Coaching Bible” and “Maximizing Baseball Practice Indoors.”
He was the athletic director at Colby College and served on a number of NCAA baseball committees and was appointed to run several NCAA Division I regionals after he left Maine.
Former Maine All-American and major league pitcher Billy Swift said Winkin meant “everything” to him.
”Everyone respected him for what he did at Maine,” said Swift, who is in his second year as the head baseball coach at Arizona Christian University. “He taught me the fundamentals of the game and I still teach them. It’s all from him. He had a great mind for the game.”
Swift said he has talked with former Maine teammates Rick Lashua and Stu Lacognata about the influence Winkin had on them.
“The impact he had was amazing. Not many college coaches can have the impact he had,” added Swift. “My four years at Maine was the best time of my life, and I played almost 14 years in the major leagues. Coach Winkin made it fun for us. We laughed and had some great memories. He was a great man who did a great job.”
Jason Harvey, who played for Winkin at Husson and succeeded him as the coach, said Winkin “made kids believe baseball was the best sport going. Everything he did from the morning he woke up to the time he fell asleep was baseball-oriented. That was his life.
“His teams reflected him. They played with passion, they played hard and they played the game right,” said Harvey. “He touched so many lives in the game of baseball. I don’t think people understand the impact he had on the state of Maine and what baseball means to the state. He enjoyed coaching and helping young men in their journey.
“It has been a great honor for me to coach in his shadow,” added Harvey.
Harvey pointed out how Winkin liked to recruit in-state players and give them the opportunity to compete at a high level.
“He’s a big reason I am where I am today,” said Harvey, a Bucksport native.
Harvey and Coutts said Winkin was perhaps the most competitive person they ever knew.
“He did not like to lose at all,” said Harvey.
Harvey recalled a game when Winkin confronted an umpire to question a call.
The umpire implied that Winkin may have misunderstood a rule.
An irate Winkin responded by disputing the umpire’s assessment.
“‘I wrote the [expletive] rule book,’” Harvey said with a chuckle, quoting Winkin. “It was funny.”
Hale was a close personal friend of Winkin’s.
He was part of Winkin’s inner circle with his former color analyst Al Hackett, former Maine sports information specialist Len Harlow and the late Wes Jordan, the Maine trainer.
Hale recalled his first interaction with Winkin.
“Right after he took over from Jack Butterfield, he called me and told me he wanted me to be part of his team. I started laughing and said, ‘John I can catch the ball but I can’t hit it.’
“He told me he wanted me to do their games on the radio,” said Hale.
Winkin was very charismatic and had a healthy dose of media savvy courtesy of his time as a baseball announcer and magazine editor.
He sold the game of baseball and he teamed with close friend Ron Fraser, the University of Miami coach and another top-notch promoter of the game, to supply the college game with a lot of valuable media exposure. Maine and Miami would play each other in Florida and Maine and developed a healthy rivalry.
Winkin landed several NCAA Northeast Regionals at Mahaney Diamond and they were well-attended by the Black Bear faithful.
Winkin’s close friendships with such benefactors as Harold Alfond, Bill Palmer and Larry Mahaney paid great financial dividends to his program and the other athletic programs at the university. One of Winkin’s baseball players, catcher Mark Armstrong from Millinocket, became the school’s first player on an athletic scholarship.
Hale said people associate Winkin with baseball but relayed the fact he also coached football and basketball.
“He knew every sport,” said Hale.
Hale said Winkin, who played baseball at Duke, had a good sense of humor and called him a “great teacher.”
Hale said when the Black Bears toured the South, coaches of some of the powerhouse schools would often say to him, “How the hell does he do it? We have scholarships and good weather but he is up there in the snow and he gets his team to the College World Series. How in God’s name does he pull it off?”
“Nobody could coach cold-weather baseball better than John Winkin,” said Hale. “He was a throwback. He was one of a kind.”
Hale said Winkin loved to teach fundamentals and he would go anywhere to do so.
He would attend clinics across the state and beyond on a regular basis, and Hale noted that if Winkin wasn’t speaking at clinics, he was attending American Legion games in the summer looking for players who could help his team.
Winkin had plenty of clout, according to Hale.
“One time I wanted to attend a Dodgers spring training game in Vero Beach, Florida, with my wife and I went up to the ticket booth. I had a University of Maine shirt on. They told me they didn’t have any tickets. But the guy in the ticket booth noticed my shirt and asked if I was part of John Winkin’s baseball group at Maine. I said I was. The next thing I know, we’re sitting in the owner’s booth,” Hale said with a laugh.