New Mexico Has Eyes On Omaha
ALBUQUERQUE—There's an engraved, wooden sign above the door of New Mexico baseball coach Ray Birmingham's office that reads: "Omaha 869 miles."
"I know exactly how far it is," Birmingham said. "Right to the doorstep. I've Googled it and I've double-checked it. I've got it memorized. Everybody on this team has their 25 miles to carry to get us there."
But in truth, Birmingham believes the Lobos, ranked No. 21 by Baseball America, are a lot closer than that to the home of the College World Series.
"I think it would be the one sport that we could win a national championship in the big sports," Birmingham said, later adding, "Right now the window is there. I feel the window. I feel this window is here."
The Lobos are riding a wave of success that has spread across the state of New Mexico.
After a 48-year absence from the NCAA tournament, New Mexico has been to three straight. Last year, New Mexico State earned just its third tournament berth and first since 2003.
"I've always said it's good for the state for both state schools to have success in baseball," said NMSU coach Rocky Ward. "It's going to help us both in the long run. And that's what's happening now."
New Mexico Junior College, which won a national championship in 2005 under Birmingham, has become a postseason fixture, and Division II New Mexico Highlands is making progress with its program, as well.
The state is also producing big-time recruits and top-level draft picks such as freshman Alex Bregman of Albuquerque, who is predicted to star as a shortstop for Louisiana State. Fellow local players Blake Swihart and Max Walla were recent high-round draft picks, going in the first and second rounds, respectively. And lefthander Matt Moore of Moriarty, infielder Jordan Pacheco of Albuquerque and outfielder Cody Ross of Carlsbad have had an impact in the major leagues.
The success of those players has helped fuel more awareness of the sport in the state and continues to drive the rise in the level of play, Birmingham said.
"Every time Matt Moore pitches, he's on (ESPN's) Baseball Tonight," he said. "There are a lot of Cody Rosses here. There are a lot of Matt Moores here. They're here but nobody nurtured them. Now people are nurturing them."
He's making every effort to hitch his program to their success.
"I'm bringing those guys back for those very purposes," Birmingham said. "They're part of my passion. I want them to be visible and honor them so it motivates our younger guys to say, 'I can do that. I want a shot at that.'"
It shows the caliber of player in the state, something Birmingham said he's seen here for some time.
"I just thought if we could get all the New Mexico baseball players on one team," he said. "All of them, and get to where we could put them all together over the course of four years, five years, and put them all on one team we could go to Omaha and have a shot at it."
His Lobos are a squad built largely from that framework, with 12 players hailing from in state, including senior catcher Mitchell Garver—one of the nation's top backstops—and outfielder Ryan Padilla, who earned freshman All-America honors last season.
Such recognition, however, wasn't the norm for New Mexico, or its players.
Bregman recalled how other teams would look down on New Mexico when it played in out-of-state tournaments.
"I think teams that we played over the summer looked over us because we're from New Mexico," he said. "It really put a chip on all of our shoulders. We just wanted to go out and beat them."
A chunk of that increased success can be attributed to Albuquerque Baseball Academy and other, year-round training programs that have sprung up around the state, Birmingham said, as well as the increased number of high school coaches who have strong baseball backgrounds.
"The coaching is getting better," he said. "The high school coaches are better—Albuquerque Baseball Academy here in town has done a super job of helping local kids with instruction and getting out and playing the best in the country, which makes them better. Farmington, Carlsbad, Las Cruces, it's happening all over the state with these kids."
"New Mexico for awhile was in a catch-up mode," said Ryan Brewer, one of ABA's co-owners and lead coaches. "Everybody else was doing it and we were behind the curve."
At first it was tough to get the local players to realize they belonged on the same fields as teams from Dallas or Phoenix, Birmingham said.
"When we started, the kids were just hoping to hang in there for a few innings," Brewer said. "They had to go out and prove that they were just as good as the other guys. And they played harder than the other guys because they wanted to prove they were just as good."
Birmingham said he saw that attitude with his teams, as well.
"It was a self-esteem issue," he said. "When I first started, it wasn't good. It wasn't when good when I was first at New Mexico Junior College. I could feel it. I could feel it in our kids, too. And people have agreed with me, when you rolled into Texas or Arizona or California, they looked down their noses at you. I felt that. I felt our kids going, 'Gosh, I just hope we can stick with them for a little while."
But that attitude really began to turn in 2009 when the Lobos beat third-ranked Texas A&M twice in College Station, Texas.
"I remember the night that we beat them," Birmingham said. "We're getting a swagger. We think we can. And that's a big deal. We all think we can."
And the next year, New Mexico took two of three at top-ranked Texas.
"That propelled us into the regional for the first time since '62," Birmingham said. "And our kids acted like they were supposed to do that. And you could have heard a pin drop in Texas when that happened."
Now the next step is getting past the regional, then making an impact in the super regional and moving on to Omaha, he said.
"I hope that when we go to Omaha and it does happen, that every position player is a New Mexican and the guy on the mound is a New Mexican and we're kicking butt," Birmingham said. "That would be really cool. So that's my dream. And it's been hard. It's been really hard but it's getting easier."
Glen Rosales is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.