The University of New Mexico baseball team held its "First Pitch Banquet" on Friday afternoon as the team welcomed an ESPN personality to the local baseball community and attempted to raise funds for the upcoming season.
UNM baseball head coach Ray Birmingham said he is tasked with raising $150,000 every year through donations and the banquet was a step toward accomplishing that goal.
ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian, a big name in the Major League Baseball world, was the guest speaker and highlighted a night filled with food, speeches and auctions for some big-ticket baseball items — among them were fan experiences with big-league players Alex Bregman, Blake Swihart and Mitch Garver, as well as autographed baseball and sports paraphernalia.
Birmingham said he considers himself an educational institution — that he is not only a coach, but an educator as well who understands he works for the people of New Mexico and has a duty to represent them.
But the head coach has to represent his players as well, and they apparently endured a season of uncertainty last year before he even had the chance to advocate for them this time around.
He said it almost feels like the team is rebuilding in a lot of ways — comparing the environment to that of 2008 when he arrived — though they facilities are much nicer.
Birmingham mentioned the effect of the sports cuts that were initially announced over the summer, though the rumors were present well before four sports were officially voted on by the UNM Board of Regents on Aug. 17 to eliminated effective July 1, 2019.
And while baseball wound up not being one of the four sports to get the axe, that didn't mean there weren't still ramifications.
The head coach expressed a problem that was at least two-fold: the public knowledge that the sport was on the chopping block, coupled with a baseball coach without a new contract in place presented him with some difficult obstacles.
"Talk about a recruiting roadblock," Birmingham said.
The head coach said some players thought about leaving — and some did, even at the mere whispers of the program being in jeopardy.
"You've got to remember this program was mentioned to be dropped in the summer," Birmingham said. "I appreciate these kids for still being here after all that happened.
He said the feel of a reboot is a function of that situation an the way it was handled, though he emphasized nobody wanted it to be that way, and it was through nobody's fault in particular.
But Friday night was about celebrating the past and looking to the future.
Birmingham said his favorite part of the night including the opportunity to recognize the program's rich history and the people that have impacted the state.
"The thing that I really enjoy doing is bragging about New Mexico and the people that have done great things in it," he said. "That was my sixth banquet and four of the people that we have honored have won World Series rings."
Birmingham said he was pleased his student-athletes got the chance to meet Kurkjian and all the people that care about what they are doing, and the people in attendance got to meet the men they support and enjoy meeting a baseball celebrity in Kurkjian as well.
The head coach said he didn't get a lot of time with the guest from ESPN, but was asked by Kurkjian whether an old-school coach like him had trouble connecting with the millennials — an issue that coaches in the coaching and major league ranks both have to navigate.
He said he told Kurkjian things are not bad — just different — and that he still loves coaching the "kids," though also admitting he is moving into his sixth decade of coaching. Birmingham said he has relied on surrounding himself with a younger coaching staff to help understand and connect with the players in order to bridge that gap.
Birmingham expressed disappoint that UNM — for the first time in a decade — wasn't in the Mountain West title game. But despite last year's setback, he thinks they might be able to pull it off again if the players learn quickly and do what they need to do to be successful.
The job of raising funds is seemingly a never-ending endeavor, though he said the team appreciates all the support it has gotten and continues to get. Birmingham said those interested in making a donation to UNM baseball are welcome to become a member of the Lobo Dugout Club or reach out to him directly via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Mexico baseball gets its new season underway later this week in Arizona, opening against the defending national champions. It will face Oregon State on Feb. 15 at 1 p.m. — one of two meetings against the Beavers in the season-opening Surprise Tournament.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.