Birmingham Brings Lobos New Edge
The e-mail came in to Ray Birmingham's office about a year ago, telling the New Mexico baseball coach that the NCAA had approved a motion to add a 14th week to the Division I baseball season.
"As soon as that e-mail came across," Birmingham said, "I made that call in about four seconds."
That call was put in to Texas' baseball program. Birmingham had gotten to know coach Augie Garrido and assistants Skip Johnson and Tommy Harmon over the years and hoped Texas was like his program and didn't have an opponent lined up just in case a 14th week was approved. It didn't, so a deal soon was struck for the teams to open the 2010 season in Austin.
Fast forward a year, with Texas entering the season No. 1. "They were awesome," Birmingham said nearly two weeks after the series. "They deserved to be No. 1, and they'll be in the mix at the end of the year. Skip does a great job with their guys and they have some great arms. Not only do they throw hard and throw strikes, but they throw their secondary pitches for strikes, too."
Since Birmingham won't do it, we'll praise his team for him. The Longhorns looked good, but Birmingham's Lobos looked better. They dropped the opener 6-2, then rallied to win the final two games of the series, dropping Texas from the top spot in the Top 25 rankings. Two weeks later, after splitting a pair of mid-week games with in-state rival New Mexico State, the Lobos went to Southern California and beat the Trojans twice in a three-game set at Dedeaux Field to improve to 8-4 overall.
The Lobos were far enough off the Top 25 to start the year that they had yet to break into the rankings, and losing a game the following weekend to Northern Colorado didn't help. But entering the Top 25 isn't the goal for Birmingham, who is in his third season at New Mexico.
"We write our goals down," Birmingham said, "and the big one is that this program has not been to regionals since 1962. We thought we were there last year; we thought our body of work would get us in, but we came up short. But that's something I tell our guys. In college baseball, the little guys can compete with the big guys. Fresno State and Oregon State can win national championships. They encouraged all of us."
On a smaller scale, Birmingham already knows how to make the "little guy" into a national champion. A Hobbs (N.M.) High graduate, Birmingham became head coach at New Mexico JC in Hobbs in 1990, building the baseball program from scratch. The Thunderbirds won the 2005 NJCAA World Series, and after a second-place finish in 2007, Birmingham was ready for another challenge.
A New Mexico resident for 52 of his 54 years, he said timing worked out perfectly when his good friend, Rich Alday, resigned as the Lobos' head coach. Birmingham got the job and has set about bringing greater energy to the program in an effort to replicate the success he had at the JC level.
"He's a great coach," Lobos junior catcher Rafael Neda told BA prior to the Texas series. "He tries to have fun with everything. He makes baseball fun. We're in practice, and he's joking with the guys like he's one of us, not just a coach.
"We try to have . . . confidence from our coaches and know that we can do it. Coach B tries to put that on the team—always have confidence in yourself, no matter who you're facing."
That was evident last April when Birmingham rattled some cages with comments that riled up San Diego State ace Stephen Strasburg and his coach, Tony Gwynn. "If he gets touched up by the Lobos," Birmingham said, according to golobos.com, "it could hurt his financial situation. The guy standing on the mound is sitting on $45 million. The pressure is on him."
Birmingham says he was just trying to give his team the idea that it could compete with Strasburg, who had the last laugh by beating New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament and helping to derail their hopes of getting an at-large bid. "That was about my kids and my team, because it's my job to give 'em some attitude, or else we're going to lose that one," Birmingham said.
Building From Within
The Lobos have won more than they've lost under Birmingham, who can lean on his own ability to coach offense and the talent of Neda, who hit a combined .370 in his first two seasons and was off to a 13-for-30 (.433) start through seven games this season. Born in Mexico, Neda attended Amphitheater (Ariz.) High and is a key out-of-state recruit, but Birmingham hopes to build his program from within the Land of Enchantment.
The state has produced talent recently, including Rays farmhand Matt Moore (ranked No. 35 on BA's Top 100) and Padres outfielder/first baseman Kyle Blanks, who are both from Moriarty, N.M.
"New Mexico doesn't have a big population," Birmingham said, "but we have had a lot of professional athletes go into baseball, more than we've had in basketball and football. I think this is becoming a baseball state—the better athletes are playing baseball in this state. I've been working for the majority of my life on making baseball better in this state, and we obviously hope to get the best kids from New Mexico to come play for us."
One way to do that is to let them know that they don't have to leave the state to play in the NCAA regionals or to beat teams such as Texas. The first weekend of the 2010 season gave Birmingham the best evidence that the Lobos can do just that.