Fill The Steins stands and drinks a toast to John Winkin

WinkinJohn Winkin is, unquestionably, a legend.  He is a UMaine legend, a college baseball legend, and a legend in the field of leadership.  His record and, more importantly, the impact he had on both his players and the baseball community in Maine will live forever.  His accomplishments as a coach, a mentor, a broadcaster, a Maine baseball ambassador, and a war hero were well-documented for the BDN by Larry Mahoney in a way Fill The Steins could not replicate.

My memories of Winkin are a little bit different.  Yes, I remember him as the UMaine baseball coach (I also remember him as the Husson coach…sorry, Colby).  But I’m a little too young to remember much about the six teams he amazingly guided to the College World Series from 1976-1986.  As it happens, the Winkin-coached team for which I have the most vivid memories is his 1991 squad that came oh, so close to reaching the CWS for a seventh time in Winkin’s tenure.

As an 11-year-old in the spring of 1991, I was just starting to be old enough to not only like going to baseball games, but to really understand and appreciate some of the nuances of America’s pastime.  Sensing this, and sensing that UMaine was going to have a very, very good team that year, my father took it upon himself to bring me to virtually every UMaine game at Mahaney Diamond that season, including the 1991 NCAA Northeast Regional, which Maine hosted.  Looking back on my father’s decision, I feel extremely lucky.

The baseball I saw that spring has resonated with me ever since.  Even as a young boy, it was clear that Maine was a terrifically coached team.  They were fundamentally sound, they had excellent pitching (led by future White Sox pitcher Larry Thomas) and had a superstar slugger in Mark Sweeney, who went on to have a productive, if unspectacular, 13-year MLB career.  That season, Maine won a school-record 48 games, finished 14-1 in the North Atlantic Conference, and earned the #3 seed in the Northeast Regional, played in Orono.

It was in that 1991 Northeast Regional that Winkin’s Black Bears upset #2 seed Mississippi St. in the losers bracket final to reach the Regional Finals against Clemson.  However, they ultimately fell two wins short against the top-seeded Tigers and just missed that elusive seventh CWS berth.  Despite the disappointing ending to the season, that spring provided me with some of the fondest memories of my childhood.  Thanks to Coach Winkin’s ability to bring high-quality college baseball to a non-Southern/Western state, I was able to spend countless nights and weekends watching baseball with my dad, cheering on my future alma mater.

As time passed, I began to further appreciate what I, and all the other UMaine baseball fans, got to witness that spring.  As it turned out, that 1991 group was Coach Winkin’s last great UMaine team.  In the subsequent five seasons, Winkin compiled a relatively dismal 111-157 record and, following the 1996 season, his contract was not renewed.  It truly was the end of an era for the University of Maine and for college baseball as a whole.

When I think back on Coach Winkin’s career at UMaine, I sometimes feel sad that I, for all intents and purposes, missed out on the really, really great years and on those teams that included legends like Bill Swift and Mike Bordick.  However, I also feel extremely grateful that I’m just old enough to remember Coach Winkin’s last great team and that, because of his ability to recruit to and coach in the Northeast like no one else, I got to spend that spring with my dad in the stands at Mahaney.  For the memories his ’91 team helped create, Coach Winkin will always hold a special place in my childhood.  And it’s for those memories that I fill the steins for the late, great John Winkin and for all the joy he brought to me and to the tens of thousands of members of Black Bear Nation.  Let us all stand and drink a toast, once again.

What are your fondest memories of Coach John Winkin and his UMaine baseball teams?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below and on Twitter using #FillTheSteins!

 

Photo courtesy: UMaine Alumni Association

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