When the news broke in mid-November of 2017 that Wally Backman had agreed to manage the New Britain Bees, one of eight independent teams in the Atlantic League, it took few by surprise.
The baseball lifer is still chasing his dream of one day managing in the major leagues, a position he held for all of four days in November 2004 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The club was unaware of his past legal troubles before a New York Times article was released, detailing his past transgressions.
The fiery and beloved second baseman of the 1986 champion New York Mets was out of baseball until 2007, when he was hired to manage the South Georgia Peanuts of the newly formed South Coast League.
The independent league team was filmed for the ten-episode documentary, Playing for Peanuts, which chronicled the league and Backman’s comeback into baseball for its one and only season. The League office suspended operations in 2008, citing an inability to an inability to “close on a sufficient amount of debt and equity financing to ensure a successful 2008 season”.
It wouldn’t take long for viewers to find a myriad of outbursts and ejections on YouTube from Backman’s lone season with the Peanuts, though, his club finished 59-28 and went on to win the South Coast League Championship.
Backman, 58, eventually found his way back to New York, as he was hired in November 2009 to manage the club’s Short-Season A team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, for 2010. In his first season with the Cyclones, Backman guided the club to 51-24 record, with the .680 winning percentage the best in the New York-Penn League. The Cyclones were later swept by the Tri-City ValleyCats in the New York-Penn League Championship Series.
The fiery Backman was making noise in the organization, so much so that he was one of the four finalists to take over as the next Mets manager in the winter of 2010, along with Bob Melvin, Chip Hale, and eventual hire, Terry Collins.
Backman continued to climb the Mets’ organizational ladder, being named manager of the Double-A Binghamton Mets for 2011 and one season later the Triple-A manager of the Buffalo Bisons. The club switched their Triple-A affiliate to Las Vegas starting in 2013, with Backman guiding the club until 2016. In that time, Backman led the 51s to back-to-back first place finishes in 2013 and ’14, winning Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in ’14.
Though he helped mentor and nurture many of the Mets young, talented prospects, the front office decided to go in another direction after the 2016 season. The split was messy however, with reports circling that the Mets’ brass was frustrated with the way Backman handled some of their prospects, including Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto. Backman shot back at the reports, telling Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record that he heard from a source that GM Sandy Alderson was working against him, and that Backman was essentially being blackballed from baseball.
After finishing with winning seasons in three of the four years Backman was at the helm in Las Vegas, the club posted a dismal 56-86 record in 2017, a dismal 30 games below .500. Reports were out about how the Mets were privately disappointed in the development of some their top prospects, including Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. One of Backman’s strengths as a manager throughout his many stops in his managerial career was how he got the most out of his players, and the level of respect they had for his style of managing. Perhaps his presence was missed more than the organization originally thought.
The separation left many in the fan base disappointed, with many eagerly hoping that Backman would get the opportunity to manage the Mets with his aggressive yet, analytical approach.
To his credit, Backman has not given up on his quest to manage in the majors, and views each stop along the way as another opportunity to prove his worth. After a stint in the Mexican League in 2017, Backman received a call from the Bees about the possibility of joining the club as not just a manager, but with autonomy of recruiting and signing players as well.
He cites one of the biggest thrills he has when managing in the Independent Leagues is offering players a second chance at reaching their dreams in affiliated ball. Being able to put the players in a position to succeed and watching them get the opportunity to showcase their talents brings tremendous joy to the 14-year former second baseman.
And just like his players, Backman, too, is hoping for that second chance as a Major League manager.
I had the privilege of speaking to Backman in early May, where we discussed his early years with the Mets, the ’86 season, and his fallout with the Mets after the ’16 season.
MMO: Growing up who were some of the players you looked up to?
Backman: I loved the way Pete Rose played. I would say he’s an idol and I was fortunate enough to play against the guy.
MMO: Who introduced you to the game at an early age?
Backman: My father introduced it to me, I loved the game. It’s a game that I love; that’s why many people call me a lifer, that’s what I am.
MMO: Prior to the 1977 MLB Draft, did you have any notions that the Mets were looking to select you 16th overall?
