Talkin’ Baseball With Bisons Manager Wally Backman
I was standing in the Bison’s clubhouse talking to my buddy Dylan Owen. Dylan isn’t just a very talented RHP, he can hit too, and he happens to be a really nice guy. I was telling him, I had watched Monday night’s game on the internet, and when I saw him hit his historic home run, I was half-expecting him to go into a Carlton Fisk hop, waving his arms for the ball to stay fair. But instead, I said, you went right into your Cadillac trot Dylan! He just laughed and agreed that he didn’t mind the trot around the bases too much.
I excused myself from talking to Dylan because I had spotted Chris Schwinden across the room and wanted to introduce myself in person. Chris was my first interview this past winter, and I wanted to say hello. Schwinny and I talked about the differences between this time this year, and this time last year, and the difference spending a little time in the big leagues can make on one’s perspective. Schwinden assured me he was ready to make the trip back up anytime he was needed and was anxious to get up there and contribute. I told him that he would be there before he knew it.
At this point I felt something pulling me towards the manager’s office, I really wanted to talk to Wally. I mean that would make the whole trip worthwhile! I even prepared a whole slew of cool questions to ask him. So I took a deep breath and walked to the door of the manager’s office and peered inside, and it was empty.
But I heard some voices next door and there was Wally sitting against a desk and chatting with his coaches and assistants. And before I even knew what I was saying I had blurted out from the doorway, “Hey skip! Got a minute?”
At this point it was like being in some kind of a dream, because he said to me, “sure come on in.” And he jumped up and came out into the hall and motioned for me to follow him into his office saying, “Grab a seat, make yourself at home.” I started to walk over to where there was a chair opposite from Wally, but I couldn’t feel my feet, my legs had gone completely numb and I felt as if I were floating across the small office.
I remember asking if I could turn on my recorder, and for the first time had a heck of a time getting it to turn on. I was so nervous I started blathering about the first time I went to Shea Stadium, and how it was for a Beatles Concert not a baseball game, and that the Mets manager when I did go to my first game was Salty Parker. I told him how proud I was as a life-long Mets fan, of what he and his teammates from that ’86 team had accomplished.
And I told him how during Doc’s first two seasons, I never missed going to his starts at Shea, and the incredible electricity that was in the air back then. He told me there were something like 7,500 more fans at each of Dwight’s starts in those years than when anybody else was throwing.
By this time I had gotten my voice recorder started and began to ask him some of my prepared questions.
Petey: Seeing as you were a second-baseman, switch-hitter, you’ve got this switch-hitting second-baseman now Bobby Scales, who’s like a revelation. This guy’s a ballplayer!
Wally: He’s a very good ball-player.
Petey: He’s a complete ball-player.
Wally: Yes he is, he can play not just second, but he can play all the infield positions. He can play the outfield too, so a very good addition to the organization. He’s definitely a professional in all aspects of the game.
Petey: Dylan Owen, really impressive, but I guess he’s not gonna stay in the rotation because you have Hef back now?
Wally: Yeah, but he’s a quality guy that’s had success in AAA, knows how to pitch, able to pitch both sides of the plate. I had him for a short time in AA last year, and then he went straight to AAA. He’s one of those sleeper type of guys. He’s not going to over-power hitters, but he can throw both sides of the plate, he throws 88-90, with good command, good stuff like he showed last night. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t light the radar gun up, but if you go old school, you look and see how they swing and miss pitches, he’s one of those guys.
Petey: His pitches have a lot of movement on them.
Wally: Yes they do.
Petey: Any thoughts on making him a pinch-hitter? (laughing)
Wally: Well you know what? He was a position player before he signed, we knew he could swing the bat a little bit. You watch the pitchers take B.P. He and Harvey are probably the two best hitting pitchers we have.
Petey: Yeah Harvey got that big RBI single last game.
Wally: Yeah Harvey got a couple of hits, he can swing the bat.
Petey: When they’re going to call up somebody, like they called up Hefner the other day, do they ask you for a recommendation? Or do they say, whose turn is it to pitch, and just summon a guy according to pitching schedule?
Wally: Well for Hef, they were in need because of the double-header. He was supposed to be our starting pitcher yesterday (Monday), but we knew something could happen so that’s why we held Dylan Owen back. So we’d have somebody that could start. So we wouldn’t blow our whole bullpen out. You know it was Hefner’s day to pitch, he’s a 40-man roster guy, it was a good experience for him. And he pitched well.
