College Coach Not Surprised by Mitch Garver's 2019 Success
Image courtesy of Jordan Johnson, USA TodayRay Birmingham has been coaching baseball for a long time. He has been coaching, he says, “for parts of six decades.” He became a head coach in 1988 at College of the South West. Two years later, he became the head coach at New Mexico Junior College. In 2007, he was named the head coach at the University of New Mexico. In his 12 seasons with the Lobos, he has won 384 games. He’s won over 1,200 games (65% winning percentage) over his 32 years as a head coach. He has sent over 150 players to professional baseball.
In 2014, he was the hitting coach for USA Baseball’s College National team where he coached tournament MVP, and fellow New Mexican, Alex Bregman.
photos from golobos.com
Mitch Garver grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He attended La Cuevas High School where he was a star on the baseball diamond and on the soccer pitch. That is where and when Ray Birmingham first saw Garver and saw the talent that made him an intriguing prospect.
Birmingham admits that he has a soft spot for New Mexico. “I took this job because of my passion for New Mexico kids. I grew up here. I”m a native, and I’ve watched so many kids who just needed a little good work to have a shot at playing pro ball. Mitch was one of those kids. He was one of those poster kids. He was a great goalie. He was a soccer player too. He was physical. He was raw. He had the physical tools, if he could take the time to develop and he wanted to. He was a good fit. He came from great parents. He has a great family. His head was on straight. He came to play. He walked on.”
As a walk-on, Garver had to work for everything he got, and he did. But he wasn’t handed anything. In particular, he wasn’t immediately the Lobos starting catcher. That position was already taken.
Birmingham notes, “We’ve had a lot of freshman All-Americans here, but unfortunately for Mitch, we had named Rafael Neda (who was drafted by the Brewers) who was a big-time catch-and-throw guy and a hitter. He was a junior that year, and Mitch was a freshman. So Mitch’s work was sporadic.”
Garver played in 30 games that season, exactly half of the team’s games. He hit a respectable .277/.356/.385 (.741) with five doubles and a triple.
Garver was a really good student, along with being an athlete. His goals heading to college had little to do with baseball, at least now beyond his four years of college.
“Mitch wanted to be a chiropractor, and his girlfriend at that time, wanted to be a veterinarian. So he was going to school to become a chiropractor. They were very good academics, very intelligent young people. So he was going to school to play some baseball and to become a chiropractor. As most freshman, they take a back seat and wait their turn. Mitch was no different. Mitch was fine with that.”
But Birmingham saw real baseball talent in Garver, and wasn’t afraid to let him know, to challenge him, and ultimately to believe in him. “I remember walking out of the weight room one day, and Neda was ahead of us, maybe a few yards in front of us. I told Mitch, ‘You’re better than he is if you just give yourself the effort and time. You’ll be an All American and get drafted.’ And Mitch went on a mission.”
As a sophomore, Garver played in all 61 Lobos games. He hit .300/.380/.400 (.780) with 12 doubles and two homers. He still wasn’t catching all the time, but he was getting opportunities to play every game.
“Mitch is capable of playing first base and the outfield very well. We had him at center field at one time, but that was later on. He just needed to get his feet wet in Division 1. That’s a big jump from La Cueva high school, especially with the schedule we played.”
photo from golobos.com
As a junior, Garver took a huge leap forward. He played 61 games again, and he hit .377/.438/.612 (1.050) with 27 doubles and ten home runs. He was a finalist for the Johnny Bench Award for the top catcher in college baseball. That season, Mike Zunino from the University of Florida won the award.
Said Birmingham, “So I thought, he’ll win it next year for sure. And he repeated.”
Garver was a candidate again in 2013, in part because he was not drafted after his strong junior season.
“I was surprised. Well, I was and I wasn’t. I’m glad he didn’t. He wasn’t on anybody’s radar until then. You know the scouts, and they were likely wondering if this was an anomaly. What was this? So they were worried about him. So they said, he’s a junior. We’ll let it ride until his senior year.”
That senior season, Garver hit a remarkable .390/.458/.589 (1.047) with 21 doubles and six homers. He was drafted in the ninth round by the Twins and went to Elizabethton where he was a teammate of Ole Miss catcher Stuart Turner, who the Twins had selected in the third round in 2013.
One weekend, both players were excused and able to go to the Johnny Bench Award ceremony. Both were nominated. Birmingham wasn’t happy with the result.
“Stuart Turner won it, and I was upset about it. I was. And I made it known that I was upset about it. No offense to Turner. He was a really good player. Mitch deserved it. Mitch won it, but Mitch wasn’t from the SEC, and the SEC gets more votes.” He continued, “I was upset, and I told Johnny Bench too. Mitch told me that Bench congratulated him on the achievement and we’re all good now, but I was upset.”
