Ray Birmingham is entering his eighth year as head coach of the UNM baseball team after another successful campaign in 2014.
The Lobos claimed a share of the Mountain West regular-season title, which was the fourth straight championship season for UNM. It also marked the third straight season of at least a share of the MW regular-season championship, putting the Lobos in elite company. UNM is one of just five programs in the nation that can claim three straight conference regular-season championships.
2014 saw two Lobos (Chase Harris and Danny Collier) earn All-America honors, while Sam Haggerty was named the program's first Academic All-American since 2006. Harris was also named the District VIII Player of the Year by the NCBWA. Collier earned MW Freshman of the Year honors, and Alex Real was a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award for best catcher in the country.
UNM finished fifth in the nation with a .312 team batting average, the fifth time in seven years the Lobos have been among the ten best hitting teams in the NCAA. They also finished eighth in the country with 654 hits and 21st in scoring at 6.4 runs per game.
Following the season three Lobos heard their name called in the MLB Draft. Harris was taken by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 14th round, Josh Walker was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 22nd round after finishing his career one win shy of both the UNM and MW career record, and Real was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 24th round. That brings the total number of Lobos drafted under Birmingham's watch to 24.
Over the summer Birmingham served as the hitting coach for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, which was made up of the top collegiate players from around the country. Team USA played games across North Carolina before traveling to the Netherlands to participate in Honkbal-Haarlem Baseball Week. The CNT won the international tournament by outscoring its opponents 34-6 over its final seven games. Birmingham helped guide Tennessee's Christin Stewart to "Best Hitter" honors at the tournament and Albuquerque's own Alex Bregman of LSU was named Honkbal Baseball Week MVP. Team USA concluded its summer with five games in Cuba, finishing with an overall record of 18-8-2.
In 2013 Birmingham helped the Lobos set records both on and off the field as the Lobos made their fourth straight NCAA regional. UNM absolutely dominated the Mountain West to the tune of 25 wins (a conference record) and only five losses on their way to an overall record of 37-22. The Lobos won the league by seven games (another record) for their second straight regular-season title. Along the way they won 14 straight conference games (yet another MW record) and all 10 MW series. For the second straight year UNM had the Co-Players of the Year in DJ Peterson and Mitch Garver, as well as one of the Co-Freshmen of the Year in Sam Haggerty. Birmingham also won his second straight Mountain West Coach of the Year award as the team made a seamless transition back to their newly renovated Lobo Field.
Birmingham's teams are usually some of the best offensive clubs in the country, but 2013 was a special year even by his lofty standards. The Lobos led the nation in five offensive categories: batting (.334), runs per game (8.3), slugging percentage (.504), on base percentage (.422) and doubles per game (2.53). They finished second in both doubles (149) and hits (724), and third in runs (487), triples (31) and triples per game (.53). Individually, Peterson, Garver and Luke Campbell finished in the top 22 in batting, while Peterson led the nation in OBP and finished in the top 10 in 11 other categories.
For the second straight year Peterson was named a semifinalist for both the Golden Spikes Award and the Dick Howser Trophy and Garver was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award.
The Lobos managed this against yet another difficult schedule as they played 17 games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament, including splitting a doubleheader at then-No. 10 Arkansas on April 9. All this success drew the attention of both scouts and the media alike. The Lobos climbed all the way to No. 13 in Baseball America, their highest ever ranking in that publication.
Scouts were a regular presence at UNM games, and following the season a school-record seven Lobos were selected in the MLB Draft, including their highest ever draft pick in Peterson, who went 12th overall to the Seattle Mariners.
It was such a good season for UNM that the Lobos were setting records off the field as well. A program-record 16 student-athletes were named Academic All-Mountain West, and a record-tying six were named Mountain West Scholar-Athletes. Josh Melendez, who earned both those distinctions, was also honored as on the Capital One Academic All-District Team selected by CoSIDA.
The team's success in 2013 was no isolated incident, though. Birmingham now has a record of 240-174-1 in seven years at UNM, the most a Lobo skipper has ever had in his first seven years at the helm of the program. He also has a conference record of 118-59 for a winning percentage of .667, which is the best a UNM head coach has ever had in league play. He has already guided the Lobos to five of the seven winningest seasons in program history.
One of those seasons was 2012 when Birmingham guided the Lobos to their fourth 30-win season in five years, a share of the MW regular-season title, and their second straight conference tournament championship. That guaranteed the Lobos another trip to the NCAA tournament.
It is no surprise the Lobos swept through their second straight conference tournament because they outclassed the MW in 2012. They finished conference play with an 18-6 record, which was the fewest conference losses UNM had in a season since 1979, and it tied for the third-best conference winning percentage in program history. The Lobos also had a school-record 11 players named to the All-Mountain West team, including DJ Peterson and Mitchell Garver, who were MW Co-Players of the Year. UNM also had three All-Americans (Peterson, Garver and freshman Ryan Padilla), a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award (Garver), a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, and a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy (both Peterson).