Petey: He did a good job, and impressed a lot of people.
Petey: You had Schwinden last year in Binghamton, and now again this year, with a cup of coffee in the bigs in between. Do you notice a difference?
Wally: Yeah he’s a pitcher. He’s another that pitches to both sides of the plate, he’s not an over-powering guy, but he knows how to pitch. He’s similar to maybe a Dillon Gee type, they’re not exactly the same but they both know how to pitch to both sides of the plate.
Petey: Schwinny’s number one is his curveball, Gee’s is his change-up.
Wally: Right, right, but he knows how to pitch, he’s another guy that’s gonna be in the big leagues.
Petey: Speaking of that, Harvey or Familia. Whose gonna be up in the big leagues first do you think?
Wally: Well, that’s a tough question. (laughing then) They both compete against each other. It really showed in the last two starts. Harvey struck out ten, Familia struck out eight. They compete against each other, it’s nice to see them together. And I hope people understand when guys compete against each other, it’s really a team value, it’s good for the team. Because they want to have the success. Whose going to go first? Tough question, I got a hunch that they might both go at the same time. Maybe they’re September call-ups, let them get a taste of what’s happening in the big leagues. I think the outcome of this year, and the development for them, is very, very important right now. They’re both quality pitchers, power-armed pitchers, they’re both going to be very good in the big leagues. Hopefully they’re not rushed too soon. They need to develop a little bit more and I think they both know that. And I know they’re hungry to get to the big leagues. When they go to the big leagues, in my opinion, they’re going to go there as probably number three starters but they could both develop into a number one, I think, on a championship ball club. I like them both a ton.
Petey: You see Familia staying a starting pitcher right? I mean I don’t know who started it but there’s been some chatter about him possibly being moved to the pen.
Wally: No, I’ve heard a little bit of that too, you know through the grapevine. For me, personally, he’s going to be a quality starter, he’s going to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s got more moving parts than Harvey. His delivery is a little more clean than Familia’s, but I don’t care, Familia to me, is a top-of-the rotation starter. And listen he’s only a 21-year-old kid.
Petey: And he got a late start pitching too didn’t he?
Wally: Yeah he’s got a very fresh arm. It’s a power-arm. You know I watched this kid last year when I had him for 15-16 starts, plus what I’ve had him here. He can get himself in trouble, and he’ll pitch at 94 plus, but when he wants 97-98 he’s got it. To me that’s impressive. You know, he’s got a swing-and-miss fastball, a lot of movement. He calls it his slider, it’s a slider with a lot of depth, at times when he throws it right it’s a swing-and-miss pitch. He throws it for a strike. His change-up was a work-in-progress last year. It’s gotten a lot better.
Petey: It looks to have some fade and arm-side run to it.
Wally: Yes it does. Yes it does. So, to me, I don’t consider him as a bullpen guy at all. I see him as a starter.
Petey: Anybody that was looking at his ERA before and thinking he is over-rated is missing something.
Wally: He is absolutely not over-rated. No way. He has a big arm, it has to develop.
Well, there is just so much more to this interview, and I don’t want to write the War and Peace of baseball chats, so I’m going to stop here for now. Be sure to stop back for more of my road trip, more great photos, and more of this terrific interview with skipper Wally Backman. Wally and I also talked about Brad Holt, Josh Edgin, Jack Egbert, Val Pascucci, Jordany Valdespin, and much more, so stay tuned!
About the Author: Peter Shapiro
The first time I went to Shea was not for a Mets game, it was for the Beatles concert there in August of '66. My first Met game was '67, a guy named Salty Parker was the interim-manager then. My first pennant race was 1969. As a 12 year-old that summer and fall, I managed to get to the park for 3 games. The first was the beginning of the Miracle which actually started on Tuesday July 8, 1969 with a day game against the Cubs. I was there a lot in '73. I saw games 3 & 5 of the 1973 NL Playoffs against the "Big Red Machine", from the upper deck behind home plate. It was from there that I witnessed the fight between Bud Harrelson and Pete Rose, and the mayhem that ensued. And that sweet victory in game 5! I saw a couple of WS games at Shea that year against that legendary Oakland A's club. I was there in 1985 for every single game Dr. K pitched including his two 16 strikeout performances, and the day he one-hit the Cubs on an infield single and the Mets won 1-0. I loved being a Met fan in those days. Hopefully we are once again preparing to emerge from the darkness.
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