Ray Birmingham has rarely been at a loss for words but a recent homework assignment nearly accomplished the feat.
With University of New Mexico sports shut down by coronavirus restrictions, keeping the Lobo brand visible and fans engaged have become an athletics department priority. UNM’s veteran baseball coach was asked to do his part.
At first, the directive came across like a line from the “Mission Impossible” franchise, Birmingham said.
Deputy Athletic Director David Williams: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to post daily baseball hitting lessons over social media platforms.”
Birmingham: “Come again?”
It wasn’t exactly like instructing college hitters from behind the batting cage, something the 64-year-old Birmingham has been doing since the “Mission Impossible” TV series was still on the air in the 1970s. This assignment required a 2020s mindset.
“I didn’t want to do it at first,” Birmingham admitted. “Then I got to thinking that pictures speak 1,000 words. I started looking up baseball pictures and just came up with lessons to go with them.”
Lesson No. 1 came on March 19 and featured Birmingham’s young grandson, Brennan, perched on a training potty and holding a baseball bat. The text: “Become one with your bat. Take it everywhere. Make it an extension of you.”
Much to Birmingham’s surprise, the series was an instant success, racking up hits, shares and likes on Twitter and Facebook. The photogenic Brennan, who is now approaching his sixth birthday, is a frequent cast member. The fact that Brennan has been photographed in a slew of baseball-related poses over the years hasn’t hurt.
But Birmingham’s lessons have expanded well beyond kid shots and even hitting advice. He’s posted photos of major leaguers, college players, shot from iconic baseball movies like “Major League” and “Bull Durham,” and even one of a sad-looking bulldog advertised as belonging to Hall of Fame pitcher and UNLV pitching coach Greg Maddux.
“Poor dog never got walked,” said the post, which also proclaims the virtues of pitching location over velocity.
Birmingham rarely uses photos of himself but an exception was his most popular lesson to date. The picture shows an umpire ejecting Birmingham from a game early in his UNM coaching career. The text: “Never talk negatively about a man’s ‘magnifying thick glasses.’ It will hurt his feelings and he will ask you to leave.”
Lesson #25: Never talk negatively about a man’s “magnifying thick glasses”. It will hurt his feelings and he will ask you to leave. pic.twitter.com/oMd5rWCzUX
— Ray Birmingham (@BirminghamRay) April 7, 2020
As of last week, Birmingham’s Lesson 25 had more than 12,600 engagements and almost 92,000 impressions on Twitter alone. Engagements are “times people interacted with” a tweet (likes, retweets, etc.), while impressions are times people saw it.
No one was more surprised than Birmingham, who has since had several other posts blow up.
“I was shocked,” he said of the response. “I thought some people around town might get a kick out of it but I’ve gotten responses from all over the country. I forgot to post one day and people were all over me. ‘Where’s our lesson?'”
Some of Birmingham’s lessons are considerably more serious than others, and he’s never quite sure which ones will strike a chord with viewers. A recent photo breaking down the mechanics of bunting and advising hitters to “be GREAT” at it ranks among his most popular.
Regardless, Birmingham said he now tries to stay at least a day ahead with his lesson plans and he gives them a fair amount of thought.
As far as Williams is concerned, Birmingham’s posts are a mission accomplished — even if they’re not what he initially had in mind.
Williams and UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez approached coaches and other members of the school’s athletic department staff with an initiative when COVID-19 restrictions put live sports on the shelf. Step one was to stay relevant with content on social media and UNM’s athletic website during the shutdown.
“We have the most social media followers in the Mountain West right now,” Williams said. “We’re proud of what our staff has done during the shutdown. They’ve really shown a lot of creativity.”
Williams credited several individual UNM programs, including women’s soccer and football, for their social media offerings. He laughed when asked about Birmingham’s lessons.
“I suggested to Ray that he post some hitting lessons, things kids can do at home,” Williams said. “He went in a completely different direction and it’s taken off. The only credit I can take is for asking him to do it. Other than that, it’s a Ray Birmingham production.”
The series can be viewed by pulling up his Twitter account, @BirminghamRay.