Knudson: A Day With Ray
Ray Birmingham gets it. All of it. Everything from the “Big Picture” to the smallest detail.
Now in his fifth year as the head baseball coach of the New Mexico Lobos, Birmingham sees more than just the playing field. He sees everything leading up to games, and everything that’s important afterwards. He sees his players and young men in need of guidance and development, not finished products that are there to advance his career.
That’s why, when it came time to head to Las Vegas for the 2011 Mountain West tournament – where the Lobos went in as the lowest seed (#6) in the tourney – Birmingham elected to have his team take a bus, rather than fly.
“A lot of these kids are going to get the chance to play pro ball,” he grinned. “Isn’t that the way they do it in the low minors? Don’t they take long bus rides and then have to get off the bus and play winning baseball? I want them to experience that here, so they are ready for that when they go to the pros.”
Did it work? Well, the Lobos entered the tournament as the lowest seed and came out of it undefeated tourney champs. Guess it worked.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in Colorado Springs, I got the chance to spend most of the day with Coach Ray, talking baseball, academics, and the life skills he wants all of his players to leave school with. Professional baseball is something that most of his players aspire to, and Birmingham does nothing to dissuade them from aiming there. Including his 18 years as the head coach at New Mexico Junior College, Birmingham has sent 137 players into the professional ranks – each armed with much more than just a knack for hitting or pitching.
“College baseball is the toughest sport for college athletes,” Birmingham smiled. “They have tougher travel and miss more class time than any other sport.” When Birmingham’s Lobos are on the road, they have mandatory study hall time at the team hotel. This little detail has resulted in a team GPA of over 3.0, with nine players named to the Academic All Conference team last season.
Oh, and they can play a little bit, too. His 2009 team led the country with a team batting average of .363 with four players hitting over .400. The three-year period from 2008-2010 was the most successful span in school history, with three straight 30-win seasons. And when he was force to “rebuild” last year after losing most of his 2010 squad to graduation and the pros, all the Lobos – with one senior – did was cap a nondescript 20-41 season with that astounding run through the MW tournament to earn a second straight trip to the NCAA tourney.
2012 has been a strange sort of season for the Lobos. Entering a three game series at San Diego State this weekend, they have never been over .500 for the year. Non-conference and mid-week games have been trouble, but they’ve saved their best performances for conference play. After starting the season with a series win over conference favorite TCU, they’ve gone out to a 7-2 league record, which leaves them in first place at the halfway point. One of Birmingham’s favorites, sophomore slugger D J Peterson, took over as the nation’s leading hitter, upping his average to .471.
“D J is an example of a kid who could have gone to Arizona State (Peterson is from Gilbert, Arizona) but he understood that if he came to New Mexico, he wouldn’t have to sit for three years before he got a chance to play,” Birmingham explained. “I try to tell these kids that every year you sit and watch, you go backwards. So instead of sitting last year, D J was one of the top freshmen in the country, and he’s even better this year. We’re gonna be watching D J Peterson play on TV for a lot of years.”
Earlier this week, the nationally ranked Sun Devils – with a number of Peterson’s friends on the roster – came to Albuquerque for a two game set. All Peterson did during those two games was blast a pair of home runs and go 4-for-9 as the Lobos and ASU split the two games.
We get hit on a regular basis with stories about coaches like Bobby Petrino betraying the trust of the people who hired him and the young men he was hired to lead. We see coaches making selfish decisions that are only about their own advancement. We see coaches begging the NCAA for more leeway when it comes to their sagging graduation rates and lousy team GPA’s. We only have to watch the way Ray Birmingham runs his program to see a shining example of how a program is supposed to be run.
And Birmingham is far from done with his lesson plans. “Heck, we might bus backwards to the tournament this year.”