The Road Back For Backman
Wally Backman diligently fills out the Mets' Class A Brooklyn Cyclones lineup card in another cramped clubhouse office on his bumpy road back to redemption. He answers questions about his rocky past, his present bumper crop of players, and the uncertain future.
Backman's meandering sojourn since his banishment by the Arizona Diamondbacks after four days on the job as manager in 2004 takes him to Upstate Troy, New York, the birthplace of Uncle Sam. It's one of many off-the-beaten paths visited in the minors.
Nevertheless, Backman isn't complaining one iota. After five years toiling in the Independent Leagues (he was fired in 2008 by the Joilet, Ill. Jackhammers after a 24-42 start), he has landed back in the Mets organization where he started 33 years ago.
It's been an uphill climb since everything unraveled personally and professionally for him in 2004.
Backman, who turns 51 on Wednesday, was unceremoniously sacked as the D-Backs field manager when numerous off-field transgressions came to light. Backman says he was never asked about his past.
What ensued was a stampede by the skeletons out of the closet. Arrests for a DUI incident and several domestic disputes, coupled with a bankruptcy filing came to light. It brought him to his knees.
"I really wondered whether I was out of opportunities," Backman said.
Enter Mets COO Jeff Wilpon.
"We're an organization that believes in second chances," he explained. "Although, in Wally's case, we had to put a (bad boy) zero tolerance clause in his contract."
According to Backman, he signed without reading it. "I just wanted a chance," knowing he was over-qualified for rookie ball.
"I had the opportunity (to manage in the big leagues) for just a short time with Arizona, but kind of got screwed," he said. "But that's in the past. I was qualified then and I don't think I'm not qualified now and I'm grateful for Jeff for giving me my career back again."
What does the opportunity to manage with an affiliated team mean to Backman? "For me it's a re-evaluation process. I guess that would include off the field and on the field. Translated: That means no hiccups, legal or otherwise.
Backman is completed focused on the job at hand; teaching this group of neophytes about winning and hopefully zipping through the Mets chain like Ike Davis did.
Ike's circus catches probably impressed the Cyclones' skipper from afar. However, he has tunnel vision now, instilling his brand of hard-nose baseball.
"These guys have bought into the system and play the game hard. They know what I expect, and I teach taking losses personally like I did when I played," Backman said.
That means grass and dirt stains galore and executing fundamentals. "You have to learn how to do the little things, such as moving the runners over from second base with less than two outs. In the lower levels you might bunt more or hit and run more because it is a teaching process," he explained.
Backman feels schooling and winning can go hand in hand. "Winning is developing, and you are teaching (the players) how to win," he said.
The Cyclones won as they advanced all the way to the New York-Penn League Championship Series before falling to the Tri-City Valley Cats.
Not every three hitter in the lower minor leaguers grows up to assume that prominent spot. "He could be a seven or eight hitter in the big leagues," Backman reasoned. "Everyone wants the three-run home run but it's good to see a team manufacture runs too."
Many of his players experienced homesickness. Backman can relate. He apprenticed for six seasons in places like Lynchburg, Virginia (Atlanta Braves) in the Carolina League (High-A) and Jackson in the Double-A Texas League. He also logged over 2,000 plate appearances in the minors.
"We get a lot of kids in this league that came out of college and they play 50 games, but it's not a daily grind," he said. "You get to professional sports and the players breakdown mentally before they do physically. That's when you have to rest guys."
Backman believes today's minor leaguer has more support than he did at Little Falls in 1977. Moreover, Little Falls, NY is a sleepy rural town which might have been a blessing for a 17-year-old focusing on his craft, but only a bridge (or two) separates Brooklyn from the bright lights of Manhattan.
Although Backman was a former number one draft pick (16th overall in 1977) his size (book says 5-foot-8, but he's smaller) casted doubts on his abilities. However, his "take no prisoners" persona propelled the pepper-pot second sacker into the hearts of Mets fans forever.
That abject desire and grittiness sustained him through the course of a 12-year big league career. When the Mets won the World Series in 1986 Back was smack in the middle of the madness.
Having Davey Johnson in his corner didn't hurt Backman's career either. The former Mets manager believed having a contact hitter hitting second, would set a bountiful table for sluggers Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, and Gary Carter to feast on and they did.
"Davey took me under his wing (at Tidewater) and gave me the real opportunity to play on a regular basis. Without him you never what happens in my playing career," Backman said.
"He told me if he was promoted to the big club (in 1984) I would be his starting second baseman," Backman continued. Moreover, his managerial style, as a "player's manager" is patterned after Johnson.
"Davey was the most influential manager to me. I owe him a lot," Backman said.
"People forget that Wally beat out a very talented player to get his job," explained Johnson in an e-mail message. "He did anything to help the team win and is a fox-hole type guy."
Adds Johnson: "He was always into the game and was a fiery competitor. Wally had his detractors but worked hard on is defense to become a complete player."
Backman is a fan of Cyclones outfielder and 2010 fourth round pick Cory Vaughn, son of former big leaguer Greg Vaughn. "Cory's power is special, but raw. Someday he's going to learn to be a real quality hitter. He's a five-tool player," the skipper claims.
"This is only his first year in professional ball but I don't see him lasting very long in the minor leagues. This kid is going to get the opportunity to play in the big leagues soon."
Vaughn finished the season with a Cyclones' record 14 home runs and served as the major source of production in the heart of the lineup. Outfielder Darrell Ceciliani also impressed. Ceciliani hit for a team-record .351 with 19 doubles, 12 triples and 21 stolen bases.
"He has gap-to-gap power and tracks the ball well in the outfield," Backman said of Ceciliani. "Like Cory, he also has great baseball instincts and the tools to be a major league player."
As for Backman's future, he is "taking it one day at a time," but loves managing. "If an opportunity presented itself with another organization I would have to think about it." After all, he does have to make up for lost time.
Or as Davey Johnson stated, "We all have ups and downs but the good ones come back. There's no quit in Wally."
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