Backman, Baseball Lifer, Is Back In Town

Published on: 22nd June, 2010


Backman, Baseball Lifer, Is Back In Town  | read this item

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Brooklyn – If ever there was a baseball player in New York over the past 25 years who baseball people would look at and view as a future big-league manager, it was Wally Backman.

You remember Backman. The scrappy, hustling second baseman on the 1986 World Champion New York Mets. The little guy from Oregon who came to the Big Apple and played the game in a way that contributed to those mid-1980s Mets turning into one of the all-time most hated teams among opposing players in the game’s history. Backman, like those Mets of Ray Knight, Keith Hernandez, and Lenny Dykstra was cocky and played that way. Despite his smallish stature, he had no qualms about getting in the faces of opposing players as well as his own teammates if he perceived someone needed an attitude adjustment.

Well, he’s back! Wally-Ball has returned to the city where Backman’s star once shone brightly as he teamed with then-Mets shortstop, Ron Gardenhire to make for a scrappy and very heady double-play combination. Gardenhire has already made his bones as a very successful big-league manager in Minnesota and now, Backman is managing for the Mets again, albeit at their Class A Brooklyn Cyclones outfit.

If tonight’s game is any indication, Backman has already developed a team in his image. They play good defense, they pitch well, get timely hits, and they put more pressure on the opposing team’s defense than any opposing team can handle. Oh yes, and they win games as tonights’ 5-2 victory over the Aberdeen Ironbirds sent the Cyclones’ record to 3-1.

Backman is getting a second chance by the Mets organization to manage after the disastrous experience he had in 2004, when he was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to manage their team. But, within 96 hours after he was tabbed as the Diamondbacks’ manager, all hell broke loose. Reports surfaced that Backman had a history that included several legal, marital, and financial issues. Diamondbacks management, obviously embarrassed for conducting a less-than-stellar background check retracted its offer and promptly axed him before the week was over.

The baseball lifer, whose personal and managerial styles have often been compared to Billy Martin, the Yankees’ dugout savant of the 1970s, didn’t quit the game that had quit him. In 2006, Backman led the South Georgia Peanuts, an independent team, to the South Coast League’s inaugural title with a 59-28 record. The following year, he was with the Joliet JackHammers of the Northern League and then, in November 2009, Backman was chosen by the Mets to take the Brooklyn Cyclones into their 10th season.

“I am thrilled and grateful to be coming back to the Mets’ organization,” Backman said when he was introduced as manager. “The greatest days of my professional career were spent here in New York, and I have always felt a special connection to the city. Brooklyn is a major minor-league team, and I know the borough’s fans are like me, intensely passionate about baseball and about winning.

The two Cyclones players to watch this season are right fielder Cory Vaughn and centerfielder, Darrell Ciciliani. Vaughn, a 21-year old right fielder from San Diego State University, is the recipient of an excellent set of baseball genes. His father is the former major league slugger, Greg Vaughn and his father’s cousin is Mo Vaughn, who used to be a power-hitting first baseman of the Red Sox and later, the Mets.

Vaughn displayed impressive power tonight as the 6’1”, 200 pound right-handed hitter slugged a long home run to the opposite field in the first inning and then, followed up in the sixth with a long triple to right centerfield. It was a thing of beauty to watch the speedy kid circle the bases on his three-bagger. He runs like a deer so the package of power and speed are in place.

During that sixth inning, Backman, always known for his scrappiness as a player and aggressiveness in all aspects of the game, put on a suicide squeeze in the sixth inning with the Cyclones leading, 4-2. With Vaughn sitting on third after his triple, Backman had his left fielder and number five hitter in the lineup, Will Cherry, bunt along the first base line, Vaughn scoring easily.

“I just did that to catch the other team off-guard,” Backman said afterwards. “I have a kid in Cherry, I know he’s hitting fifth and can handle the bat but he showed me he could bunt in our earlier games. I wanted to catch them by surprise and a three-run lead is a lot nicer than a two-run lead.”

I asked Wally if this type of aggressiveness is part of his modus operandi as a manager.

“It’s part of the game. It’s something that’s going to help you win a game,” he said. “I want to show our guys, when they put pressure on the defense, that defense is going to make mistakes. That’s how we beat the Staten Island Yankees the other night. They knew the way we played from our first game in Staten Island. We were aggressive out there in that second game and they made five errors.”

Backman, now 50, has always been about doing whatever is necessary to win games, as all Mets fans of a certain age recall.

“I love to be able to force the issue, force the defense into making mistakes. That’s what I try to instill in my offense when we’re out there,” Backman said. “Take the extra base, be able to go first to third, get a base hit, go hard around second base. The higher you go up in levels of baseball, the less mistakes a defense will make but mistakes will be made just enough times to let you win a game.”

The Cyclones won the game despite getting only four hits. Typical Wally-Ball, winning in a way that make fans of aggressive baseball, good defense, and timely hitting cheer for the little guy who roamed second base for the Mets in the 80s.

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