Backman: You know I didn’t know that. I knew there were a lot of scouts; Baltimore was one team that scouted me real hard. When the Mets came about it was kind of a surprise.
MMO: What do you remember from you major league debut on September 2, 1980 against the Los Angeles Dodgers on the road?
Backman: Got a base hit my first time up at Dodger Stadium. It was good, a great day, my family was there. To get a base hit my first time up was great. (I) struck out my second at-bat and hit a double my third at-bat so it was a good day.
MMO: I read that when you were demoted to Triple-A Tidewater in ’83, Davey Johnson (manager of the club) was very instrumental for you. What did Johnson do or say to instill confidence back in you?
Backman: I think the thing with Davey was Davey believed. He believed in what I was capable of doing and I give Davey some of the utmost credit because he gave me that opportunity to prove that. I respect him very much.
MMO: Johnson told your team in spring in ’86 that you weren’t going to just win the World Series, but dominate baseball. That ’86 club is forever revered and is one of the greatest teams and stories in baseball history. How confident were you guys heading into the ’86 season, and to you, what made the team so special and gel like it did?
Backman: I think the chemistry made the team special. I think it was great players with great chemistry; a team on a mission that hated to lose. I know when we lost a game it was like we really had to take it out on them the next day. It was a great team, great players, and great team chemistry. The team didn’t want to lose.
I look back on all of those years that we were there together and when we got (Keith) Hernandez and (Gary) Carter, I wish there would’ve been a wild card back in those days.
MMO: Do you feel that if there were a wild card back then, the club would’ve turned into a dynasty?
Backman: Well, I think we did have a dynasty. If you take it in today’s world, the game’s we won from 1984-88, it was a dynasty. Like I said before, if there were a wild card we would’ve probably went to the playoffs probably at least four years in a row.
That being said, you never know what’s going to happen when you get there.
MMO: Game Six of the ’86 NLCS, you pinch-hit for Teufel in the ninth and end up driving in what would’ve been the game-winning run in the 14th with your RBI single to right against Aurelio Lopez. Can you talk about that at-bat and just that series against the Houston Astros in general?
Backman: It was a big at-bat, it was a game we felt we really needed to win. I got a good pitch to hit and I was able to drive in a run. I know that (Billy) Hatcher hit the home run off the foul pole and tied it back up, but to put us in a position where I could help the team win that’s all I cared about.
MMO: I take it that your team as a whole wanted no part in a Game Seven to have to face Mike Scott again?
Backman: Every one of us!
MMO: You led off the 10th in Game Six of the ’86 World Series and flew out to Jim Rice in left for this first out. Keith flew out in the following at-bat. With two outs and down by two, what were you guys thinking on the bench at that point? Davey told me that he knew you guys were not only going to win that game, but also the World Series once Bob Stanley threw the wild pitch to Mookie. Did you feel that way too?
Backman: You know it was special. I remember when I flew out and I was thinking, God, we played the worst six games during a season that I felt that we played. And then everything started to click, just like it clicked during the regular season. All of a sudden your mind thought changes and you’re thinking, we’re going to come back and win this game!
With the play at first base with Mookie and Buckner it was a huge thing. I talked about the whole time Dave Stapleton usually played first base for Buck when the game was on the line, and I know that McNamara wanted to keep Buckner out there because he had such a great career. But hey, sometimes you make a mistake and sometimes it costs you.
MMO: At what point in your career did you realize you wanted to manage?
Backman: I think probably in ’90, when I went and played for Pittsburgh. I sat with Jim Leyland and we talked on the bench a lot and often. Jimmy was the one that said, “Wally, you can be a really good manager,” and that’s probably when I first thought about it.
MMO: How would you describe your approach and style as a manager?
Backman: Aggressive and motivational. I think motivation is one of the biggest things in baseball that you have to do as a manager, and knowing how to run your bullpen. Your bullpen is the key to success, especially over the long haul. Being able to manage your bullpen and not blow them out or overuse them early in the year because it’s a long season (is key).
MMO: What’s your take on analytics and do you utilize them as a manager?
