ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Five words. Back-to-back-to-back.
After a record-breaking 2013 season the University of New Mexico baseball team has won either the Mountain West regular season or tournament title three years running.
Now, thanks to one of their former teammates, the Lobos have the rings to prove it with those five words emblazoned on the side.
UNM’s first three-time All-American, DJ Peterson, was selected 12th overall by the Seattle Mariners in the MLB Draft this past June, and wanted to give back to his teammates, so he called head coach Ray Birmingham.
“He asked if he could do something that could help the club,” Birmingham said. “He’s such an unselfish guy and he loves his teammates, so I said he could pay for the rings and he said, ‘Done.’ He’s proud this club was able to three-peat.”
The Lobos set several MW records last season including longest conference winning streak (14 games) and most conference wins (25). Birmingham was named Coach of the Year in the conference for the second straight year, second baseman Sam Haggerty earned Co-Freshman of the Year honors, and Peterson was joined by Mitch Garver as Co-Players of the Year for the second straight year.
Garver and Peterson were two of a school-record seven Lobos drafted last season, with Peterson becoming the highest draft pick in school history when he went 12th overall to the Seattle Mariners. He decided he wanted to give something back to his coaches and teammates, so he paid for the rings.
“It’s cool,” senior pitcher Josh Walker said. “A lot of hard work goes into getting these rings. It kind of shapes a brotherhood. I’ll never forget the guys we did it with. Championships build a lot of friendships and they can show you who you are. They can allow you to learn a lot about yourself.
“When I look at the ring, a lot of memories flash before my eyes with my brothers from the past. It’s a great thing. It’s a good reminder, whenever you’re feeling down on yourself, to look at that ring and remember what you accomplished.”
Peterson is one of the greatest Lobos of all-time, and despite only playing three seasons he finished his career among the UNM leaders in several offensive categories: doubles (78, tied for first), total bases (492, third), home runs (41, fourth), RBI (198, tied for fourth), slugging (.691, fifth), batting (.381, ninth) and hits (271, ninth). He led the team in both batting and total bases for three straight seasons, becoming the only Lobo in history to accomplish either one of those feats.
After signing for $2.759 million he began his professional career at low-A Everett where he hit .312 with six home runs and 27 RBI in only 29 games. That earned him a promotion to Single-A Clinton, where he hit .293 with seven home runs and 20 RBI in 26 games. Unfortunately, on August 22 his jaw was broken when he was hit in the face with a pitch, which ended his season with 10 games remaining.
Replacing Peterson, Garver and the others will be no easy task for the Lobos in 2014, as they will be hard-pressed to repeat their success. They lose a lot of production (36 of the team’s 53 home runs and over half their at bats) and leadership. The Lobos must replace 10 seniors, including Gabe Aguilar, who was part of 149 wins (more than any other Lobo in history) and Garver, the heart and soul of the team who started a school-record 181 straight games for UNM.
“Replacing DJ, Mitch, Sam (Wolff), Luke (Campbell), Gabe and on and on and on is going to be hard,” Birmingham said.
“Winning, I think, is a habit,” said Walker, who also happens to own the school’s highest career winning percentage at .826. “The idea of it is a habit, a lifestyle. I think those rings are evidence of what Coach Birmingham has brought to UNM and this baseball program.
“We had a lot of seniors last year, a lot of upper classmen. It was very important that we had them here together to set such a good example for these younger kids coming in. I know this year we have a lot of younger guys, and I think it’s important that we had all those great guys (in previous seasons) be a part of it.”
Still, the Lobos will have Haggerty and Walker back, not to mention a 2012 Freshman All-American in Ryan Padilla; Chase Harris, who hit .321 last season; Alex Real, the leading returning power threat for UNM with eight home runs in 2013; and Drew Bridges and A.J. Carman who combined to start 23 games on the mound and hurl over 100 innings. Needless to say, the Lobos expect nothing less than to add a fourth “-to-back” and another ring to their collection in 2014.