Feb. 5, 2011
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
To understand Ray Birmingham's drive, his passion to excel, maybe even a portion of his heart, you have to understand the feel, the sounds, the smells of his roots.
You have to understand what it's like to share a room with three brothers, and mow a lawn or pitch a newspaper for food money. You have to raise your nose to the warm air of Hobbs, N.M., and smell a hint of oil and hear the comforting hum of a small-town community moving close around you.
You have to able to remember Saturday afternoons on a dirt baseball field where you picked sides and played a boy's game until there was no light to see the ball and you hoped for a sailer's moon.
You have to have sat in a Hobbs gym and watched the legendary Ralph Tasker hobble down the sidelines and softly clap his hands as his glorious Eagles ran and won, and were embraced by the passion of a town.
You have to understand what it's like as a young coach to be pointed to another dirt field with broken bleachers and no fences, and see a future of promise and success that comes to those who roll up their sleeves and get to work.
It's has been suggested that to truly understand the fabric of the American Dream and feel the pulse of the patriotic bond that once empowered this nation, you have to have been raised in - and raised by - a small community. That may or may not be true, but one thing is for certain - it worked for Lobo baseball coach Ray Birmingham.
"I guess there was a little bit of a Mayberry atmosphere in Hobbs, but that was a good thing," said Birmingham. "The community wrapped itself around everything it did with a pride and a passion to excel. It was a mindset that grew inside you. You were proud to be Hobbs, proud to be an Eagle, and you worked at it.
"It's not an attitude you walk away from."
For Birmingham, he embraced that attitude with as much pride as anything that attitude helped him accomplish. Birmingham grew up poor, but not that poor, and rich in ways that many people will never know. He was molded by a family and a town that understood that hard work was simply a way of life.
"We didn't have a lot, but I never thought we were poor. We always seemed to have what we needed," said Birmingham. "I had four brothers and three sisters and we maybe didn't have much, but everyone came to our house to hang out because they knew we wanted them there.
"But I guess I had a little chip on my shoulder. You know there are people with more natural advantages and you know they will beat you for a while, but all that does is motivate you. I always believed that you can beat the other guy by outworking him. He'll eventually relax, lie down, go to bed, take a day off and I won't. I'll outlast him. I'll outwork him."
In Hobbs, like most small towns, there were passions related to baseball diamonds, backboards, oval tracks for runners, and football fields. "You grow up playing ball in Hobbs. That's what you do," said Birmingham. "I played football and baseball, but baseball was it for me."
Birmingham's path from Hobbs (1973 graduate) to UNM is a road of many twists and turns. His coaching career began at Las Cruces Mayfield where he led the Trojans to the big-school baseball championship in 1981. He left Mayfield in 1983 and went back to Hobbs to be the public information officer at New Mexico Junior College.
Oddly, and ironically, it was basketball that led Birmingham back to his passion - baseball.
"I was working on a publication for the basketball team under Coach Ron Black," said Birmingham. "I went over to take a picture of the team and let's just say they were acting undisciplined and not exactly respectful. I had a tirade, did some yelling and left."
After his tirade, Birmingham was called in to speak to the director of athletics. "I thought I might get chewed out," said Birmingham. Instead, he was offered a spot on the basketball team as assistant in charge of discipline.
Basketball wasn't exactly Birmingham's call to duty, but the job came with a $2,500 stipend. "I said, `I'll take it,'" said Birmingham.
Birmingham did the hoops thing for three seasons and NMJC posted three 20-game win seasons and gave the program its first league title in 1987. When the College of the Southwest (Hobbs) decided to give it a go with baseball, they liked what they saw in Black's hard-nosed assistant and knew of Birmingham's good work over at Mayfield.
So, they made a pitch. It wasn't exactly a strong pitch because it began with a patch of dirt and not much money. But a patch of dirt was part of Birmingham's roots. The College of the Southwest had struck a deep chord and opened up an old itch.
They showed him a baseball field.
"The field they showed me was a wreck," said Birmingham. "It looked like one of those fields you might see cut out of a pasture. I had no money so I'm out begging and borrowing whatever I can. Then I had to go find some players."
