Wally Backman is known by younger Mets fans as the now-former manager of the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s. Older Mets fans remember him, though, as a spark plug at second base on Mets teams in the 1980s.
Backman was the Mets’ first round pick (16th overall) in the 1977 draft and signed very quickly on June 7, 1977. Wally advanced quickly though the minors, making his Major League debut on September 2, 1980. Despite being a switch hitter, Backman was an awful right handed hitter, with a career slash of .165/.258/.201, good for an OPS+ of 33. To put Backman’s hitting from the right side in context, his OPS was more than 100 points lower than Eric Campbell and just slightly higher than Steven Matz each hit in 2016.
However, Backman hit right-handers well enough (.294/.364/.362) to bat second for some of the great Mets teams in the 1980s as he fit in smoothly behind either Lenny Dykstra or Mookie Wilson in the New York lineup. He also provided some speed at the top of the order, stealing 30 or more bases in both 1984 and 1985.
The Play on the Card
Shown above is card #48 from the 1987 Topps set, showing a play at the plate. Cards such as this were always a favorite of the author who, like many cardholders, wondered about the details of the play. Who was the catcher? When did the play occur? Was Backman safe or out? Did the Mets win the game? Let’s put our Sherlock Holmes hat on and utilize the internet, particularly baseballrefence.com and youtube, to see what we can determine together:
1. Backman is wearing the home team uniform, so the play is at Shea Stadium.
2. As the card is from 1987, the picture is most likely from 1986, especially considering we can see the wood paneling in the background of the dugout which was not there in 1985.
3. The scene is from a day game. The Mets and Pirates played three day games at Shea in 1986 where Backman played and reached base. The first was on June 14th, the second was the first game in a double header on June 15th, and the last was October 4th.
4. Since Backman and the catcher are both in short sleeves, and a fan in the background (look carefully) is wearing a tank top, we can safely rule out the October 4th game. That leaves a June 14th game and the first game of a June 15th doubleheader as the remaining two possibilities. Pirates catcher Tony Pena was the catcher for all nine innings in both games, so the catcher is definitely Tony Pena, who appeared in 139 games as a catcher that season.
5. Let’s first examine the box score of the June 14th game. In this game, Backman had a diving stop against Pena in the top of the fifth inning. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Backman scored from second on a Keith Hernandez single through the right side. No throw home was noted, nor did Hernandez advance to second. Also, note how clean the top of Backman’s uniform is. By the seventh inning, the uniform would have been dirty if this was the play in question.
6. Now let’s examine the box score of the June 15th game. With nobody out in the bottom of the fourth inning, Backman singled and scored on a double to right field by Keith Hernandez who advanced to third on the throw home. Look at the card again and note how it appears the catcher is facing back towards the umpire as Backman slides in front of the catcher. It is unlikely that Pena would be looking towards an umpire while the batter was continuing to run the bases. A video review off the Internet of the play in question showed that in the fourth inning, Backman slid in behind the catcher, not in front of Tony Pena. The remaining possibility is that the play is from the bottom of the seventh inning when a single to left field by Kevin Mitchell allowed Dykstra to score from second but Backman was thrown out at home on a relay from R.J. Reynolds to Khalifa to Pena. This is most likely the play that this picture was taken from. It is disappointing that Backman was out on a play that Topps chose to show on that card.
As a side note, the Mets did win the game 4-1, with Bob Ojeda picking up his eighth victory of the season to that point.
Wally Backman remained a productive player with the Mets through the 1988 season, but the team wanted to make room for a young Gregg Jefferies at second base. The Mets traded Backman to the Twins for three minor league prospects, none of whom made the majors.
Although Backman was still only 29, he was just about done. After playing poorly in his one season in Minnesota, he became a free agent and signed with the Pirates, who switched him to third base. Absolutely lacking in power (Backman hit a total of 10 homers in his 13 year career), Backman put up a .771 OPS; acceptable for a middle infielder but less satisfying for a corner infielder.
After a lone season in Pittsburgh, Backman again became a free agent. This time he signed with the Phillies, where he put in two seasons as a utility infielder before a brief 10-game stint with the Mariners in 1993. Seattle released him on May 17, 1993, ending his playing career at the age of 33.