Ray Birmingham is gearing up for quite a housewarming party at Santa Ana Star Field.
The date and guest list have not been confirmed.
Whenever fans and players are allowed to return to the University of New Mexico’s baseball facility, they’ll notice a lot of work has been done around the place. An expansion project that will more than triple seating capacity is nearly complete, giving the Lobos’ home ballpark a decidedly different feel.
Bleachers extend behind each dugout and construction crews were installing handrails and other final touches this week. Stadium seats will soon be added behind home plate and Birmingham plans to add backrests to the remaining bench seats, too.
The current project, funded by an $875,000 state appropriation approved in 2019, also includes a new sound system, extended protective netting for the additional seats, and new artificial turf for the infield. Seating capacity will increase from 1,000 to roughly 3,500.
“It’s night and day from where we started,” said Birmingham, who took over as UNM’s baseball coach in 2008. “It’s come from a high-school field to a Division I college field. We’re not done yet but I like the way it feels. Recruits will love it.”
What’s missing, of course, is baseball. The 2020 season was canceled in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic and what lies ahead for college baseball in 2020-21 remains to be seen.
Birmingham is trying to look past the shutdown and use the down time productively. UNM’s new turf and sound systems are set to be installed in August, and Birmingham is eager for baseball fans to see his program’s remodeled home.
“We’re excited about it,” he said, “and I really hope it turns into a go-to field for the state. We want to have high school state tournaments, all-star games, summer tournaments and other special games at this facility. It’s huge for our program but I want this to be a place where New Mexico kids are excited to play.”
ROSTER CHANGES: In spite of an NCAA ruling allowing expanded rosters for 2021, Birmingham now expects to have a typical 35-player squad next season.
UNM had just three active seniors last season and it now appears only one, outfielder Tanner Baker, will take advantage of the extra season of eligibility approved by the NCAA when 2020 spring sports were canceled. Pitcher Nathaniel Garley and infielder Justin Watari have opted not to return, Birmingham said.
Kemuel Thomas-Rivera, UNM’s starting shortstop after he arrived from North Central Texas College last season, has transferred to Tarleton State University for next season, Birmingham said.
The Lobos have added two highly touted junior college shortstops for next season in Willie Cano and Mack Chambers III. Cano, the cousin of former UNM star DJ Peterson, previously played at Cal Poly and was highly recruited after transferring to Arizona’s Yavapai College. Cano was hitting .426 when the 2020 season was stopped.
Chambers was an 11th-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2019 who did not sign and committed to UNM out of Seminole State College in Oklahoma. Chambers likely would have been drafted higher than round 11 this summer but MLB’s draft was cut to five rounds because of the pandemic.
UNM currently has 48 players on its roster but Birmingham, as usual, plans to make cuts prior to the regular season. When and if the Lobos’ fall camp will begin has yet to be determined.