Not quite perfect but perfectly fitting.
Ray Birmingham took his last ride as the University of New Mexico’s baseball coach Saturday, a slow lap on horseback around Santa Ana Star Field as a gathering of friends, fans and Lobo players applauded.
It was the end of a 43-year coaching career, all of it spent in New Mexico with the final 14 coming at UNM. Sporting his Lobos uniform topped by a cowboy hat, Birmingham moseyed around the stadium he helped to transform with numerous upgrades during his tenure.
The normally loquacious coach did not address the crowd or speak to reporters, choosing instead to ride into the sunset while country music blared on the stadium speakers.
“Absolutely perfect,” senior outfielder Kyler Castillo said.
Unfortunately for Birmingham and the Lobos, Saturday’s game fell a few inches short of providing an ideal backdrop. New Mexico trimmed an 11-4 San Diego State lead to 11-10 and ultimately put the potential tying and winning runs on base in the ninth inning.
But a pair of line-drive outs allowed the Aztecs to secure a one-run victory. A diving catch of Shane Podsednik’s hard-hit liner to left field officially ended the game, UNM’s season and Birmingham’s coaching career.
While it was not the ending a pro-UNM crowd wanted, it was an appropriate capper for a Lobos team that largely had its season undone by injuries and various COVID-19 issues. UNM finished 16-25, 10-17 in Mountain West play despite winning seven of its last nine games.
“It’s been frustrating with all the stopping and going, stopping and going because of COVID,” Castillo said. “But guys battled to the end, put together good at-bats. Unfortunately, we hit a few too many balls hard right at people.”
While a win would have been icing, Saturday’s pre- and postgame ceremonies served as satisfying cake for the several hundred fans in attendance. Prior to first pitch, UNM honored its 15 seniors and gave a last salute to Birmingham. Athletic director Eddie Nuñez presented the veteran coach with a photo in a custom wooden frame, designed in the shape of an American Flag.
Birmingham’s family shared the moment at home plate, and his two grandchildren later threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Birmingham will throw out the first pitch prior to the Albuquerque Isotopes home game this coming Saturday, when he’ll also be honored with a special tribute video.
During and after the game against SDSU, players exchanged frequent handshakes and hugs. Fifth-year senior pitcher Cody Dye was swarmed by teammates after pitching a scoreless ninth inning, and several Lobos fought back tears after the team’s regular on-field postgame meeting.
“This day was a lot. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional,” said infielder Connor Mang, a Los Alamos native and fifth-year senior. “Coach B and Lobo baseball kind of raised me for the last five years. The way the fans reacted today actually gave me chills. I’ll never forget it.”
Mang smiled when asked about Birmingham’s staged exit on horseback.
“For him it was fitting,” Mang said. “I’m glad we all got to be part of it.”
The 66-year-old Birmingham finished his UNM career with a 414-320-4 record that included five of the program’s six NCAA Regionals appearances. He led the Lobos to four Mountain West regular-season titles and three conference tournament championships.
Before coming to UNM, Birmingham coached at Mayfield High School, College of the Southwest and New Mexico Junior College, leading the latter to a JUCO World Series championship in 2005. He finished with 1,232 collegiate coaching victories, the most in New Mexico baseball history.