The success in 2012 came against another difficult schedule. The Lobos defeated perennial power TCU four times, they swept a three-game series with Gonzaga when the Bulldogs were undefeated and ranked in the Top 25, they defeated No. 21 Arizona St., they took two games from 2008 national champion Fresno St., and they defeated the 40-win University of San Diego Toreros in the NCAA tournament.
As is usually the case with a Birmingham-coached team, the Lobos were one of the best hitting teams in the nation. They finished the 2012 season with a team batting average of .326, which ranked fifth in the country, and had two of the top-five individual hit leaders in the NCAA. But what separated this Lobo team from past ones was the pitching. The Lobo pitching staff produced its best ERA since 1977 and struck out the most batters in school history. The combination of a prolific offense and a shutdown pitching staff helped the Lobos to a 10-game winning streak late in the season. That tied for the fifth longest in UNM history, and there hasn't been a longer one at the school since 1985.
The 2011 season was an interesting one for Coach Birmingham. He put his Lobos to the test by matching the `Young Pups', as he referred to them, up against hardest schedule in school history. College Baseball 360 rated it as the second hardest schedule for any school in the nation. Birmingham's team took its lumps as UNM finished with a record of 20-41. After losing six key players to the pros and coming into the season with just one senior on the team, Birmingham knew it would be a building year. The Lobos showed their resilience in the postseason, however, winning their first ever Mountain West Tournament Championship. The Lobos swept through the top three seeds of the tournament in four straight games to win the crown as the sixth seed, beating the No. 1 seed TCU Horned Frogs (No. 7 in the nation) twice in the process as well as No. 2 ranked Utah and No. 3 ranked BYU. The Lobos earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as a result of winning the MWC championship. It was the second-straight NCAA appearance for the Lobos after breaking a 48-year drought of making it to the big dance.
Birmingham also received a great honor before the start of the 2011 season being named a member of the 2011 National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame. He is one of three legendary coaches to receive the nod. Birmingham spent 19 successful years as head baseball coach at New Mexico Junior College. During his 19 seasons at NMJC he amassed a career mark of 765-255-2. He was named the WJCAC Coach of the Year several times (1995, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2005 - 2007), Region 5 Coach of the Year twice (2005, 2007) and was crowned the NJCAA Division I Coach of the Year in 2005.
In the six years Birmingham has been with New Mexico he has produced two Mountain West regular-season title, three second-place finishes, and two Mountain West Tournament championships while posting a record of 203-154. He is the quickest head coach in the history of the program to reach the 200-win plateau. The Lobos have recorded five 34-win seasons in his tenure. In 2010 the Lobos went 38-22. The 38 wins are tied for the third most in school history and were the most since 1979.
In 2009, New Mexico was nationally-ranked for the first time since 1985 and ranked as high as No.18 on March 30. The squad was ranked 25th in the nation in 2010 and was the first time to be nationally ranked back to back years in school history. The 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons added up to be the best three-year span UNM has had in school history in terms of wins. In March 2010 he led the Lobos to a No. 19 ranking in the RPI, which is the best ranking in the school's history.
In 2009 six student-athletes were named all-MW with senior second baseman Mike Brownstein earning MW Player of the Year honors. The Lobos finished the season as the NCAA statistical team leader in batting average, .363, with four players hitting over .400 (Rafael Neda, Ryan Honeycutt, Brownstein and Kevin Atkinson). Brownstein led the country in triples with 11. Under Birmingham six Lobos were selected in the 2009 Major League Baseball Draft - Cole White, Brian Cavazos-Galvez, Brownstein, John Hesketh, Cameron Monger and Dane Hamilton. Under Birmingham, 146 athletes have gone on to play professional baseball. Also under Birmingham, 40 athletes have earned All-America honors. Brownstein was named to three different All-America Teams including the American Baseball Coaches Association, Louisville Slugger and Ping!Baseball. Cavazos-Galvez was named to the Ping!Baseball All-America Team as well. Justin Howard and Rafael Neda were both chosen as Louisville Slugger All-Americans in 2010, with Howard also nabbing a Ping!Baseball selection.
DJ Peterson nabbed Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America and NCBWA Freshman All-American awards in 2011. He was named first team All-America by numerous publications in both 2012 and 2013, becoming UNM's first ever three-time All-American.
Birmingham's athletes not only excel on the diamond, but they also excel in the classroom. In 2009, nine student-athletes were named Academic All-MWC with three also named MW Scholar-Athletes. In 2012 the team won the inaugural Lobo Service Award for being the top program at UNM in terms of community service hours volunteered. The team averaged nearly 35 hours of service per student-athlete and volunteered a total of 1,285 hours of service, both of which were tops in the athletic department.
