LEWISTON – John Winkin’s contemporaries aren’t contemporary.
He taught at a baseball camp with Ted Williams. He’s the same age as Boston Red Sox instructor emeritus Johnny Pesky. He occasionally talks shop with Bob Feller. The guy was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy in World War II, for heaven’s sake.
At 4 o’clock on an overcast Monday afternoon, anyone blessed to be kicking and screaming at 86 has earned the right to retreat to his recliner or hide in his hammock. Yet there was Winkin, kicking at the dirt in front of the visitors’ dugout at Leahey Field on the Bates College campus.
The oldest active head coach in any NCAA sport, Winkin appeared fit and fiery in his Husson College uniform with No. 5 emblazoned on the back in honor of another old friend, Joe DiMaggio. He cursed a little, smiled a little more and found enough energy to share his wisdom with a player, Jon Tefft of Lisbon, who is young enough to be his great-grandson.
“Do your job, now,” Winkin barked at Tefft, who strode to the plate with nobody out and a runner at second base. “Look at their defense.”
Tefft surveyed the situation, eyed a fastball from Bates College reliever Ralph Vitti and caught every infielder off guard with a bunt that trickled foul by less than a foot.
Winkin’s wince was quickly piggybacked by encouraging applause and a smile. Twenty years from now, when Tefft reflects upon what it was like to share a clubhouse with Maine’s greatest baseball legend, there’s no doubt he’ll smile, too.
“It’s an honor to play for a such a well-respected coach,” Tefft said. “He’s just a stand-up guy. There’s so much knowledge up in that head of his and we’ll never know half of it.”
Scores of victories
Few managers at any level will win half as many games.
In March, Winkin picked up the 1,000th victory of his career when Husson defeated Drew University on a trip to Florida. The Eagles (25-14) won 20 more times this spring, including Monday’s 17-4 belting of Bates, and have earned a berth in the North Atlantic Conference tournament this weekend.
“It means a lot to be the first person in Maine to do it,” Winkin said of his becoming only the 44th college baseball coach to hit the milestone. “It also means a lot that those wins came with three fine institutions. The teams I’ve coached all were mostly Maine players. That is the most rewarding thing.”
After graduating from Duke University, earning his doctorate from Columbia and coaching high school baseball in his native New Jersey, Winkin took the top job at Colby College in Waterville. He won 301 games and one National Coach of the Year selection with the White Mules.
The University of Maine lured away Winkin in 1975, launching a 22-year run that saw the Black Bears join Miami, Arizona State and Louisiana State as a national power. In a six-year stretch from 1981 to 1986, Maine qualified for the College World Series five times.
Winkin disciples Billy Swift of South Portland, Mike Bordick of Hampden and Bert Roberge of Auburn all played Major League Baseball.
“I always liked Maine people. They don’t (think they) know it all,” Winkin said. There’s a genuineness about them, and they’re great people to work with. I was fortunate to work with a lot of kids from this area. Rick Lashua comes to mind. Bert Roberge and Brian Seguin come to mind.”
When the state’s talent pipeline seemed to dry up in the mid-1990s, so did the state university’s flirtation with the big time. Maine dismissed the 77-year-old Winkin in 1997 after 642 wins.
All about trust
Husson hired him as an assistant coach the next day. John Kolasinski resigned the Eagles’ post prior to the 2004 season, and the school wasted no time calling upon the in-house candidate who is a member of seven halls of fame, has published four books and was a founding editor of Sport Magazine.
Winkin hasn’t mellowed much, and his recruiting tactics haven’t changed at all. Of the 28 players on this year’s Husson roster, all but one is attending school in his home state. Many of those hail from such no-stoplight haunts as Belmont, Glenburn, Steuben and Newburgh.
“I trust Maine kids,” Winkin said. “Joe Torre was asked how he became such a great manager overnight after getting fired three times. He said it’s because he’s in a situation now where they trust him and he trusts them. That’s how I feel here. I know what kind of kids they are.”
Unlike the baseball royalty in his circle of friends, most of whom are either deceased or becoming too feeble to report to the ballpark every day, Winkin still greets friends and reporters with a mighty handshake.
He flaunts a bronze tan and keeps a full head of silver hair tucked underneath his green baseball cap. An uninitiated visitor seeing Winkin from across the diamond might guess that he is 60.
Even after his unceremonious dismissal from Maine, Winkin could be seen on his daily jog around the university access roads. To this day, he’s a faithful power walker.
The thrill of lacing up the cleats and seeing his kids successfully execute a hit-and-run or suicide squeeze? That hasn’t grown old, either.
“I still love to win. I still love to compete. I still love to fill out the lineup card,” Winkin said. “That competitiveness is something I’ve never been able to get out of my system.”