UNM baseball coach Birmingham humbled to receive national award - Albuquerque Journal

UNM baseball coach Birmingham humbled to receive national award

In this 2017 photo, University of New Mexico baseball coach Ray Birmingham poses with Lio Ortega, then 3, before a home game. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Ray Birmingham has long believed baseball is about more than wins and losses.

The University of New Mexico’s veteran baseball coach frequently uses his platform to support worthy causes or encourage people enduring difficult times. Birmingham’s off-the-field work was recognized this week as he was named national Keeper of the Game Award winner for 2020.

Based in Frisco, Texas, Keeper of the Game Foundation recognizes individuals or families in and around baseball who do exceptional work serving the special needs community and embody the spirit of servant leadership. It is given in conjunction with the Mike Coolbaugh Diamond Dreams Foundation.

Birmingham, who has been in the coaching profession for 42 years (32 as a college head coach at UNM, College of the Southwest and New Mexico Junior College), has accumulated more than 1,200 wins and 22 various championships, including a junior college national title at NMJC.

He was surprised, however, when Keeper of the Game informed him of his award during a recent Zoom conference call.

“Very excited because it’s a great organization that helps people,” Birmingham said. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters.”

In a release announcing his selection, Keeper of the Game lauded Birmingham for volunteering at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, delivering baseball gloves to patients and organizing Keeper of the Game’s “Out to the Ballgame” day at Santa Ana Star Field, which included presenting three seasons’ worth of specialty game balls to Lobo Little League’s adaptive Challenger Division.

The organization also recognized Birmingham’s ongoing relationship with Lio Ortega, 7, the son of former Lobo Fred Ortega, who has battled brain tumors since he was 2 years old. The baseball teams at UNM and Air Force recognized the Ortegas during a game in Colorado Springs (where the family lives) and cheered Lio on for a pregame “home run.” Lio also threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a UNM home game against Fresno State in 2017.

The Journal published stories about the Ortega family’s relationship with UNM baseball in 2016 and ’17. Keeper of the Game has links to both stories on its website, keeperofthegame.org.

“The career of Ray Birmingham has been lined with wins, championships and impacting countless players’ lives, but what he does off the field is even more impressive,” Keeper of The Game Founder James Vilade said. “His work serving those with special needs and disabilities is a passion he has had his entire career. Coach Birmingham is a community champion. We congratulate him, and we know his work is not done.”

Birmingham is the ninth annual Keeper of the Game Award winner, joining a list that includes current and former major league players, coaches and contributors at various levels of the sport. According to the release, Birmingham is set to receive his award prior to a home game this season.

“I am humbled to win the Keeper of The Game Award,” Birmingham said. “I wish all of the coaches across the country would join this great and unselfish organization.”


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