ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The Land of Enchantment is going to be well represented on USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team this summer. In addition to UNM head coach Ray Birmingham being the squad's hitting coach, LSU star and Albuquerque native Alex Bregman will be on the team as well.
"What I think is really cool is that out of the entire United States there are two New Mexicans (with the team)," Birmingham said. "It speaks volumes to the talent and the baseball potential in the state of New Mexico. We're a baseball state, and our kids are baseball players."
Bregman attended Albuquerque Academy and was named an All-American and the Freshman of the Year for the entire country by Baseball America, the NCBWA and Collegiate Baseball in 2013.
"Growing up in New Mexico I always wanted to play for Coach Birmingham, and now I finally get to do that," said the rising junior who has hit .344 with 12 home runs over two seasons for the Tigers. "That's exciting. Since I was 12 he has been helping me with the game of baseball and now I finally get to play for him."
The feelings were mutual for Birmingham.
"I love this guy," he said. "I follow him all the time. He's one of the best players in the country. The thing I like about him is ... he's a winner. He elevates everybody's play on the field, and he leads, he's positive, his work ethic is through the roof ... He's like the New Mexico poster boy for all of us New Mexicans that love and play baseball."
The Collegiate National Team is comprised primarily of non-draft eligible players from across the country. Players are invited to a training camp at USA Baseball's headquarters in Cary, N.C., and the final roster will be announced later this month.
"These are the elite players in the country," Birmingham said. "I'm not going to try to fix their swing. One thing you learn as a blue-collar worker in the state of New Mexico is that if it's not broke, don't fix it."
The team will play friendly series in North Carolina in July against Chinese Taipei and Japan before traveling to The Netherlands for the Honkbal - Haarlem Baseball Week, which is an international tournament of like-aged teams. The team will conclude the summer with a series in Cuba.
"It's an honor to represent your country," Bregman said. "I've been fortunate enough to do that three times, this will be my fourth time doing it, and it's just a different feeling playing with the USA on your chest. It's just an honor. It really is. Playing against international competition is fun."
This is just the latest step for UNM and the state of New Mexico for national recognition for local baseball talent. Former Lobo and first-round MLB draft pick DJ Peterson played on the 2012 team.
"If you look back over the last couple years and next year, there will be three (first-round) draft picks in a three or four-year period," Birmingham said referring to Peterson in 2013, former Cleveland High School catcher Blake Swihart in 2011 and Bregman, who will be eligible after next season. "We're telling you that New Mexico has baseball players."
Bregman agreed saying UNM's recent success has brought plenty of positive attention to the program and state.
"I know guys on my team that will say to me, 'Dang. New Mexico is leading the nation in hitting again? What're they doing down there?" he said with a laugh. "It was the same on the national team last year. A lot of the guys were familiar with UNM. Ryan Burr, who plays at Arizona State, faced them in the regional and he said they were tough outs and were good. They're always one of the top hitting teams in the country and everyone knows that."
Birmingham leaves June 19 for North Carolina with the first game against Chinese Taipei scheduled for July 1.
"I think the USA is favored in baseball all the time until you get to that small island in the Caribbean," he said referring to Cuba. "But with the kids we have (we should do well)."