May 13, 2013
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the premiere baseball coaches in the USA is Ray Birmingham of the University of New Mexico. The head coach of the Lobos recently celebrated his 1,000th coaching victory with a 19-5 win over Air Force and has been a collegiate head coach for 26 years.
His teams are tougher than boot leather and endure “Marine Day” training sessions at 4 a.m. through the fall to allow the team to bond together. He has been a passionate student of the game every step of the way and has utilized information from such great Hall of Fame coaches as Ed Cheff (Lewis-Clark St.), Lloyd Simmons (Seminole St. J.C., Okla.), Gary Ward (Oklahoma St., New Mexico St.), Tony Gwynn (San Diego Padres, San Diego St.), Andy Lopez (Arizona), Cliff Gustafson (Texas), Ron Polk (Mississippi St.), Augie Garrido (Texas), Mark Johnson (Texas A&M), Wayne Graham (Rice), and Mark Marquess (Stanford) to name just a few.
From this vast knowledge base, he has come up with a coaching system that is one of the best in the business. He began his coaching career at College of The Southwest and won 53 games in two years before leading New Mexico Junior College to a 765-255-2 record in 18 years and won the 2005 NJCAA national championship.
He has been at the University of New Mexico since 2008 and has led the Lobos to three straight NCAA regionals after UNM had not been to one in 48 years.
Weather, Scheduling Issues
New Mexico always seems to struggle early in the season because of frigid weather in Albuquerque and the talented teams they play. But this toughens them up for conference games and the playoffs following that. As a result, the Lobos usually have a marginal record through 15-20 games prior to conference games starting.
But then New Mexico begins to win and keeps winning through the rest of the season.
“Baseball is a journey to me, and many people get caught in the records of teams, especially early in the season,” said Birmingham.
“But records mean nothing to me at that time because we are focusing on playing the toughest teams we can early because baseball is all about the last man standing.
“And then your ball club will either get tough or die. I want to play Stanford, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Arizona St. and teams like that. If your team doesn’t learn to play against the best teams, how will they compete when the post-season arrives?
“I was inspired by what Stony Brook did last year and what Fresno St. did a few years ago when they won the national championship. We don’t need sunshine. All we need is an opportunity.”
Birmingham acknowledged that generating a great Rating Percentage Index score is tough for New Mexico.
“We usually are a victim of the RPI because we play such a tough schedule early which is very demanding and might not come with a lot of wins. In my first year at New Mexico, we opened up with a 10-game winning streak but didn’t play great teams like we do now early in the season. We scheduled teams that had RPIs in the upper 100s and even into the 200s. I decided after that we needed to play the toughest teams possible which would help our team improve. And it has helped us tremendously.”
Birmingham said the improvement his teams show as the season progresses is the result of other factors as well.
“I am a big believer in team building. We are all teammates and are pushing the rock in the right direction. I will bark at the players if they don’t play it the right way, but I am always pulling for every kid on the squad. I have a real problem with kids who don’t hustle down the line to first or think double on a single. I don’t want our hitters to take a pitch off.
“It is mandatory that we can’t lower the bar when you are striving for excellence. That is the way the game must be played to achieve success. Too many kids arrive in college baseball programs at the age of 17 or 18 and have been told over and over again they are the best at what they do.
“But we have a blue collar approach at New Mexico. We demand hard work from every player on the squad.”
Towel Wrestling, Marine Day
When Birmingham was at New Mexico Junior College, he was legendary for the tough team bonding activities he had his squads perform.
“Kids would run 4-5 miles in the mornings and not just jog. They had to do sprints and run miles. Then in the afternoon, we had the players pair off and did towel wrestling. Both players are on a mat, and one guy grabs one end of the towel and the other player the other end. Then they fight to get the entire towel. It made for some interesting team bonding drills.”
Birmingham said he doesn’t do that at the University of New Mexico because of time constraints with NCAA Division I rules.
“But we do have them run sand hills and do strength and conditioning at 5:30 a.m. We also have ‘Marine Days’ through the fall. Players never know when they are coming. Our guys will get a text message early in the evening the day before that tells them we will have ‘Marine Day’ at the indoor football practice facility the next morning at 4 a.m. And don’t be late!
“Kids are absolutely terrified at first. We have different stations within the indoor facility set up which includes blocking dummies, blocking sleds, harness pulls with heavy weights and others. I show up in battle fatigues. And for the next two hours, our players go through a gut check with an array of calisthenics and exercises. Kids will do 50 yard sprints, pushups, situps, jumping jacks in cadence. If they are not all in unison, they start over.
