Ray Birmingham always wanted this opportunity.
The New Mexico head coach showed his joy with Alex Bregman, an Albuquerque native and a star infielder for LSU, by his side at The Pit on Thursday. Both will spend more time together over the next several weeks as part of team USA.
Bregman is a member of the 2014 Collegiate National Team, while Birmingham will be the hitting coach.
The two will leave Albuquerque this week for a summer of baseball that includes games against Chinese Taipei, Japan and Cuba. The tour begins on Saturday with the Red, White and Blue Tour to be held in various cities across the country. The trip will end on July 27 with the Friendship Series vs. Cuba in Havana, Cuba.
“It’s an honor to represent your country. It’s just a different feeling playing with the U.S. on your chest than any other name on your chest,” Bregman said. “Playing against the international competition is fun and a blast. It’s a different feeling you get — it’s hard to explain.”
More than once during the 14-minute interview Bregman said he was overjoyed to finally be able to play for Birmingham. Bregman was highly recruited out of high school, playing his prep ball at Academy and seriously thought about joining the Lobos before deciding to go to LSU.
“Growing up in New Mexico, I’ve always wanted to play for coach Birmingham and I finally get a chance to do which is exciting,” Bregman said. “Since I’ve been 12 he’s been helping me with the game of baseball and I can’t wait to finally play for him.”
Birmingham said there’s not much for him to teach to some of the most talented players in the world.
“My job is to make sure all these good players make it to the game on time,” he joked. “You just make sure that they’re ready to go.”
This will be Bregman’s fourth time on the national team and he said his teammates have noticed how good the Lobos have become.
“I always follow UNM because I’m from here,” Bregman said, “but other guys notice. Some of my teammates have looked at the stats and said, ‘Wow, New Mexico’s leading the country in hitting again. What are they doing down there?’”
The international competition is always tough, Bregman said.
“Last year, I played against a shortstop (Erisbel Arruebarrena) who is on the Isotopes now,” Bregman said. “It’s a tough level of competition but it makes you raise your game to the next level and it’s fun playing against the best in the world.”
At a meeting to decide which players to select to the team, Birmingham was quick to bring up Bregman’s name. It didn’t take long though for the rest of the coaches to agree that Bregman was going to be on the team.
“I love this guy. I follow him all the time. He’s a great player and the thing that I like about him is that he’s a baseball player,” Birmingham said. “He’s not a stopwatch guy or a radar gun guy, he’s a winner. He elevates his play on the field and he leads and he’s positive, his energy level is through the roof. He’s like the New Mexico poster boy for all of us New Mexicans that love and play baseball.”
Birmingham said he likes the Team USA’s chances in the upcoming tour.
“The USA is favorite all the time until you get to the small island in the Caribbean,” he said. “You notice people are trying to steal those guys away and pay them a lot of money.”
Harris Named All-American
On Wednesday the National Collegiate Baseball Writers named UNM outfielder Chase Harris a second team All-American.
The honor comes after Harris was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 14th round of the MLB draft and after being selected the District VIII Player of the Year.
“He deserved it,” Birmingham said. “He’s a great kid, and he played his butt off every game. He worked hard to get where he is. I’m proud of him.”
Harris led the Lobos in almost every offensive category this season. He became the 39th All-American in UNM history.