ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ray Birmingham only wishes it could have happened sooner.
The University of New Mexico baseball coach was all smiles Thursday sharing an interview table with Alex Bregman at the Pit. The two will be together a fair amount in coming weeks sporting the colors of Team USA.
Bregman, an Albuquerque Academy grad who now is a star shortstop at LSU, is a member of the 2014 Collegiate National Team, while Birmingham will serve as hitting coach.
Both will depart Albuquerque next week to begin a summer that includes home series against Chinese Tapei and Japan in North Carolina. Team USA also will compete in the annual Honkbal-Haarlem Baseball Week in the Netherlands and conclude their schedule with a series against Cuba in Havana.
“It’s awesome being able to represent New Mexico and an honor to represent the country,” said Bregman, who played for the Collegiate National Team last summer and has competed on national age-group teams. “It’s a different feeling to play with USA on your chest.”
Bregman said he’s also looking forward to playing for Birmingham. Highly recruited after playing prep baseball at Academy and club ball for Albuquerque Baseball Academy, Bregman strongly considered joining his hometown Lobos before ultimately committing to LSU.
“I always wanted to play for coach Birmingham,” Bregman said. “He’s been helping me since I was 12 years old. I finally get a chance to do it with Team USA and I really can’t wait.”
Birmingham downplayed his role with the Collegiate National Team.
“My job is just to make sure these great players get to the game on time,” he said. “Let’s face it, this is an unbelievable team.”
But Bregman said Birmingham’s reputation as a hitting guru is known even in the high-powered SEC.
“I always follow UNM because I’m from here,” Bregman said, “but other guys notice. Some of my teammates have looked at the stats and said, ‘Wow, New Mexico’s leading the country in hitting again. What are they doing down there?”
Birmingham said he hopes simply to be a resource to players during the five weeks Team USA is together.
“I take pride in my ability to coach hitting,” Birmingham said. “I love to talk hitting, most players like to talk hitting and I’ll always be happy to help. But I’m not expecting to reinvent anybody’s swing. These are elite players. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Birmingham and Bregman like the way Team USA’s schedule falls, with the final series against Cuba. Both expect that series to be particularly challenging.
“I think Team USA is a favorite all the time,” Birmingham said, “except when we play that little island in the Carribean. You notice people are trying to steal those guys away and pay them a lot of money.”
Bregman has noticed.
“We played Cuba last year and played against the shortstop for the Isotopes (Erisbel Arruebarrena),” Bregman said. “He’s pretty good, I’d say. Playing guys like that forces you to raise your level.”
Birmingham already appreciates Bregman’s level of play. The Lobo coach said his first question when Team USA’s coaches began discussing a roster was whether or not it would include Bregman, who was named National Freshman of the Year at LSU in 2013 and is currently rated as a potential top-five pick in next summer’s major league draft.
“I love this guy,” Birmingham said, pointing toward Bregman. “He’s not a stopwatch guy or a radar-gun guy, he’s a winner who loves the game and plays it the right way.”
It doesn’t hurt, Birmingham added, that Bregman hails from New Mexico.
“Team USA’s got some of the best players and coaches in the country,” he said, “and two of us are New Mexicans. I’m telling you, we’re a baseball state.”