The men from central and western Maine who played baseball for John Winkin at the University of Maine said Sunday they are mourning the loss of a great teacher and mentor with an unequaled passion and mind for the game

“It’s a sad day, because he was great man,” said Bill Reynolds, who played catcher for Winkin at the University of Maine 1983-86.

“He was a gentleman that made everyone around him better, not just ballplayers, but everyone,” said Reynolds, who lives in Poland. “He made a difference in a lot of people’s lives. That, to me, is a great man.”

Winkin, the coaching legend who won over 1,000 games in a college coaching career that spanned over 50 years, died Saturday afternoon at the age of 94. 

He coached at the University of Maine from 1975 to 1996, compiling 642 wins, six trips to the College World Series and 11 NCAA regional tournament appearances.
He also coached at Colby College and Husson University.

 “You wonder what baseball in the state of Maine would be like if he had never come to Maine,” said Mike Coutts of Auburn, who captained the 1981 College World Series team and later served as Winkin’s assistant coach for 11 years. “He changed baseball in the state of Maine and he certainly changed the landscape of college baseball across the country. They have super regionals now because Wink took teams to the World Series.”

Rick Lashua played center field for Winkin on four of those College World Series teams, 1981-84, said Winkin preached the value of hard work.

“He taught us anything in life that is worth anything, you’ve got to work hard for it,” said Lashua, who lives in Auburn. “It was relentless. It was a battle every day. There were no excuses. He didn’t accept excuses.”

When he moved from Colby College to Maine in 1975, Winkin inherited homegrown talent from predecessor Jack Butterfield, including current University of Southern Maine coach Ed Flaherty and former Major League pitchers Bert Roberge of Auburn and Fred Howard of Portland.

Tireless in his recruiting and scouting of players, Winkin continued to tap the  state for talent throughout his time in Orono. When Maine baseball peaked in the 1980s, reaching the College World Series in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986, it was with a nucleus consisting of Maine high school stars, including Lashua, Reynolds, Coutts, South Portland’s Billy Swift and Mike Bordick of Hampden.

“He didn’t miss any of the local talent,” Lashua said. “If you were a good baseball player in Maine, he saw you.”

And when he went to see a player, everyone tried to impress him.

“There was a definite aura to the game when he came,” said Todd Cifelli, a former Edward Little star who played for Winkin in 1996, his final year at Maine. “You made sure your shirt was tucked in. You ran to your position a little faster. You took each at-bat a little more seriously just because of the very specter of coach Winkin being there.”

Winkin hit the road again when he came out of retirement to coach at Husson University in 2003. Cifelli recalled the personal touch the then 87-year-old coach used while recruiting his ace pitcher at Lewiston High School, Eddie West.

“I sent him an email and Coach Winkin sent back a detailed, hand-written letter of what he saw in the player and how he could have helped his team,” Cifelli said. “It was detailed, thorough and genuine. You don’t see that any more from college coaches.”

Once he got the players he wanted to come to Orono, Winkin’s attention to detail and business-like approach got the most out of them.

That was a challenge practicing and playing in a cold-weather climate, so Winkin took his practices indoors, setting up shop in UMaine’s Field House until the snow melted or the Black Bears flew south to start the season.

“His indoor practices were amazing,” Lashua said. “Anybody in the Northeast that holds indoor practices today can attribute their plan to something John Winkin started 35 years ago.”

Maine regularly played the most powerful teams in the nation during those February road trips, and into the spring. The grueling schedule toughened the Black Bears physically and mentally.

“He basically had the philosophy respect everyone, fear no one,” Lashua said. “He sold us on the fact that we could compete with anybody in the nation.”

“We were expected to play against teams like Miami and Texas and go out and perform,” said Reynolds, a member of three College World Series teams and all-tournament team catcher in 1986. “Believe me, we got our butts handed to us sometimes. But his motto was you can only get better by playing the best. We took our licks. It was never a very impressive record coming back from the southern trips. But we kind of ruled the roost in the East and it paid dividends in the long run. When we got to the World Series, it wasn’t overwhelming.”

True to his old-school nature, Winkin generally kept his distance from his players off the field, rarely letting them see a side of him that wasn’t about baseball.

“We thought baseball was all he would ever talk about, but when we became seniors, we were in the airport on our way back from (the World Series in) Omaha, he sat down with us seniors and started talking with us, giving us advice about coaching, playing after college and all sorts of other stuff,” Lashua said. “He really didn’t open up that much to the players until after (they were done playing).”

“He said to me on a number of occasions, ‘I can’t let myself get close to the players because it would affect my ability to make decisions when it comes to what’s best for the team,” said Coutts, now an assistant softball coach at Maine. “He really cared about the kids and really cared about how they were on the field and off the field, but really couldn’t show it because he had the ultimate goal of what was best for the team.”

Shane Slicer, Oxford Hills coach and Maine utility infielder for three years (1990-92), said he was heartbroken upon learning of Winkin’s passing Saturday night.

“For me, it was real emotional,” Slicer said. “He inspired me to do what I do right now.”

“When I was playing, I talked to Wink about what I should do. He knew I wasn’t going to play at the next level,” Slicer said. “He said ‘I think if you stick around, you could be a good coach someday.’ I’d never really thought of coaching. From that point on I just watched how Wink prepared and I started to think, ‘Yeah, I think I do want to be a coach.'”

Slicer is part of a large coaching tree made up of Winkin’s former players which includes fellow Class A state championship coaches Bruce Lucas (Edward Little) and Mike D’Andrea (Deering). D’Andrea and Cifelli won multiple state Amercian Legion titles, with D’Andrea winning a national championship in 2004.

Even more players, including Lashua and Reynolds, went on to coach Little League, Babe Ruth and other youth levels.

“When we were 19, 21, 22, we kind of laughed about his enthusiasm for the game. He was just all baseball,” Lashua said. “Then we found ourselves being the same way later on when we’re coaching our kids.”


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