In his first season, Birmingham led the Lobos to one of their most successful seasons in recent history. The UNM baseball team wrapped up 2008 with a 34-25 overall record and second-place finish in the Mountain West Conference. Eight Lobos were named to the 2008 All-Mountain West Conference teams and three moved on to pro careers, Bobby LaFromboise, Scott Gracey and Stephen Smith. Rafael Neda, a Freshman All-American, became the first Lobo named MWC Freshman of the Year in 2008.
Birmingham joined with UNM after 18 seasons as the head baseball coach at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs.
Birmingham, 58, and a New Mexico resident for nearly his entire life, earned his 1,000th career win in 2013 when the Lobos defeated Air Force 19-5 on April 6. He has a sparkling 1,058-502-3 (.678) record in 27 seasons as a collegiate head coach. He was 765-255-2 (.750) at NMJC, winning a national title in 2005 and finishing second in 2007. Birmingham's teams were on a streak of 17 consecutive winning seasons and the Thunderbirds were a gaudy 378-88-2 (.805) from 2000-07. So successful was Birmingham at NMJC that the school held ceremonies on Feb. 2, 2008, to dedicate the newly renovated baseball field that bears his name.
After posting a 53-73 record in two seasons (1988-89) at the College of the Southwest in his hometown of Hobbs, where Birmingham propelled the mustangs to No. 23 national ranking at one point, he became the first skipper of the baseball program at New Mexico Junior College in 1990. The T-birds went 22-30 in his first year, but did not have a losing season over the next 17 seasons. They were nationally ranked 14 times, including five appearances in the Top-10.
Under Birmingham's leadership, New Mexico Junior College became known for its hitting prowess with six former players leading the country in batting and six teams hitting over .400. The Thunderbirds hit .416 as a team in 2007. The 2005 NMJC national championship team hit .411 during the regular season and .400 in postseason play. In 2001, the Thunderbirds displayed one of the most impressive offensive machines in college baseball history, batting .438 as a team. NMJC led the country in home runs (122) in 1998.
Of course, Birmingham was more than just the baseball coach at New Mexico Junior College. He wore a lot of hats. Birmingham taught physical education classes and helped coordinate curriculum for the department. He also initiated and led the ongoing development and execution of the $3.65 million expansion of Lobo Field.
Birmingham's coaching career began at Las Cruces (N.M.) Mayfield High School where the Trojans won the Class AAAA state championship in 1981 and had three No. 1 rankings through 1983. Birmingham came to NMJC in the fall of 1983, serving as the public relations officer and assistant to legendary basketball coach Ron Black. The Thunderbird basketball team posted three consecutive 20-win seasons, including the school's first conference championship in 1987, a year in which they were ranked No. 1 in the country for the majority of the season. Birmingham moved to College of the Southwest in 1987 to guide its new baseball program. In 1989, the Mustangs reached No. 23 in the NAIA national rankings, won 33 games and advanced to the regional finals before losing to Dallas Baptist.
Birmingham has coached or spoken at numerous clinics throughout the United States and South America. He has been published in the American Baseball Coaches Association Journal and worked professionally for the Cleveland Indians, Oakland A's and Kansas City Royals. Birmingham led the NJCAA all-star team to four wins in five games over the Chinese All-Stars in Beij ing, China in 2004. In 2006, Birmingham was selected as the head coach of the NJCAA all-star team when China returned to the United States to play a U.S. team. Birmingham also coached the NJCAA West All-Stars to a three-game sweep over the East All-Stars in the summer of 2009.
Despite national championships, international victories and jaw-dropping numbers on the diamond, Birmingham is most proud of his former New Mexico players. NMJC closer Brendan Donnelly (1990-91) won Game 6 for the Anaheim Angels in the 2002 World Series, and became the first T-Bird with an MLB championship ring. A year later, Armando Almanza (1992-93) was a member of the World Champion Florida Marlins. In the summer of 2003, Donnelly was the winning pitcher in the Major League Baseball All-Star game in Chicago.
During the past few seasons, Birmingham also watched proudly as former NMJC players Jose Flores (1992-93) and Mike Vento (1997) participated in the MLB playoffs with Oakland and the New York Yankees, respectively, while former Lobo Bobby LaFromboise (2008) pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2014 playoffs Johnny Lujan and David Carpenter are the most recent former NMJC player to be making some noise with a big league organization. Lujan had a cup of coffee with the New York Mets and Carpenter has appeared in 28 games for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012..
Birmingham currently serves on the College Baseball Hall of Fame Selection Committee.
Birmingham is a 1973 graduate of Hobbs High School. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism Education from New Mexico State in 1978 and later received a master's degree in Education Administration from College of the Southwest.
Birmingham has three sons: Josh, 34, a former NCAA World Series participant at the University of Nebraska, played for his father at NMJC and is now a lawyer in Texas; Bryan, 31, a former collegiate second baseman and currently a Farmer's Insurance professional in McKinney, Texas; and Nick, 14.