Backman: I’ve been doing the analytics of the game since I’ve been managing. I learned that from Davey Johnson from day one and I’ve used the analytics the whole time. Any kind of information that I can get that I feel will make the team better I use it.
MMO: The Met fans absolutely adore you, as you’re forever a fan favorite. There were many that would’ve loved to have seen you manage the Mets, and were upset over your departure. What does it mean to have the support of the fans like you do?
Backman: The fans don’t forget and I’ll say this, of all the places that I played the people in New York were the best fans I ever played in front of and the most knowledgeable fans. It was an opportunity that I wish that I would’ve had. It hasn’t happened but hey, you never know where Wally’s going to turn up.
MMO: Is the goal still to manage in the big leagues?
Backman: Without question.
MMO: The split from the Mets organization in 2016 was messy, with reports out that the front office was disappointed in the way you handled some of their top prospects, including Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto. Would you care to comment on the matter?
Backman: You know what, all you’ve got to do is look at the stats, I never mismanaged anybody. I did everything I was told to do, one person didn’t like me and we all know who that is. And I would not get in a foxhole with that man.
MMO: To this day, do you feel like you’ve gotten any sense of resolution, or does the situation still bother you?
Backman: It bothers me for the fact that I did nothing but respect, and I felt that I was disrespected. It is what it is and I’m where I’m at now and I love baseball. I can go way on and beyond and say what I really think but I’m not going to do that.
MMO: Obviously you managed many of the young talent on the club, do you still pay attention to what’s going on with the Mets?
Backman: Absolutely! I watch them every day. I feel that I was a part of what groomed those players. The players have done what they’ve done because they’re great players but to be able to put them in a position to succeed that’s what my job was and that’s what I’m all about.
MMO: How did the New Britain Bees managerial job come about, and what are you most excited about with this new experience?
Backman: Well we haven’t started off very good but it’s an exciting place because it’s a place where you can send players back to affiliated ball that can get a second chance. I think it was Rich Hill – who played in this Atlantic League – goes to the Dodgers and signs a $50 million contract.
This league really believes in helping the players and giving them a second chance, and that’s why we have, even in New Britain. I have fourteen guys that have played in the big leagues. Not that they’re all going to get back to the big leagues, but they have a dream and desire just as well and I try to put them, like I said, in a position to succeed and get the best opportunity that they can have.
MMO: And at what point did you start discussing the possibility of signing on with New Britain?
Backman: We talked during the summer when I was in Mexico last year. It came about – I don’t know – September or October. I liked my experience in Mexico but I really wanted to come back to the States, so that’s where I’m at now.
MMO: Besides not being affiliated with a major league organization, are there many differences between Minor League Baseball and Independent League ball?
Backman: Not really. I think it’s more like the big leagues; you’re here to win. In the process you’re trying to help players get back to an affiliated team. I take a lot of pride in not just having the players that I have but trying to get them back to an affiliate.
I have Darrell Cecillani, who came up to the big leagues with the Mets, and he said to me his shoulder hasn’t been that healthy in five years. He had to have the surgery when he was in Toronto last year and the kid’s a great player.
I take pride in trying to help guys get back and we’ve played for one week here and we’ve sent four or five guys back to affiliated ball, and some good ones. Paco Rodriguez, who has got great numbers and is healthy, the Twins just signed. So there’s a lot of good that comes out of this league.
MMO: I recently read that Manny Ramirez Jr, the son of the right-handed slugger, has signed with your club. What do expect his role to be and has Manny Sr. been around the park much?
Backman: Manny Sr. has already been around the ballpark. It’s hard to say what capacity that might be but you might be surprised sometimes.
Junior is a kid that can play first base and he’s got raw power. Power is usually the last thing that comes through or develops, we’re just going to wait and see and see how it goes.
MMO: Do you still keep in touch with your former teammates from ’86?
Backman: We always do something every year or every other year together. So yeah, I do.
MMO: When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
Backman: Winning the World Series (laughs). Not a tough question.
MMO: Thank you for your time, Mr. Backman. All the best with the Bees this season.
Backman: Thank you, Mathew.
Follow Wally Backman on Twitter, @Wally_Backman6