Birmingham added, “I told Johnny Bench that Mitch is going to pass Mr. Turner, and he’s going to play in the big leagues and then you’re going to see that I was right. Mitch proved it. I believe in that kid, and I think there are a lot of kids that need a little confidence, a little time. People are asking why he’s hitting so well. Well, he’s playing a lot more and experience is the best teacher.”
photo from golobos.com
Fast-forward six years to today. Birmingham hopes that there isn’t a replay of that situation.
“Silver Slugger is for the best hitter at each position. He should get it this year. There should be no doubt that he should get it. And if it comes out any other way, I’m going to be just like I was with the Johnny Bench award. I’m going to be upset.”
No doubt, Mitch Garver has become a star, and he has put up the numbers to warrant being the 2019 American League Silver Slugger award winner at catcher. Garver ended his 2019 season by hitting .273/.365/.630 (.995) with 16 doubles and 31 homers in 93 games played.
His nearest competition for the award would appear to be Yankees backstop Gary Sanchez. He hit .232/.316/.527 (.843) with 12 doubles and 34 home runs in 105 games.
What’s more, Birmingham says that there is more to come. “He has worked his butt off to get there, and he’s making an impact, and you haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s sure of himself now. He’s sure that he can do this now, and he will only continue to get better. ”
Ray Birmingham has had a lot of success at New Mexico, and he is continuing to build and develop a culture. “You’ll find that these small-population states, we don’t get out much. And Coach Anderson at Minnesota is a good friend of mine. We find that once we get our players the confidence and they realize they can, then stand back, baby, because here they come. And that’s Mitch. Once Mitch knows he can... get out of his way because he will.”
Birmingham says that he has a picture in his office. There are of batting practices in January, before players head off to their spring training destinations. The weather is great. The pictures show Jordan Pacheco who played for three MLB teams between 2011 and 2016. He spent part of 2018 with the Rochester Red Wings. That picture also shows Alex Bregman, the Albuquerque native who was drafted 2nd overall by the Astros out of LSU. Blake Swihart, a former 1st round pick out of high school in New Mexico, who has spent part of each of the last five seasons in the big leagues. Former first-round pick from the Lobos DJ Peterson is in the pictures.
“There are big leaguers hanging around, talking hitting, working on hitting, trying to talk about what they need to do. It’s a culture,” says Birmingham. “It takes time to build. It’s a culture of, we all have a chip on our shoulders, we’re all from New Mexico and we’re going to prove that we can play with anybody in the country.”
Garver comes back and works out, but also talks to the current Lobo players as they prepare for their next season. And he gets involved in the community as well. “Mitch is showing that (he can compete with anybody). He comes back and he gets involved in the community. His wife is a sweetheart. His parents are unbelievably awesome. It’s a culture, and we’re all proud to be New Mexicans.”
“Half our team is New Mexico kids. We take a bullet with them sometimes, and we’re going to get beat by giving them experience, but eventually they’ll come together. We’ve been nationally ranked in the top 25 six of the 13 years we’ve been there because they’ve learned and they’ve got a chip on their shoulder, which we promote. I put them in high competition, and they finally get that confidence that they can do that. Mitch is a poster child for that. So is Bregman. So is Swihart. So is Pacheco. I can go all the way back to Brendan Donnelly, who played for me. It’s a confidence deal that they can, and if they get the right work together, they’ll do it.”
In the last couple of years, Birmingham has held some watch parties. “We’ve had the team get together and eat pizza and watch Mitch play.”
They’ve done that for other New Mexico players including 2017 Marlins first-round pick Trevor Rogers, a graduate of Carlsbad (NM) High School.
In his senior season, Garver was the co-MVP of the Mountain West conference with teammate DJ Peterson. He was part of a team that went to four straight regional tournaments, a rarity in the college game. Peterson was a first-round pick that year (2013). That same season, an outfielder from Fresno State named Aaron Judge was a second-team all-conference, and a first round pick.
But back to Garver, Birmingham sums up his thoughts real well. “He’s a fantastic human being and I love him like he’s my own child. That’s his strong suit, his character. And he gets that from his mom and dad. They are fantastic people. Mitch knows he can, and he will. We are family. We’re one family, and we try to promote that. New Mexico is one family. We’re all pushing the rock in the same direction. Mitch is not afraid of things being hard, and he’s very intelligent. Very intelligent. He’s going to be a big leaguer for a long time. You haven’t seen the best of Mitch yet.”
And hey, if Garver and the Twins can beat Aaron Judge and the Yankees in the ALDS, there may just be a matchup between Garver’s Twins and Alex Bregman and the Houston Astros. If that’s the case, you can rest assured that Ray Birmingham will be hosting a watch party with a bunch of pizzas at the University of New Mexico.
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