“The point of all this is that we are counting on everybody to work together. Everybody must do it right or we won’t be successful. And when we face those tough teams early in the schedule and might not do as well as we want, we tend to bounce back and learn from our mistakes as players improve with our great work ethic.”
Birmingham said something wonderful transpires as the kids go through this team building activity.
“Because of how tough this is, they all begin to pull for each other and transform into a team. It is fantastic to watch. I was influenced into doing this as I studied the team building concepts of Ed Cheff at Lewis-Clark St. and Lloyd Simmons at Seminole J.C., Okla. Both are 1,000 game winners, and they are two of the best coaches of all time.”
Birmingham said that he is constantly learning as a coach.
“I am a product of many coaches who I have learned from. I am still learning concepts to help my players. Beyond baseball, you want your kids to do well in the classroom. Our kids always have a grade point average over 3.00. So academically they do well. We want our kids to do well socially and have a great life after baseball.
“When you see kids 20 years after they graduate, it is such a warm feeling when you realize they are good fathers and a leaders in their communities.”
Birmingham is one of the elite hitting coaches in baseball and has studied the concepts taught by Ward, Gwynn, Charlie Lau and George Brett, to name a few.
When he was at New Mexico Junior College, six players led the nation in batting and six teams hit 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 post-season play.
In 2001, the Thunderbirds hit .438 as the team led the country. And in 1998, NMJC led the nation with 122 home runs.
“My philosophy on hitting is the culmination of instruction learned from many people in the game of baseball. In its simplest form, you want the hitter to let the ball travel as far as possible and square up the ball. You want hitters to have proper hitting vision, great hand coordination, utilize the lower half properly, and have a short stroke with the proper bat path. All of these things are vital.
“Drills in our program are used for the players to understand a concept and feel what should be done. We utilize angles a great deal in hitting, and that is a big concept for me. Our hitters use the whole field, and plate discipline is crucial. If you look at our stats, our players walk a lot and don’t strike out much.
“Overswinging is a problem with many hitters. We have had success taking bat speed away from hitters to teach the proper mechanics of the swing. It is surprising how far players can hit the ball by accomplishing this simple concept. They can always speed up their swing later.”
Birmingham also is big on slowing the game down for his hitters.
“We work very hard at this concept and making the game as simple as it can be. We also work hard at making adjustments with different pitchers such as soft lefties, hard throwers, hurlers who throw in and away. We want our hitters to know what to do in certain counts and make positive outs.
“There is so much to what we teach. In fact, I have a checklist of 250 things I look at for each hitter. We don’t go over all of them at once. Kids are given little pieces of this checklist over time so they can be successful and master concepts.”
When new players come to New Mexico, whether they be from high schools or junior colleges, they have usually dominated competition at their former school.
“Every hitter wants to be a table cleaner when they come into the program, and that simply isn’t going to happen. We determine who are the table setters and table cleaners. They are told what their role will be, and then through a lot of work, they make it happen.”
Birmingham said that he learned from long time Texas Head Coach Cliff Gustafson that letting hitters fail right off the bat is important when they come into the program. So Birmingham puts them in a situation which will cause failure.
“I tell the kids that to be in pro baseball, they must be able to handle fastballs near 100 mph. That is what they will see in pro ball. So I have a Ponza Hummer pitching machine that is set for the upper 90s and is aimed at the same spot for batters. As they get ready to hit, they know the pitch will be a fastball, and they must catch up to the speed. And this trips them up every time.
“Virtually every kid has a long swing and doesn’t realize it or has a hole that he doesn’t know about. So when they struggle initially, they are now open to suggestions on refining their swing so that it is short and productive. Each hitter has their own style. We don’t want them to dramatically change. But every hitter must do certain basic things. Not everybody has great hand speed who can knock home runs out of the park. But they can be a productive part of the lineup.
“And when suggestions are offered, not every player agrees with what I say. And that’s fine. But over time, we come to an agreement on what should be done to get the most out of our hitters.
“Our hitters are taught physically and mentally because both are crucial. And it is absolutely crucial that they never take a pitch off when batting. Hitting is not always about getting a hit or having great batting averages. For us, we closely observe a player’s on-base percentage. Making productive outs and moving runners over is the right approach for us. It is a team game. But you have individuals playing it.”
Birmingham said that hitters must be able to adjust to different ball parks as well.
“If you play at Arkansas and TCU, those parks were made for pitching. When the wind blows straight in, you can square a pitch up and will almost always make a fly ball out. So hitting is not only pitcher to pitcher adjustments and adjustments in at-bats, we have a strategy for different parks we play in.
“I have always been very passionate about hitting. And listening to the great coaches and hitters of all time which deal with hitting has been a revelation.”