Ray and Me

The University of New Mexico baseball team has really opened some eyes this season. Rudy C. talks about the main man with the drive and desire to win!

I will never forget the first time I met Coach Ray Birmingham. A friend of mine from Hobbs was in town for the state high school baseball tournament. His lifelong friend, Scott Gladen was the head coach at Eunice High School. We were standing on the concourse at the old Albuquerque Sports Stadium talking when a guy came bounding up, Scott saw him, turned to me and said; " I want to introduce you to the best junior college baseball coach in the USA, Ray Birmingham!"  Ray deadpanned right back to Scott, "Sorry, I am a little short on cash, can I write you a check?" We laughed a lot at that and it really made an instant impression on me; how he could make a little joke at his expense. I was also intrigued.  Why he would be scouting "AA" high school baseball? Ray said that not only had he found a lot of talent at that level but to leave a stone unturned would weigh too heavy on his mind. "What if that kid I missed on came back to beat me?" It was just as obvious that Coach Ray also loves to watch baseball.

Ray Ray back in the day!

 

We didn't stay in touch that often but Coach Birmingham always remembered me and had a ready story to tell about a mutual friend who wanted to catch up with me. Coach Ray has a great memory and is interested in all things "New Mexico", because, you see, Coach Ray is as proud a New Mexican as there is. When Rich Alday retired at UNM after 18 years at the helm of Lobo baseball, I got a call almost the very next day. "This is Ray Birmingham, what are you doing? I am ready to take UNM baseball to unprecedented heights, what do you think?"  I replied; "Well you never know until you try, right? Isn't that what you are always telling me?" I lobbied a little for Ray, calling AD Paul Krebs and Associate AD Tim Cass. I think my call, if it had any effect at all, was more of a heads up to Paul and Tim that a lot of people would be calling on behalf of Ray Birmingham. It makes perfect sense once you meet Ray and become his friend. When you do there is an instant bond and it makes you want to help him win baseball games for UNM.  The calls were obviously made but I am sure that Ray pursued the job the way that a hungry dog pursues a bone. Or, maybe, how a "hungry Lobo" pursues its prey would be a better analogy.   Or, maybe, what Paul Krebs said to me (in my ever growing but fuzzy memory bank) when he called me after Ray was hired. It went something like this: I thought he was crazy, insane, when he came in. All he kept saying was College World Series this and NCAA regional's that. I told him that this had not happened at UNM since the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to LA or some such nonsense, but the more Ray talked the more I knew that he was serious and had a well thought out plan. His confidence in himself and his methods were equally impressive. So I hired him.


 

Ever since that day, UNM baseball has never been the same. Coach Birmingham has turned the MWC on its ear. In the first season he guided UNM to within two outs of an automatic bid to an NCAA Regional via the MWC baseball tournament. Little light in the pitching shorts halted the UNM juggernaut. Lack of hitting and defense did not. Not one to rest on his laurels, Coach Birmingham and his Lobos started this year's campaign as if there collective hair was on fire. Rising in the polls the Lobos peaked at number 18 in the USA Today mid-March. UNM has put up great numbers but this years MWC features some formidable opponents. SDSU with their ace Steve Strasburg:  TCU with a "million dollar" budget, and all the advantages of being in a talent rich state: BYU which is, well, BYU. They spend money on sports like a spendthrift on a shopping spree. These teams are loaded with talent and have always been spoiling UNM and its bid for the crown. Coach Birmingham did not take last year's MWC Tournament defeat sitting down. He and his staff went on an arms race. The result is a better pitching staff including ace closer Cole White and freshman sensation Rudy Jaramillo. Still, the middle season slide and some tough series losses on the road to Nebraska and Stanford showed the team that it still has a ways to go. Undaunted, Coach Ray waded in and became even more involved in the pitching decisions. The knock on this years team has been its performance on the road and at sea level, especially in regard to pitching. Coach Birmingham knows this as well as anyone. That is why he has been burning the midnight oil, even going so far as to schedule the baseball banquet on May 3, well before the season is over in order to avoid the chaos that is the end of the college baseball season as all the players scatter for summer baseball. Finals just ended so he has some additional time to work on the pitching issues. Some people ask how Coach Birmingham could meld the past of Alday with the present of Coach Ray. If you know Ray Birmingham the answer is as easy as Brian Cavasos-Galvaz pounding a juicy fastball over the wall. Practice, patience and a lot of love...


 

 The adjustments seem to have paid off as the Lobos moved one step closer to their season long objective of an NCAA Regional berth. They bested Air Force 25-7 on Thursday, 6-2 on Friday and 19-6 on Saturday to earn a bye and the number two seed for the Conoco MWC baseball tournament.  The Lobos finish the season at 38-17 15-8 in the MWC good for second place. The Lobos needed a break and got one when Utah beat SDSU. Someone has to beat TCU at the tournament and it might as well be UNM.  The Lobos last venture into frog country left them 0-3. That trip is now not even a memory but more motivation to succeed. Because, you see, Coach Birmingham has a lot of work still left to do. He has a team to motivate and lead to that elusive NCAA Regional berth. The Lobos can almost taste it but some more cooking needs to be done. The oven is hot and the ingredients are all there to make it a tasty dish. Coach Birmingham is giving it time and a lot of love. Last time the Lobos left TCU with, as The Charlie Daniels Band once sang, a bad case of "Birmingham Blues". The team is hoping to change the tune so that opponents will leave Lupton Field with a bad case of the Birmingham Cherry and Silver.


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