Backman's comeback to NY no small thing
Decision to bring one-time Met into fold a return to their roots
NEW YORK -- Although he had left his baseball heart in Flushing, N.Y., two years earlier, Wally Backman has a certain affection for the season, 1990, he spent with the Pirates. Not only did the Buccos play in the postseason, not only did he play the brand of baseball under Jim Leyland that Backman embraced, but their roster included one Rafael Belliard, all 5-foot-6 of him.
Backman always had a particular fondness for any player shorter than he; and, of course, there weren't that many. He'd spy a guy he could look straight in the eye, or better yet, a guy he could look down on and say, "I could sip soup off a plate on his head." And he had three inches on Belliard.
Size was the thing. In an immediate universe that included Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Ed Lynch and Rick Aguilera, he often was called "Runt." If he had a role in "West Side Story," he would have been "Action," always ready for it, willing -- no, preferring -- to take on the bigger opponent. "Except Dave Parker," Backman once said. "He might swallow me."
Size always mattered to Backman -- because he didn't have enough of it. He was told he was too small to be drafted in the first round. At 5-foot-9, he'd go in the third round, if then. He could stand on his skills, but better yet, he should also stand on his toes.
"I'm the typical guy who had to prove himself over and over, because I wasn't big enough for some scout," he said. "I hit .320 in 1986, and we won [the World Series]. I was hurt a lot in '87, and when we got to Spring Training in '88, I had to fight for a job that Tuff [Tim Teufel] won. I was always told he was taller, that's why it worked out the way it did."
Now, Backman is in a position where size doesn't matter; he is to manage the Mets' high-profile Brooklyn Cyclones affiliate in the Class A New York-Penn League. After 21 years away from the organization that drafted, signed and developed him, he is back -- grayer, wiser, more folically challenged, more circumspect and perhaps looking a shade taller. He is back after a series of pitfalls that tainted his image in some corners of the game but also reaffirmed attributes that made him a better player than he would have been without them.
At age 50, he is comfortable with who he is and quite at ease with his size, because he recognizes what it has done for him. As short stature did for Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, lack of size fuels Backman. "You know, a lot of what I've accomplished happened, because I had to fight more. If I was 6-foot-3 ... I don't know. Maybe, I wouldn't be the same. ... But I wouldn't mind being 6-foot-3 for a couple of weeks.
"You do get tired of hearing, 'Too small, too small, too small.' So you show 'em."
In the managing Backman has done since his playing career ended in 1993, he has routinely shown 'em -- his players, his opponents and a few umpires, too. Somehow, he has transferred the sting of the resentment he experienced through his adolescence and playing career to his teams and convinced them they had to show 'em, too. It is a powerful motivation that he communicates by merely being himself.
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The Mets now have Backman and Teufel managing in their organization -- Teufel's appointment as manager of the Double-A Binghamton Mets was made official on Tuesday. Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, Howard Johnson, Randy Niemann, Strawberry, Bobby Ojeda, like Backman and Teufel, members of the 1986 World Series champion team, have high-profile positions with the big league team. Mookie Wilson may be back in a Minor League position.
Clearly, the club is making an effort to reconnect with its past.
It goes beyond that in Backman's situation. He is back because he was there 23 years ago, and because the club believes his manner, disposition, energy, intensity, fire or whatever it is can influence young players as it did teammates in the Eighties -- it has in most of his managerial tours.
Before the 2009 Mets were undone by injuries, they weren't playing as Walter Wayne Backman had played in 14 big league seasons, the first nine with the Mets. They weren't offended by losing. "And I always took losing real personal," Backman said on Tuesday at KeySpan Park, where he was introduced as the Cyclones' eighth manager. "I think most of the good Mets teams played with got ticked when they lost."
Backman is familiar with little of what happened at Citi Field last summer, but two of the people who decided to bring him back to the Mets -- COO Jeff Wilpon and general manager Omar Minaya -- know what they saw before Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran went down. And it's what Tom Glavine saw as far back as June 2007 -- losing was acceptable to some of the young players, they weren't suitably offended by it.
And that offended Glavine, Billy Wagner and others. They shared their thoughts with Wilpon, and the word spread through the organization. So the Mets were delighted when Jeff Francoeur became available and when Daniel Murphy wore his grit on his sleeve ... and when Backman contacted Wilpon in September, looking for work.
"It was the only place I felt comfortable calling," Backman said.
Wilpon was pleased -- another connection to the past. And if everything worked out, the presence of a guy with a way of energizing those around him, a guy with hunger and little tolerance for losing. The idea appealed to the COO who was a young man with clubhouse privileges when Backman was the Mets' second baseman and, along with Lenny Dykstra, the Mets' Partners in Grime. Clean uniforms were no more acceptable than losing in the Eighties. Long before the Red Sox called themselves idiots and dirtbags, the Mets were.
Before Wilpon passed on Backman's candidacy to Minaya and Minor League director Adam Wogan, he had Backman investigated. He was familiar with the baseball components of Backman and the success he had produced in two seasons managing in the White Sox chain, one year with the D-backs and three years with independent teams in Georgia and Illinois. But he also was aware of the DUI conviction in 1999, a subsequent charges of harassment, offenses that cost Backman his opportunity to manage the D-backs. He was dismissed four days after his appointment when Arizona became aware of the offenses.
"Wally's paid a significant price," Mets vice president David Howard said on Tuesday.
"Jeff did the due diligence and determined that the issues weren't current even then [when the D-backs hired and dismissed Backman]. Wally wouldn't have been turned over to Omar and Adam if he didn't feel comfortable."
"Getting the OK from Jeff was big for me," Backman said.
Even though the results of the investigation satisfied Wilpon, Backman's one-year contract includes what Howard characterized as "pretty significant clauses based on behavior, public comments or 'any hiccup' along the way" that could end the contract.
So Backman will be on his best behavior. The opportunity the Mets have afforded him isn't his last chance, but it is his first chance since the D-backs dismissed him. He had made inquiries since his dismissal, but no interest was evident. One organization told him he was overqualified, which Backman found to be bizarre. He didn't argue when the term "blackballed" was suggested, but he said, "I'm not mad about anything now. I'm just happy to get a chance and have that chance be hear in the city where I feel most at home.
"I know what this is. It's the chance I have to make the most if I want to get to where I want to be."
And that is in the dugout of a big league team, pushing the buttons and the players to be as good as they can be. "Managing in the big leagues is where I want to get," Backman said, "but right now, I'm the manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones, and my job is to develop players and prepare them to play in Citi Field. And along the way, I want to win. To me, winning is development."
Howard, not yet in the Mets' employ when Backman made his mark, called the new man "a perfect fit" and said, "Everywhere he's been [as a manager], he's won. He's a winner." And Steve Cohen, the Cyclones' general manager, added this: "He has always been a fan favorite in New York, symbolizing the blue-collar work ethic and unbridled dedication to winning that this city -- and particularly this borough -- values above all else in its sports stars. ... Brooklyn and Backman were made for each other."
Backman, a native of Oregon, likes the fit with the borough that once had its own team. He lived in Brooklyn in 1980, when he was taking his first step in the big leagues. And now he can play a role in developing talent that may find its way to Queens. "Brooklyn is a major Minor League team," he said. "From what I've been told, the fans here are real passionate about baseball and about winning, so it should be a good fit."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.