ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - And in his seventh year, Ray Birmingham created light at Lobo Field.
Well, that's obviously a bit of an overstatement, but the fundraising efforts of UNM's head baseball coach are steadily coming to light, if you'll pardon the pun.
A process that began over a decade ago -- even as far back as 1997 -- is coming to a conclusion Friday as stadium lights at Lobo Field were finished being installed and will be turned on this evening for a night practice.
"We have lights because of (former Lobo) Dee Dennis and a bunch of guys who chipped in to help me and Dee do this," Birmingham said.
Dennis, who played for UNM in 1999 and 2000, has long wanted to give back to his program, ever since the team received jackets while he was a Lobo.
"I remember traveling all over the country, to places like Utah," he said, "and we would just freeze. Then one year (somebody) donated us jackets. We never even got to meet the guy. We just knew that some gentleman in the community gave us jackets and that stayed with me. It made me realize when I got out and started in the 'real world' and stopped playing baseball and had a little money to give back, that I wanted to give back."
Dennis is now a managing partner at DKD Electric, the firm responsible for installing the lights.
"The original document I have in my 'UNM Baseball Lighting' file is dated from July 1997," he said. "It has taken a long time to get here."
But as the old saying goes, better late then never, and right now may be perfect for Birmingham and his team.
"It's not a negative," he said about the amount of time it has taken. "It's a positive. It's cool to see everyone chipping in. It's also cool that this project has had help from people in all four corners of the state, as well as the middle of this state."
A native of Hobbs, N.M., Birmingham has big plans for Lobo Field and its place in the state of New Mexico.
"This is Lobo Field," he said. "This is (the state of) New Mexico’s baseball field, at least that’s how I feel about it. ... There will not only be Lobo games on here, but there will also be state championship games here. We hope to bring in some great big tournaments over the years to this city and let our kids experience the world. We think New Mexico kids can get the rest of the experiences that the rest of the country has, then they will grow faster and realize they’re as good as anybody.”
Ever since he arrived in Albuquerque in 2007 he has tried to build a program full of New Meixco kids that he can take to the College World Series. Step one for keeping the best talent in the Land of Enchantment, he believes, is first-rate facilities. He has been working hard towards that goal for the last seven years, and the fruits of his effort are starting to ripen.
“We’re going to build this up," he said. "We’re going to have a national championship baseball program, we’re going to have a tremendous atmosphere for our high school athletes to play in, and we’re going to have summer tournaments that will bring tons of people to Albuquerque every summer.
“We need to make it look like a Division I, Top 20 baseball program, and people are chipping in to do it. (UNM) is the flagship institution in the state of New Mexico, and it needs to continue to build something that’s prideful (for) our kids. The best commodity we have in this state is not gas, it’s not coal, it’s not farming, it’s our kids."
Birmingham has had the most successful run of any UNM coach in the history of the program, and he has done it with some of the best talent in New Mexico. Mitch Garver, who went to La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, was a two-time All-American, a two-time Johnny Bench Award finalist, set numerous school records, including consecutive starts, and was a ninth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins last June. Josh Walker, out of Rio Rancho, N.M., won 11 games in 2013 and owns the highest career winning percentage of any Lobo pitcher ever. He also has a chance to set the school record for wins during his senior season in 2014.
"We need to make things really nice so our kids will want to stay here, make things really nice, and take pride," said Birmingham. "State pride is a big deal to me.”
Phase one of the renovations at Lobo Field began before the 2013 season when a new playing surface was installed. Also included were new dugouts, a new scoreboard, and a new outfield fence. It allowed the program to play where they practiced, and the results showed on the field. UNM boasted a 14-2 record at home after moving back to Lobo Field midway through last season, outscoring its opponents 152-82 in the process.