Dean of the baseball diamond
John Winkin, elder statesman of college baseball, has been dispensing old-school wisdom from dugouts since 1946.
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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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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.