There’s really no arguing the fact that 2010-19 was the University of New Mexico baseball team’s best decade.
The Lobos won more than 300 games, captured four Mountain West regular-season titles and won the league’s postseason tournament three times. UNM advanced to five NCAA Regionals after having played in just one (1962) prior to 2010.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Coach Ray Birmingham’s program fielded a slew of talented players in the recently concluded decade. Among them 28 were drafted by major league organizations, three more signed free-agent contracts and two, Mitch Garver and Sam Haggerty, earned spots on MLB rosters.
The best of times? No question about it.
Who were the best Lobos in the program’s best decade? That’s an entirely different can of worms and Birmingham has popped it wide open.
UNM recently announced its “All-Decade Team,” as selected by coaches, former players and media members. Voters were asked to list one player at each fielding position, two designated hitters and six pitchers with no specific qualifications attached.
Some picks were easy. Garver, a two-time Mountain West Co-Player of the Year, was a no-brainer at catcher, and the only question surrounding Peterson (who also twice shared MWC player honors) was whether to pencil him in at first base or third.
Other selections were tougher and required some prioritizing. What is more important, after all, whether or not a player got drafted or how much he helped the Lobos during his career?
Most voters apparently chose quantifiable numbers. Of the 17 players named to UNM’s all-decade team, 16 were drafted by major league organizations and the other, pitcher Gera Sanchez, signed as a free agent.
Accolades, such as All-American and All-Mountain West honors, also carried weight, Birmingham said. As a result, some players made the final list despite playing at UNM for just one or two seasons of the decade in question.
I saw things differently.
Sure, having an off-the-charts season with postseason awards and putting your name on UNM’s list of pro draftees is great. Those things bring national attention to the program and help bring other high-level recruits in the clubhouse door.
But I have every bit as much respect for the grinders who gave UNM three or four good seasons without all the attention. These guys helped the Lobos win a lot of games, earn team trophies and stuck around to teach younger players how to represent the program.
That’s why I couldn’t leave Jared Holley, Danny Collier and Carson Schneider off my list. Despite not being drafted, I’d argue that these guys did as much as anyone to keep the Lobos’ big decade rolling.
No disrespect intended to excellent players like Haggerty, who made his big-league debut with the New York Mets last season and had three good years at UNM (.311 career batting average, .417 on base). But Holley posted comparable numbers (.303 average, .400 on base) over four seasons and was as tough an out in clutch situations as anyone. He also owns UNM’s career record for being hit by pitches (40), which earns him team-first points in my book.
Collier and Schneider, both Sandia High alums, also gave their all for the cherry and silver, coming up big in critical games and battling through injuries during their careers. Collier hit .331 over a five-season career that included a redshirt season after he suffered two broken bones diving for a ball on the warning track. Schneider went 20-8 over his UNM career and made some of his best starts in the team’s 2015 and ’16 postseason runs.
Granted, Collier’s inclusion required me to leave Justin Howard, the 2010 NCAA batting champion, off my list, which did not sit well with me. Still, I’ll take five very good seasons over one incredible year.
There are strong cases to be made for other Lobos, too. UNM radio play-by-play voice Robert Portnoy backed starting pitcher Colton Thomson, who won 15 games with a 3.74 ERA from 2014-16, and reliever Victor “Shotgun” Sanchez, who racked up a program-best 20 saves from 2013-16 before an injury ended his career.
I could hardly argue against either choice, but maybe that’s the point: there are no wrong answers.
“The whole idea is to remember what these guys did for our program and get people talking,” Birmingham said, “or maybe arguing in some cases. That just tells you how many great players we had in that decade. Picking a team is not easy and that’s a good thing.”