Ray Birmingham is calling it a career.
The hall of fame baseball baseball coach announced Sunday night that the 2020-21 season will be his last season skippering a baseball team, although there are other opportunities that would keep him involved with the game.
“I will be 66 in November, so I think that is a good starting point,” Birmingham said Monday morning. “I am a grandpa now and I don’t want to miss my grand kids growing up. I have got everything done here, facility wise, that I wanted to get done. I am leaving it like I left New Mexico Junior College. … And my wife wants me to. Those are all important. I have been trying to get off this train for a couple of years now. I have just been trying to find a place where it slows down enough that I can do it.”
One of the major accomplishments Birmingham just finished at UNM was getting the baseball stadium rebuilt.
“Finishing the facility was important because now the state tournament for all high school kids will be at this ball park,” the Lobos coach said. “It looks nice enough for them to be proud to play in it. I really care about the kids of New Mexico and I wanted to get this done so when they walk into UNM Stadium they go ‘wow,’ and they will go ‘wow.’ I worked with the New Mexico Activities Association to have the state tournament here.”
But just because he is retiring from coaching, doesn’t mean he is done with the sport completely. The Los Angeles Dodgers asked Birmingham to do some scouting for them and he agreed, when it works for him. He will also be consultant for UNM’s athletic director, Eddie Nunez
“I will stay involved. I will help the next guy come in here and show him the ropes,” Birmingham said. “I will help with the administration across the street. I will drive around the state and promote the University of New Mexico.
“The Los Angeles Dodgers asked me if I would scout, and I said part time, occasionally,” Birmingham continued. “I am going to do what I want to do. That is what I want to to.”
One of the things he is really looking forward to is spending time with his grandchildren.
“I am going to go fishing with my grandson. It is exciting. I just watched my grandson go 3-for-4 in a nine-year-old game. He is playing up. He is six and playing with seven and eight year olds. That’s excitement,” he said. “Watching my granddaughter catch her first fish. Watching my granddaughter go to the zoo and seeing it on Facetime. I want to be there with them. Life is about positive footprints and I learned that growing up in Hobbs.”
New Mexico is home for Birmingham, who graduated from Hobbs High School in 1973. Because of that, he has spent his 43-year coaching career in the state. Starting as a high school coach at Las Cruces Mayfield, he then coached the College of the Southwest and New Mexico Junior College before going to UNM.
Through the end of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 campaign, Birmingham has an overall coaching record of 1,216 wins, 644 losses and six ties.
He started his head coaching career in Las Cruces, spending three years (1981-83) with Mayfield Trojans. His first year as head coach the Trojans won the NMAA Class 4A state championship.
After that Birmingham returned home to coach at NMJC, not as the baseball coach, but as an assistant basketball coach under hall of famer Ron Black. At one point, Black and Birmingham had the T-Birds ranked the No. 1 NJCAA team in the country. He also coached the T-Birds and is proud of his 1-0 record as an NMJC basketball coach.
“That was a pleasure to coach with Ron to do that,” Birmingham said. “I like to win. I really like to win. I like winning. But, at the same time, I know how hard it is and how hard the process is.”
When the College of the Southwest picked up baseball, Birmingham was tapped to build he program. He guided the Mustangs for two seasons going 53-73 and national recognition.
“We were nationally ranked,” Birmingham said. “I think were No. 23 in the country at that time after two years.”
In 1990, NMJC started its baseball program, bringing Birmingham, a former T-Bird, back to the nest. He built the program from scratch, with the help of the Hobbs community. Birmingham and then athletic director, and former school president, Steve McCleery were often seen filling a huge ditch on the northwest side of the campus that would one day become Ray Birmingham Field.
Birmingham spent 18 seasons as the T-Birds coach, leading them to the Junior College World Series twice, winning it all in 2005 and finishing as the runner-up in 2007. During his tenure, NMJC won six conference championships and Birmingham went 765-255-2.
Since 2008, Birmingham has been with the Lobos. He has coached UNM to five NCAA regional appearances, four Mountain West Conference championships and three MWC tourney championships. The Lobos are currently 8-14, giving Birmingham an overall record at UNM of 406-330-4.
In 32 years has a collegiate baseball coach, Birmingham has had five losing seasons. His first was his first season with College of the Southwest (1988). Then came his first with NMJC (1990) and then three seasons with UNM (2011, 2018, and 2019).
Birmingham has 19 games left on the schedule this season, 12 of which are home games. Fans wishing watch the Hobbs native in action have a few opportunities. The Lobos have home games scheduled against UNLV (April 24-25), Fresno State (May 1-2), Utah Valley (May 14-16) and San Diego State (May 28-29). The Lobos also have a road game against Texas Tech on Tuesday, April 27.
“Every level was important to me, the kids, the people,” Birmingham said. “Tommy Lasorda, the old Dodger coach told me a long time ago as I was bugging him and trying to learn everything about the game, and I was being a pest. He said stop it. Baseball is a people person business. Just be a people person and he was right.”
Because he stayed in New Mexico, Birmingham is well known throughout the state by those in the baseball circle. Staying in New Mexico was intentional according to Birmingham.
“I have had opportunities to go coach at other universities in bigger conferences and choose to stay to make my mark in baseball in New Mexico,” Birmingham said. “This is my state. This is my family. These are the people I have grown up with and care about, so I am going to stay here.”
Birmingham was raised by parents who were very active in the community and giving back. Because of that, he is as well. And while he is walking away from coaching, he will still continue to give back to his community and the state. Because of his community service, he was the recipient of the 2020 Keeper of the Game Award.
According to its website, The Keeper of The Game Award recognizes individuals or families in and around baseball who do exceptional work serving the special needs community and embody the spirit of servant leadership. It is given yearly in conjunction with the Mike Coolbaugh Diamond Dreams Foundation.
“I will still be involved in my community work. It is important to me,” he said. “I will be involved in the athletic department here and I will be involved in community work and I will be involved in a lot of things. I am basically a New Mexico educator. That is what I am. I am Mike Mills (Hobbs freshmen history teacher, Hobbs assistant varsity football coach, Hobbs assistant varsity golf coach).”
Mills was one of Birmingham’s first recruited athletes at the College of the Southwest.
“If you do it long enough, you are going to get your butt kicked,” the coach said. “I remember as a kid the pride that Hobbs High had. Basketball wise and football wise, we thought we could beat anybody, anytime, anywhere, especially in basketball. I got to learn from a lot of people like (former Hobbs News-Sun sports editor/editor) Manny Marquez and (former Hobbs Eagle basketball coach) Ralph Tasker. I watched how those guys collaborated to make Eagle basketball nationally known.”
How long is 43 years? Well, to look at it presidentially, Birmingham has coached through seven administrations.
“Basically, I started coaching when Jimmy Carter was President,” Birmingham said. “I have watched the evolution, but the biggest thing is I have been with good people. I can’t say enough, I can’t thank New Mexico enough for everything that they have helped me with.”
Birmingham has been enshrined in three different halls of fame. He was first inducted into the National Junior College Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2011. One year later he was inducted into the Lea County Hall of Fame. Then in 2016, Birmingham was inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame. While he isn’t in the College Baseball Hall of Fame, he is on its selection committee. But, even with all the honors, Birmingham still thinks of himself as just another person/coach.
“It is an honor and I don’t scoff at it. It is appreciated,” Birmingham said. “There are a lot people who aren’t in Hall of Fames who are in my Hall of Fame. I have watched them over the years and a lot of them live in (Lea County). People have given me examples and helped me. I didn’t do this by myself. A lot of people chipped in and helped me. I did this because of all the wonderful people I have been a part of my whole life.”