Shakespeare and Backman: A Season In Brooklyn

(Editor’s Note) A lot of things have been written about Wally Backman over the last decade, much of it unsubstantiated drivel, written by people who preferred cutting and pasting information from previous material to actual research. More has been written by people who knew Backman 30 years ago, and hadn’t spoken to him since he became a story again. Ed Shakespeare is neither of these, and when he first asked me about spending the 2010 season in Coney Island to get to know Wally in preparation for this piece, I knew he was the perfect person for the job. In addition to being a incredibly gifted writer, Shakespeare is also a man of integrity. Please enjoy his long-awaited retirn to Gotham Baseball. – MH

Wally Backman is back.

From head – his cranium bursting with myriad bunt, steal, and hit-and run strategies – to foot, with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter tucked into his left baseball sock, Wally Backman is a 69-inch, barrel-chested, tightly wrapped bundle of wired energy.

This season Backman brought that energy to the dugout as he returned to affiliated baseball for the first time since 2004, and the former Mets’ second baseman managed the Brooklyn Cyclones to a first place finish in the McNamara Division of the New York-Penn League with a 51-24 regular season record, the second best record in the ten-year history of the Cyclones.

In the play-offs, Brooklyn came back from a one-game deficit to win the best-of-three semi-final series in three games against Jamestown, but the Cyclones lost the league championship series in two games to Tri-City.

It was a season in which the 50-year-old skipper’s on and off-field performance placed him back on the short list as a major league managerial candidate.

It took Backman twenty-two years to get back to the Mets’ organization, thirty-three years after first signing with them. With the Mets having let go manager Jerry Manuel, Backman is a leading candidate for the opening of New York’s manager.

A lot happened in twenty-two years.

After his fourteen-year playing career ended during the 1993 season, Backman took some time away from baseball, and then began paying his managerial dues by skippering a host of clubs in the minor leagues. Backman was a steady learner, his managerial reputation was on the rise, and he was named the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 1, 2004. He was fired four days later. And one of the most competitive men on the planet has been fighting to get back to the big leagues as a manager ever since.

The rise and fall of Backman’s career is a tale that mirrors the path of the Cyclone, the Coney Island roller coaster ride for which the Brooklyn ball club is named. Like the steep ascent of the ride that can be seen over the left field fence at the Cyclones home field (M.C.U. Park), Backman started his professional career on the up-tick.

He was only seventeen years old when the Aloha High School graduate was drafted in the first round (sixteenth overall) by the Mets in the 1977 Major League Baseball Draft, and Backman traveled across country from his Oregon home to play for Little Falls, New York, the Mets’ affiliate in the New York-Penn League.

“I was a homesick kid away from home for the first time,” notes the Cyclones’ skipper. “I had never been west of Utah, and I was calling home every day.”

But Backman didn’t spend all his time on the phone, and he found time to hit .325 with six home runs.

He rose quickly through the Mets’ system, and after hitting .293 for the Mets Triple-A team at Tidewater in 1980, Backman received a September call-up and got a hit in his first at-bat and finished at .323 in 27 games.

For the next three years he battled for a starting job at second base, finally becoming a regular in 1984, when he hit .280 with 32 stolen bases. Usually hitting second, Backman successfully used the hit-and run, the steal, and the bunt, both as a sacrifice and for a base hit, to great advantage.

The highlight of his career was his performance for the 1986 World Champion Mets, when Backman, a switch-hitter who batted much better from the left-side, platooned at second with Tim Teufel and hit.320. After Backman was traded from the Mets to Minnesota after the 1988 season, he started to bounce around, playing for Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and finally for Seattle before his release during the 1993 season ended his playing career.

He finished with a career average of .275, with 482 runs and 112 stolen bases, but more important than the respectable numbers was his reputation for hard and intelligent play

Backman began his managerial career with the woebegone Catskill Cougars of the independent Northeast League in 1997, compiling a 3-23 mark in part of the season. Backman then managed the independent Bend Bandits of the Western League in 1998, taking the team to a second place finish in the Northern Division. He skippered the Tri-City Posse for the next two years in the Western League, finishing second overall in 1999, but then winning the league championship in the playoffs. In his second year with the team, Tri-City finished fourth in the Northern Division.

In 2002 Backman took the reins of the Chicago White Double-A team, the Birmingham Barons, and led them to the Southern League championship. In 2004, he managed the high-A Lancaster team of the Arizona Diamondbacks, reaching the California League’s championship series. He was then named the Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year.

Soon after the World Series in 2004, Backman was named manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately for Backman, reports almost immediately reports surfaced of the newly named manager having had both a prior conviction on a DUI charge in 1999, and a guilty plea of harassment in 2001. The Diamondbacks quickly let Backman go.

The roller coaster had hit rock bottom, and from that moment Backman has been trying to make a comeback and get another big league managing job. The Mets’ organization wants him to avoid talking about his dismissal from Arizona, and Backman has complied with their wishes.

Early in his stint as the Cyclones’ manager, as one reporter began to edge his questions toward the incidents, Backman replied, “I know where you’re going, and I’m not going to go there. That all happened in the past; those were the worst two days of my life, and I’m looking to the future.”

But while Backman is reluctant to discuss the past, he freely states his plan for the future.

“I want to manage in the majors,” he stated emphatically, happy to be back in affiliated baseball.

How did he get back into the Mets’ system? It wasn’t easy.

Backman began his comeback trail in 2007 as the manager of the South Georgia Peanuts, an independent team in the newly formed South Coast League. He led them to the league’s championship. The manager and his team were chosen by award-winning filmmaker John Fitzgerald for his critically-acclaimed television series, Playing for Peanuts, and Backman’s out-going personality and some fiery disputes with umpires garnered Backman some additional attention.

The South Coast League folded after the season, and Backman hooked on as the manager of the independent Joliet Jackhammers for the 2008 season.

Then, this past winter, Backman had an idea.

“I called Jeff Wilpon [the Mets’ Chief Operating Officer] this year early in the winter time,” said Backman. “I just wish I had called him five years earlier.”

The call proved fruitful, and Backman signed on to manage the Cyclones.

“Jeff and Fred Wilpon [Mets’ owners] and Adam Wogan [Mets’ Director of Minor League Personnel] gave me this opportunity,” explained Backman, “and they can evaluate me.”

So essentially, Backman had embarked on a year-long tryout.

And this was not a tryout in the sticks. No, Brooklyn’s M.C.U. Park is only about fifteen miles from Citi Field, the Queens home of the Mets. So Backman was working right under the nose of the home office. The Cyclones may be in a short-season A league, but it’s not a short-season A atmosphere. The team has led the New York-Penn League in attendance in each of Brooklyn’s ten years in the league, and sometimes the New York press corps at the game is substantial.

Backman was under the microscope.

In the previous three months he had been working in obscurity in Port St. Lucie in extended spring training. In games in which more than a half dozen spectators were rare, Backman began working with some of the players, such as center fielder Darrell Ceciliani and third baseman Joe Bonfe, who would form the backbone of the Cyclones when the Brooklyn season began in mid-June.

“We got a pretty good core of players that we brought from [extended] spring training,” explained Backman, “And then we added some top draft choices.”

The New York-Penn League started on June 18, and the Cyclones won Backman’s first game, a 5-3 away win over the rival Staten Island Yankees, and the Cyclones were off and running – literally.

Brooklyn did have a player with exceptional speed in Ceciliani, but the overall team speed was only average, and the club did have good power, so the expected form of attack would be that, with the exception of Ceciliani, the team would play it close to the vest on the bases and wait for the power to drive in the runs. But the expected formula doesn’t work with Backman.

“I like to put pressure on the defense to force them to make mistakes,” said Brooklyn’s new leader, and that’s exactly what the Cyclones did.

“Wally manages just the way he played – aggressive,” noted former his Met teammate, reliever John Franco, who broadcast one of the Cyclones’ games on radio.

Playing “Wally Ball” right from the start, Brooklyn used Backman’s love of the bunt, steal and hit-and-run to get off to a 9-4 start in June.

The Cyclones had been in first place off-and-on for the season’s first four weeks, but they moved into first place with a win over Mahoning Valley on July 14, and stayed in first place for the remainder of the season, surging into a double-figure lead in August and easily winning the McNamara Division, finishing twelve games ahead of second place Hudson Valley.

The Cyclones led the league in batting average (.283) and homers (64), as well as in pitching (3.05 ERA).

Individually, Ceciliani led the league in batting at .351, and outfielder Cory Vaughn, son of former major leaguer Greg Vaughn, led the league in slugging at .557.

Brooklyn also had three of the top four ERA leaders in Yohan Almonte (first at 1.91), Angel Quan (second at 2.03), and A.J. Pinera (fourth at 2.44).

By all accounts, on and off the field, Backman’s season had been an unqualified success. Did the fiery Backman suddenly turn into a milquetoast Mister Rogers as the Brooklyn skipper? Hardly. It’s not in the man’s nature.

‘I don’t see myself the way the public sees me,” admits Backman. “They say I’m feisty. I am the way I am. If that’s what a feisty manager is, then I guess I am feisty.”

Yes, Backman was, is, and always will be feisty. He came on the field a number of times to argue with umpires this year, but not excessively so. He was ejected only three times.

“Am I going to get ejected from games? Absolutely, no question about it,” says Brooklyn’s on-field leader.

“Take every ejection I’ve ever had. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was because of a player. If they’re right, wrong, or indifferent, you’ve got to have their back.”

Backman backed his players on the field, but he wasn’t shy about expressing displeasure with the Cyclone players either. Most of the time he took things a lot more calmly than an outsider might expect, but on occasion Backman could yell.

“Did I yell at them, scream at them – absolutely,” said the manager. “But they knew that I wanted the best for them.”

Let’s not forget that Backman is an experienced minor league manager, and he’s intelligent, so he knows not to go to the well too many times with the yelling and screaming approach.

“You can’t yell at the team thirty times a season. I’ve had maybe three times this season when I’ve sat the team down and said my piece,” explained Backman. “You have to know when to pick your times.”

Another area that Backman emphasized was the handling of his bullpen.

“I had free rein with the bullpen,” said Backman.” That’s the most important thing a manager can do.”

Backman basically handled the bullpen more like a major league manager than a manager in single-A, constantly seeking to get the most effective match-ups.

But Backman’s managing is more than tactics.

The thing that most people who don’t know Backman overlook is that he’s an affable guy who is well-liked by the players, fans, press, club officials, and just about everybody else. But being down to earth and friendly doesn’t make for headlines or exciting footage for reality television, so Backman’s reputation is focused more on his feistiness, and less on the daily leadership that he exhibits.

And according to Backman, the key to that day-to-day managing is not temper, but communication.

“Communication is one of the most important things on a baseball team,” states Backman. “How to keep twenty-five guys happy – or in the case with this team, thirty guys. In the minor leagues that’s tough, because they know if they’re don’t play what’s going to happen to their careers.”

“My door is always open to my players.”

As Backman spoke in his office, almost on cue, third baseman Joe Bonfe entered to ask Backman to sign some items for Bonfe’s friends.

After Bonfe left, Backman noted that the odds on players making it to the majors from the Cyclones are tough.

“If six players from this team have a true major league career, that’s a lot.”
Maybe some players that I think will make it won’t reach the majors. And maybe some that I think won’t make it will.”

How did Backman feel about his own chances as a player when he first signed a pro contract?

“I never doubted that I would play in the major leagues,” said Backman matter-of-factly. “And I hope the thirty guys in that room [the clubhouse] feel the same way.”

The players’ confidence about their chances to make the majors must have soared after their season under Backman as they uniformly say they were greatly helped by Backman’s leadership.

“Working with Wally was a lot of fun,” said right fielder Greg Vaughn.

“He’s real intense; he has a lot of fire, but he found ways to make you enjoy it – to just look forward to going on the baseball field.”

Darrell Ceciliani, who won one of the Mets’ 2010 Sterling Awards – given for minor league excellence, – as the Cyclones’ representative, also raved about Backman.

“It’s been a great year playing under Wally. I’ve learned about as much as a player can learn in one year,” praised the center fielder. “He taught me how to play the game, and how to take advantage of my speed.

“We have a great relationship and I’m sure we’re going to carry it over to the off-season. He lives only about a town away from me [in Oregon], and I’m sure we’ll work together after we get home.”

After the final play-off game, Backman did select a few players that he feels will make the big leagues.

“I think Ceciliani, if he doesn’t get hurt, as a good chance. So does Vaughn, and also [Ryan] Frazer (a reliever with a 0.52 ERA in 16 games).

With home runs down in the majors, Backman style of small ball could be just what’s needed in the big leagues. It certainly worked for Brooklyn.

Bonfe had 12 bunt hits for Brooklyn and Ceciliani added 9, high totals for a team that plays only 76 games. In addition Brooklyn stole 84 bases, tied for third in the league, and had 60 sacrifice bunts, second in the league.

Despite all the success of the regular season, Backman was deeply disappointed that the Cyclones lost the play-off finals 2-0 in games to Tri-City after a final game in which the Cyclones made three errors and several mental mistakes.

After the Valley Cats swept the series with their 5-1 win on September 14, Backman held court for the media in his office.

“I take losing personal,” he reminded reporters. “I hate losing. I’m proud of my players, but they have to learn from this loss. They have to learn how to better prepare themselves for each play. Maybe losing this game will ultimately be a good thing for them if it teaches them how to better prepare to win, and it helps them to reach their goal – to make the big leagues.

“I told them to remember how they feel after losing tonight so that they never have to feel that way again.”

Backman was asked to discuss his managerial future.

“As of today, I don’t know if I even have a job for next year,” he said with a wink
and a smile.

“Right now, I’m going back to Oregon and go fishing – in the ocean.”

In view of Backman’s successful comeback, he could be the one who’s quite the catch. Perhaps the Mets, and maybe some other club, will soon come fishing for him.

Ed Shakespeare has covered the Brooklyn Cyclones since their inaugural season of 2001 for a variety of publications, including the Brooklyn Paper and Gotham Baseball. He is the author of “When Baseball Returned To Brooklyn: The Inaugural Season of the New York–Penn League Cyclones”. He is a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association, has seen the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field. He has also written for the theater and on baseball for children. He lives in Lavallette, New Jersey.