Dean of the baseball diamond

John Winkin, elder statesman of college baseball, has been dispensing old-school wisdom from dugouts since 1946.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When the Husson College baseball team takes home field at the John W. Winkin Baseball Complex to run through a practice, the players know to pay attention to their coach's instructions. After all, how many men can hold batting practice and fielding drills on a diamond named after them?

But John W. Winkin isn't thinking about his career, which spans more than half a century. A compulsive competitor, he's concentrating on getting his squad ready for three consecutive days of doubleheaders.

The back-to-back-to-back ice storm, snowstorm, and rainstorm that wreaked havoc across northern Maine in early spring have proven the worst stretch of weather in his lengthy career. And quite a career it has been. At age 87, Mr. Winkin is the nation's oldest collegiate head baseball coach.

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"An important part of life is knowing what you're good at," Winkin says. "If you have a passion for that, then you ought to do it. I am absolutely blessed that I can still do it."

Retirement? "I dread it," he says flatly.

Short and sinewy, his skin tanned and creased like a well-worn leather glove, Winkin is a legend in collegiate baseball circles. He coached the University of Maine's Black Bears for 22 years, leading the team to six NCAA Division I College World Series appearances, and at Colby College for 20 years before that. He was tapped as an assistant coach at Husson in 1996, at age 76, after UMaine chose not to renew his contract.

"That's never settled well with him," says assistant coach Bain Pollard, "because he knows there's plenty of gas left in his tank."

Winkin sports a class ring on his gnarled right hand with six dates – '76, '81, '82, '83, '84, and '86 – that represent the World Series glory years engraved around a sky-blue topaz. "And that's pretty much been the highlight of my life," he says wistfully.

The student-athletes at Husson – young enough to be Winkin's great-grandsons – went to bat with the Division III school's athletic department to have him named head coach in 2004 when the position opened. Winkin, who holds a master's degree and doctorate from Columbia University, also teaches: a sports management course in the fall, and designing and planning athletic facilities in the spring.

"He's forgotten more about baseball than I even know about baseball," says 22-year-old pitcher Robert Webber, to whom Winkin's age is as arbitrary as a jersey number. "Baseball's baseball. It hasn't really changed too much from back then."

Winkin approaches coaching with militaristic preparedness, which leaves little need to bark out instructions on the field. He writes out and xeroxes daily "practice sheets" for the players, detailing the exact number of pitches to be thrown, or the exact number of minutes to be spent bunting or turning double plays. "He's our general," says another pitcher, Jon Tefft, 21, "and the command filters all the way down."

The players respect Winkin's uncompromising work ethic and his reverence for the game's traditions. They know what the coach considers bush league and so play by his old-school rules: no facial hair, no jeweled piercings, no backward caps, no tobacco chewing, no spitting out sunflower hulls.

"I play awful hard to win," Winkin says of his hard-nosed coaching style. "I drive hard to make people overachieve because I drive myself hard to do that.... I'm not very tolerant of half-effort."

At a recent practice, Tefft showed up unshaven. Winkin didn't say a word, but stroked his own chin. If Tefft arrived like that for a game? "I wouldn't dress," he says.

* * *

Last season, Winkin hit a coaching milestone: 1,000 wins. It was March 12, and Husson's Eagles took Drew University, 6-3, in a spring-break game in Tampa, Fla. A Louisville slugger signed by the players that day sits on a bookshelf alongside other baseball memorabilia in his office.

For Winkin, it was a sweet relief. He had been within striking distance of the record upon his separation from the University of Maine. But only victories as a head coach are tallied, so his seven years as a Husson assistant coach didn't count. How important is winning? "Why play if you don't want to win?" Winkin says.

Ninety-two of Winkin's former ballplayers have signed pro contracts and at least 17 reached the major leagues. "I owe just about everything to him, as far as what I took into my major-league career," says former Baltimore Orioles All-Star shortstop Mike Bordick. "He genuinely cares about the players he's had."

Winkin meets personally with promising high school prospects, while ex-players, many of whom became coaches themselves, recall fondly his handwritten recruitment letters.

Winkin, Bordick, and three partners are in negotiations to acquire a new franchise in a New England college summer league.

"I hope he goes on forever," says Dave Keilitz, head of the American Baseball Coaches Association. "But the thing about him is, when he's no longer coaching – and no longer with us – there is still going to be John Winkin coaching in this world because of the legacy he has left."

* * *

Drafted into World War II the day after he graduated from Duke University, Winkin was an ensign on a Navy destroyer at the entrance of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He eventually rose to the rank of commander and served 56 months in the Pacific theater. "The thing I learned from the war is you couldn't be timid and survive. You had to be tough," says Winkin, who dreaded most the kamikaze planes. "When you were in action, it was like being in a game. Once the game started, you competed."

Success, like baseball, is in Winkin's DNA. His mother, who died when he was 12, was a physician. His father was a linguistics professor at Columbia University who spoke seven languages. Widowed in 1983 after 23 years of marriage and divorced twice, Winkin is the father of two and grandfather of eight, and a Roman Catholic, but he doesn't much like to discuss his personal life. "The boys – that's my family in many ways," he says of his players. "I see more of them."

Says Gabby Price, athletic director at Husson: "John has a way of making life quite simple, yet profound, by the intrinsic values that he teaches. Loyalty. Responsibility. Hard work. Getting along with each other."

An avid fan of swing-era jazz, Winkin lives in a condominium on the edge of campus, indulges in chocolate milkshakes, and is so well known for his daily, three-hour combination walks and runs that many in this college community wonder if he even owns a car. (He does.) "When people see me in the car, they think something's wrong with me," he jokes.

Winkin, all of 125 pounds, has been actively coaching since 1946, when he became skipper of an American Legion ball club in his hometown of Englewood, N.J. It was there he became a bridge partner of future Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. "I don't think I've met a more dynamic, godly human being," Winkin says.

There were other brushes with greatness. Winkin befriended baseball icons Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and was acquainted with Mickey Mantle. "Anyone in baseball circles knows 'Wink,' " says Red Sox veteran broadcaster Joe Castiglione. "He's regarded as an innovator."

Named National Coach of the Year in 1965, Winkin has been elected to seven baseball halls of fame and still writes, longhand, a semimonthly column for Collegiate Baseball.

But reaching the big leagues, his boyhood dream, never came true. "I never was great at the game, but I played with a lot of passion," says Winkin, a center fielder in high school and college. "I don't know that I was good at anything except competing."

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