OLD ORCHARD BEACH – “Want to practice a couple of throws?”
In a few minutes, John Winkin was to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to the start of Monday night’s baseball game at The Ballpark. The state of Maine’s most honored baseball coach shifted slightly in his wheelchair. He was frowning.
This was John Winkin Night. College-age players from the Raging Tide lined up in front of the home dugout.
The Pittsfield (Mass.) Suns did the same in front of the visiting dugout. A dozen men who either played for Winkin, were his friends, or both, fanned out behind the pitcher’s mound, watching.
Several dozen fans already in their seats, made Winkin the center of their attention. Storm clouds gathered to the northwest.
“I want you to snap it in there,” said Dale Plummer. He pitched for Winkin at the University of Maine and is now the baseball coach at Colby College, where Winkin also coached. Nice symmetry. Plummer smiled at the reversal of roles. Winkin did not.
A stroke in December of 2007 robbed Winkin of much of the use of his right side, his dominant side.
He celebrates his 93rd birthday next month. He is no longer limber. He is still proud. He knew his left arm, still strong, would betray him.
Not that anyone but John Winkin cared.
He will be inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas, this weekend.
Former major leaguers Sal Bando (Arizona State), Ralph Garr (Grambling), and Tino Martinez (University of Tampa) are among those in the induction class. Winkin-coached teams won more than 1,000 college baseball games, 642 at Maine alone.
He was 87 and coaching at Husson University when he suffered his stroke. He was believed to be the oldest active NCAA coach in the country.
Winkin will be unable to make the trip to Texas. His son, David, will represent him. He’s missing the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., this year, too. He was there last spring.
“I really wanted to go,” said Winkin before the on-field ceremony recognizing his legacy. “Baseball keeps me going.”
His mind is clear, but his speech is not. Those listening sometimes have more patience than he does. I reminded him of a time some 30 years ago when he and Clyde Sukeforth would sit in the back of the tiny pressbox at the Maine American Legion Tournament, then held at the bandbox field at the Togus VA center.
I was one of two young sports writers trying to listen in on their baseball talk while watching the game. Sukeforth, of Waldoboro, was the Brooklyn Dodgers scout sent to watch Jackie Robinson and report back to Branch Richey, the GM.
“Clyde was a great baseball man,” said Winkin, paying the ultimate compliment. Sukeforth was 98 when he died in 2000.
We talked about Babe Ruth. “You know, my parents both taught at Columbia (University). They took me to Yankee Stadium to see him. I was eight years old. That did it for me.”
Winkin didn’t stand much more than 5-feet-6 but he was a giant. He was friendly with Vince Lombardi before Lombardi became the fabled Green Bay Packers coach. He knew Joe DiMaggio and wore DiMaggio’s No. 5 as a coach. Bob Cousy was a friend. So was Ted Williams.
He was a young naval officer serving on a destroyer returning from Wake Island when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was involved in the founding of Sport Magazine, a competitor to Sports Illustrated.
Baseball is his life, even at 92. Ed Flaherty, the University of Southern Maine baseball coach and a Winkin protege, was at The Ballpark. The two talked about Ryan Flaherty and the two home runs he hit in a game over the weekend.
“Ed is a great coach. Look how his boys play. He picks good kids.”
The short recognition ceremony began. Maine played Miami, a national baseball power, at The Ballpark in the mid-1980s. Winkin’s boys played the Maine Guides, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Jerry Plante, the popular town manager of Old Orchard Beach then, brought a poster promoting that 1985 game.
In the upper left corner was the signature of Billy Swift, the UMaine pitcher who was runner-up in the 1993 Cy Young voting after a 21-8 record with the San Francisco Giants. Swift pitched 13 seasons in the big leagues.
He sent Plante a note to be read Monday night. “You are the coach I want to be,” wrote Swift, who was just named coach of a small college in Arizona.
“I love you like a father.”
The frown on John Winkin’s face was long gone.
Steve Solloway can be reached at 791-6412 or at: