October 25, 2020

Backman Where He Oughta Be

After years of exile, former Met named skipper of the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones

There have been few things in Wally Backman’s life that have come to him easily. Now that he’s finally gotten a second chance to resume his managing career in affiliated baseball, he welcomes both the challenge and the opportunity to stay there.

“I couldn’t really ask for a better minor league job.” Backman told reporters at a press conference held at Keyspan Park on Tuesday, formally announcing his selection as the manager of the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones, an affiliate of the New York Mets. “This organization is where I started, and my heart never left New York. A piece of you never leaves the first place you play.”

Since being fired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004, a job he held for four days, the two-time Minor League Manager of the Year has been trying to repair his reputation and get a job in affiliated baseball.

I had interviewed Backman during the 2005 season, trying to ascertain why he hadn’t hooked up with another major league club. I met up with him again during the 2005 Winter Meetings in Dallas, where Backman was looking to earn a spot with another team. He received no offers.

He had hoped the Mets would call. He’d had a few conversations with team insiders about the then-vacancy at Double-A Binghamton before Jeff Wilpon handed over the discussions to the baseball operations people. According to Bob Klapisch in the Bergen Record (1/15/2006), Backman was told he “wasn’t a fit.”

At the time, while covering the Mets for Gotham Baseball Magazine, I was also told by a minor league official that Backman “wasn’t in Tony Bernazard’s little black book”, putting the blame on the now departed VP of Player Development.

“I gave that organization 13 years of my life,” Backman told me at the time. “I don’t understand it.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that the door has opened for Backman now that Bernazard is gone? In any event, Backman went about trying to get back into baseball. One of those efforts, an otherwise ill-fated stint (because of the buffoons that ran the league and the team, not because of Backman, who took his team to the championship) with the South Georgia Peanuts in the now-defunct South Coast League during the 2007 season, actually played a major factor in Backman’s return.

Award-winning filmmaker John Fitzgerald (The Emerald Diamond) spent that spring and summer with Backman and the Peanuts filming the reality series “Playing For Peanuts”.

Joe Janish, the former Managing Editor of BaseballDigest.com and the publisher of MetsToday.com — who has spent many a day lobbying for Backman’s return to the Mets – interviewed Fitzgerald when “Peanuts” debuted in the spring on 2008 on SNY.

“Once I found out Wally Backman was managing a team, I chose to follow his team because he had the most interesting story in all aspects (playing, coaching, personal). Other than that, I had NO idea what to expect.”

He was right, because not long after the show debuted, Fitzgerald, despite facing horrendous budget costs (which still exist), pulled the show after the Mets’ flagship network refused to promote it.

“SNY refused to promote the show even though it is being promoted in other cities as part of the same agreement. I tried to compromise on the level of promotion and I never got anywhere with it,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “… I can’t give the show away for free in New York if SNY won’t promote it. It isn’t fair to the show, the show’s investors or the production crew – many of whom worked for deferred payment and are still waiting for the show to turn a profit.”

It still hasn’t, and in this writer’s opinion, SNY has yet to provide it’s viewership with an equally compelling alternative.

SNY’s lack of desire to promote the show was, according to several people we spoke with at the time, mainly due to pressure from ownership. The feeling was that any direct attention given to Backman would be a distraction to the big club. The daily broadcast presence of the enormously popular Backman, coupled by a growing dissatisfaction with then-manager Willie Randolph, would create too much “Backman Should Manage The Mets” hype from the media and fanbase. It strengthened the belief of many that Backman would never be allowed to work for the Mets in any capacity.

Perhaps the most ironic twist is that Fitzgerald, whose work on the “Peanuts” series helped spark the friendship with Backman that remains strong to this day, was actually the person who provided Backman with Jeff Wilpon’s cell number. The former second baseman then made the call that got the process of his getting back into baseball started.

I don’t shock very easily, but when I was told several weeks ago about that Backman was flying into New York to meet with Jeff Wilpon about possibly joining the Mets in some capacity, I was floored. I asked myself (and the person who gave me the information), “What’s changed from 2005 or 2008 or this past season? I still haven’t been able to figure it out, but it would seem that Jeff Wilpon’s willingness to bring in former Mets with a baseball pedigree and a winning attitude is a major factor these days.

Some might argue that it’s a flawed way of doing things, but when comparing the likes of Backman, Teufel, Howard Johnson and Mookie Wilson to Bernazard hiring his buddies (Luis Aguayo and Mako Olivares), it’s pretty safe to say the Mets, and their fans, might be better off. Time will tell.

In truth, Backman would probably have taken any job the Mets had offered him. Single-A Port St. Lucie, the hub of the team’s minor league operations, was the destination most figured would make the most sense. However, in the end, it was the Brooklyn job that was offered. A cynic would say that this was the Mets’ way of pumping up the ‘Clones attendance, but that’s dopey, as the team in Brooklyn regularly draws better crows than any club in the entire farm system.

In many ways, the Brooklyn job is tougher than any in the organization, save the Mets gig. Based on what other former Cyclones managers past and present have told me (and I’ve covered every one since the inaugural season of 2001), it’s the most demanding job in the system. In addition to the mounds of paperwork, constant directives from the minor league department and major league front office on who to play, where to play, who’s in the bullpen, who should start, etc, there the media.

Yes, even in little ol’ Brooklyn, the media demands are very heavy. From the weekly newspapers in Brooklyn, to the ever-growing internet media outlets, to the stringers from the tabloids, there are always media folks in the managers’ office following games. One former Cyclones manager once told me in confidence that if he “ever imagined there would be even half of you (bleeps) in this (bleeping) office, I would have took the Kingsport job instead.”

Backman seemed more than up to the task on Tuesday, as several of the Mets’ beat writers made the trek to Coney Island for the press conference. He also made several video segments for the Cyclones, answered some questions for some of the broadcast crews. He also stuck around long enough to do one-on-one interviews with MLB.com’s Marty Noble and myself. He spent the rest of his day going on WFAN with Mike Francesa as well as appearing on SNY’s Daily News LIVE. It was a long day, but Backman had a smile on this face that even Darryl Strawberry would warm up to.

So Backman is back in baseball and back with the Mets. He’s going to be expected to win, keep his nose clean and be media-friendly. Shouldn’t be too hard for a guy that’s been waiting five years to get back into the game – and a city — he loves.