Birmingham found enough players to win 20 games in the program's first year of existence. When he won 33 games the next season and went to the regional finals, NMJC took notice. The T-Birds decided they also wanted to get into the baseball game and knew exactly what it would take to lure Birmingham back to NMJC.
They showed him another patch of dirt and another challenge.
"Now, I'm over at NMJC looking at another pasture," said Birmingham. "I don't have much money and I'm building another baseball field and out begging and borrowing again."
Birmingham also was back on the phone. That's what you do with a $1,000 recruiting budget. You get up early and call with the movement of the sun. You start on the East coast and you finish in California.
You also jump in your pickup truck and drive, drive, drive. As much as anything, Birmingham's best recruiting tools were a phone book, a road map and a tune-up.
"I still recruit that way," said the Lobo coach. "I'm never just going to fly in and just see a player in Dallas. I'll also be looking at a guy in Lubbock or Amarillo or Altus, Oklahoma or Sherman, Texas or maybe McKinney Texas. I'll get to the guy in Dallas, but there are other stops to make."
Road trips - and road stories - are a part of Birmingham's life. He can tell you the story of hauling borrowed oil pipe on a borrowed trailer and looking out his truck window and seeing the trailer passing him on the right. He can tell you of the time he set himself on fire while welding some bleachers.
Or the time his "yellow-dog" bus broke down on the way to play Texas and after the team meal, paid for on a Phillip's 66 credit card, the players had to push the bus to get it started and then jump on the moving vehicle. "The two fat catchers didn't make it on," said Birmingham. "So, we had to pull over and push it again with them onboard. Those times were fun."
Birmingham signed another T-Bird after giving him a tryout in an alley behind the kid's house. "The kid throws a breaking ball into the dirt and I got a bad hop in a bad spot," said Birmingham. "I had to finish my trip leaning to one side when I drove. But I got the kid."
Birmingham got a lot of good kids at NMJC. He won a lot of games, too, about 80 perent. The success Birmingham had at NMJC has few parallels in JC ball. He posted 22 wins his first season and then rolled out 17 straight winning seasons with 15 nationally-ranked squads. His T-Birds were national champions in 2005 and national runners-up in 2007.
It was the University of New Mexico's turn to take notice. But would the Lobos take a chance on a JC coach or follow the trend of looking at the D-I level to find a future?
The answer is history. The Lobos, influenced by Birmingham's passion, work ethic and success, took a shot with the JC coach from the Southeast corner of New Mexico.
It was a move that paid off. Birmingham has produced All-Mountain West players, All-MWC Academic selections, MWC Players of The Year, national batting champions (team and individual), Major League players, and 30-plus win seasons as a Lobo.
He also knocked down a door seeming sealed shut when his Lobos pushed their way into the 2010 NCAA bracket. It was a door that had been slammed in the Lobos' face for 48 straight seasons of frustration.
"We got there because a lot of Lobos who never got there believed that it was possible," said Birmingham. "We also got there because we had a bunch of blue-collar Lobos commit to a dream.
"It was a statement about New Mexico and Albuquerque and a lot of people rallying around a belief. In Hobbs, you learned how important it was when a community made a commitment to something. At the University of New Mexico, one of the most important things that can happen is for the whole state to make a commitment."
At New Mexico, Birmingham is looking at another field in need of work and the plans for a renovated Lobo Field are not far away from a welder's torch. Birmingham might be one of the guy wearing a welder's mask.
When Birmingham's Field of Dreams was built at NMJC, Birmingham's program became one of the best in JC ball. He has similar plans for his Lobos.
"Baseball, this state, the University of New Mexico, and the New Mexico athlete are passions for me," said Birmingham. "I didn't come here with a dream that New Mexico could go to a level it had never reached before. I came here knowing that can happen.
"I grew up listening to talk-down about New Mexico and New Mexico athletes and that challenge to prove those people wrong has always been inside me. I didn't come to UNM to play .500 ball and not take any chances or not make any noise. We're here shooting for the moon."
The moon is an old friend of Ray's. He played under it long ago in Hobbs when the sun had deserted him. Maybe it was something to look at when he dreamed. Or maybe all he ever needed was that patch of baseball dirt beneath his feet and somebody telling him it wasn't going to be easy.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.