UNM’s ‘cowboy’ makes his final round as a baseball coach »Albuquerque Journal
Not quite perfect but perfectly adjusted.
Ray Birmingham made his final round as the University of New Mexico baseball coach on Saturday, a slow ride riding around Santa Ana Star Field to the applause of a gathering of friends, fans and Lobo players.
It was the end of a 43-year coaching career, all spent in New Mexico with the last 14 at UNM. Sporting his Lobos uniform topped with a cowboy hat, Birmingham toured the stadium which he helped transform with many upgrades during his tenure.
The normally talkative coach did not address the crowd or address reporters, choosing instead to go upstairs at sunset as country music blared through the stadium’s speakers.
“Absolutely perfect,” said senior outfielder Kyler Castillo.
Unfortunately for Birmingham and the Lobos, Saturday’s game dropped a few inches to provide an ideal backdrop. New Mexico reduced the 11-4 lead in San Diego State to 11-10 and ultimately put in the potential tie and win runs based on the ninth inning.
But a pair of online withdrawals gave the Aztecs a one-point victory. A high-angle capture of Shane Podsednik’s hard-hit liner in left field officially ended the game, UNM’s season and Birmingham’s coaching career.
While this was not the end wanted by a pro-UNM crowd, it was a suitable capper for a Lobos team that had largely seen their season set aside by injuries and various COVID-19 issues. UNM finished 16-25, 10-17 in Mountain West’s game despite winning seven of their last nine games.
“It’s been frustrating with all the stops and starts, stops and starts because of COVID,” Castillo said. “But the guys fought until the end, put together some good drummers. Unfortunately, we hit a few bullets too hard directly at people. “
While a victory would have been the icing on the cake, Saturday’s pre and post-game ceremonies were a satisfying cake for the several hundred fans in attendance. Before the first pitch, UNM paid tribute to its 15 seniors and gave Birmingham a final salute. Sporting director Eddie Nuñez presented the veteran coach with a photo in a custom wooden frame, designed in the shape of an American flag.
The Birmingham family shared the moment at home plate, and her two grandchildren then threw the ceremonial first throw. Birmingham will pitch the first pitch ahead of the Albuquerque Isotopes home game next Saturday, when he will also be honored with a special tribute video.
During and after the game against the SDSU, the players frequently exchanged handshakes and hugs. Fifth-year senior pitcher Cody Dye was swarmed by his teammates after pitching a scoreless ninth inning, and several Lobos held back tears after the team’s regular post-game reunion on the field.
“It has been a long day. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional, ”said fifth-year senior Los Alamos infielder Connor Mang. “Coach B and baseball Lobo have kind of raised me over the past five years. The way the fans reacted today actually gave me chills. I will never forget him.”
Mang smiles when asked about the Birmingham Stage Ride on Horseback.
“For him it was appropriate,” Mang said. “I’m glad we were all able to be a part of it.”
Birmingham, 66, ended his UNM career with a record of 414-320-4 which included five of the program’s six NCAA regional appearances. He led the Lobos to four Mountain West regular season titles and three conference tournament championships.
Prior to joining UNM, Birmingham coached at Mayfield High School, College of the Southwest and New Mexico Junior College, leading the latter to a JUCO World Series championship in 2005. He finished with 1,232 college coaching wins, the most in the history of baseball in New Mexico.