Coach John Winkin key to Maine's rise in college baseball
Orono, Maine — For obvious reasons, the goliaths of college baseball have almost always been located in warm weather sites - schools like Southern California and Arizona State playing ball practically all year around and grinding out a steady succession of future major league stars like Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, and Reggie Jackson. In recent years, however, a most unlikely giant-killer has appeared in the form of the University of Maine.
Naturally, this is a story with a lot of popular appeal: the underdog team from up north shoveling out its field in April, forced inside again by the oncoming winter in October, yet still winning more than its share of games against the big boys. Such things don't just happen, of course, and when you start looking for reasons, it isn't long before your attention begins to focus on Coach John Winkin.
A 1941 graduate of Duke University where he played under former big league pitching star Jack Coombs, Winkin has spent most of his coaching career battling the elements in Maine - and usually coming out on top!
In 20 years at Colby College, playing mostly against bigger schools, he led his teams to 13 Maine state championships and one New England title. Now in nine years at Maine he has taken the Black Bears to the College World Series three times, including this summer when they stunned heavily favored California State-Fullerton and Stanford before eventually winding up in third place. Overall, his teams have won more than 500 games, and in addition to numerous regional and district honors he was named National Coach of the Year in the College Division in 1965 and is a top contender for the same award in the University Division this year.
But how does he do it?
''I'd like to think organization is a factor,'' he says in a classic understatement. Organization is John Winkin's middle name.
''We try to do things efficiently in order to overcome the handicaps of geography and weather,'' he explained. ''We have excellent indoor facilities, and we've designed a number of drills tailored to them.
''In the fall we try to accomplish all our teaching. We have six weeks of competition, then six weeks of teaching. By the time our players go home for the holidays, we expect them to have learned all we want them to know. After that, it's a matter of execution.
''In January we're back in the field house, and when we take our spring trip it's just a matter of adjustment to outdoor conditions.
Obviously, this is a serious, big-time program, as it has to be. You don't just throw a team together in March or April and succeed in today's high-level atmosphere. But along with a businesslike system, Maine benefits from the enthusiasm generated in a sparsely populated state when something it can call its own does well at the national level.
''We get calls and letters from the governor, senators and representatives, and people in all walks of life,'' Winkin said. ''This support translates into enthusiasm all around the state. People want to play for us.''
The question of talent is critical, for Maine's weather can inhibit recruits from warmer climes. Winkin concentrates on New England, with most of his players coming from the home state. But the statewide enthusiasm plus his own keen eye for talent enables him to keep up with his competition despite drawing from so much smaller a pool.
He hasn't sent any Seavers or Jacksons to the majors yet, but several players from Colby and Maine have gone on to pro ball, with some reaching the parent clubs. They include Ed Phillips and Norm Gigon, both up briefly in the late 1960 s or early '70s, and Bert Roberge, who now pitches for Houston. A number of others from recent Maine teams appear to have promising futures, as do several from this year's club. Shortstop Pete Adams and second baseman Mark Sutton signed right after the season and are in the New York Yankee and Texas organizations respectively. Junior right-hander Joe Johnson was drafted by Atlanta, decided to forgo his last year of eligibility, and is playing on the Braves' Class AA team in Savannah.
And sophomore pitcher Bill Swift is on the US team which competes next month in the world championships in Seoul, South Korea.
Winkin's own playing career was impressive when you consider that, at 5 ft. 6 in. and 150 pounds, he played football, baseball, and basketball in high school, then lettered in the latter two sports plus soccer at Duke.
''I wasn't that much of a player,'' he recalls, ''but I could run well, I was always in shape, and I had a lot of determination. Also, size wasn't the factor then that it is now.''
John spent five years in the Navy in World War II, retiring as a lieutenant commander. Ironically, the only time he has ever tried acting was in a faculty-staff production of ''The Caine Mutiny Court-martial'' at Colby, where he protrayed Captain Queeg. He gave quite a performance, too, rolling the little steel balls and everything - which of course resulted in a lot of jokes about typecasting!
Actually, though, Winkin had some background in entertainment, having spent his first few postwar years dabbling in radio and television. He teamed with Stan Lomax prior to New York Yankee games on what may well have been the first pre-game baseball TV show, and worked frequently as a radio color man on football broadcasts with both Red Barber and Harry Wismer.
John also was associated with Sport Magazine for several years, but by 1949 he was disenchanted with the entertainment and publishing world.He'd been coaching part-time, and when a full-time opportunity arose at his old high school in Englewood, N.J. he took it. That led five years later to Colby, and he's been in Maine ever since.
At one time he scouted in New Jersey for the Boston Red Sox, but had to give it up when the NCAA passed a rule prohibiting coaches from working with major league clubs. He has received some ''tempting offers'' to go with pro organizations full-time, but has always opted to remain in college ball.
''You wonder what might have happened,'' he said. ''But I know it would have been difficult to overcome the fact that I wasn't a pro myself. Also, things change so quickly, and your future is always in the hands of whoever is in charge. I'm not sure I needed that.
''I think there are things I would have enjoyed, but I've never had any regrets.''
Despite his success, Winkin doesn't rest on his laurels. His summer schedule includes running clinics and driving around the state to catch at least one amateur baseball game (and frequently more) almost every evening.
On the personal side, Winkin, who is married and has two teen-age children, keeps in shape with daily five-mile runs which he began in 1946, long before jogging became fashionable. He runs at 5 a.m. in the summer and at noon in the winter, and says he misses only about five to 10 days a year.
''I think this is a factor in our success too,'' he says. The kids know I work to stay in shape, and that encourages them to do it too.''
Although he is now 62, Winkin says he has absolutely no thoughts of retiring.
''I'm just as enthusiastic now as I was in my first year,'' he said. ''I have the same desire to compete and succeed as I always did. And I guess we've reached the point now where people are beginning to pay attention.'