Dealing Unit becomes more likely
Still five months shy of opening up their eighth major-league campaign, the Arizona Diamondbacks are already working on their fourth manager. That's certainly not a sign of stability at the top.
Former New York Mets infielder Wally Backman is the latest to take over the embattled franchise, which is still red-faced from the effects of 111 losses last season, the fifth worst mark in National League history.
Like Arizona's two previous managers -- Bob Brenly and Al Pedrique -- Backman has no big-league managerial experience. He made his name as a manager in independent leagues and in the minor leagues, which endeared him to many because he was so willing to pay his dues in order to become a big-league manager.
His record in the independent and minor leagues -- Backman won titles at Tri-City in the Western League and at Double-A Birmingham in the Southern League -- and that he played a key role for the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets are offered as proof that Backman can win.
His record as a manager at low levels is indicative that Backman can work well with young players. His hiring should be viewed as a signal that the Diamondbacks will continue to try and build with mostly young players.
All of which means five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson has likely pitched his final game for the Diamondbacks.The Big Unit was the lone bright spot this season for Arizona.
It's no secret that the Diamondbacks' finances are the equivalent of a train wreck. Getting Johnson to waive his no-trade clause and leave Arizona seems more than likely. Johnson will turn 42 by the end of next season and privately couldn't stand playing with so many young players last season.
Johnson was nearly traded before the July 31 deadline, but the Diamondbacks balked at the end, believing a better deal was on the horizon. But it never materialized. In truth, it's highly unlikely that Backman and Johnson could coexist.
The Diamondbacks' front office will again try to trade Johnson. But after the Curt Schilling debacle with Boston last year, they must show their fan base that they can make an equitable deal. The Diamondbacks received Casey Fossum and minor-leaguers Brandon Lyon, Jorge de la Rosa and Michael Goss in exchange for Schilling.
The Diamondbacks' debt is somewhere in the $300 million range. They will be paying out deferred payments to current and former players past 2009 and their remaining stadium debt is expected to be on the books for more than a decade. Call it the price for winning it all in 2001. Erasing the $16 million Johnson is to be paid next season won't be a panacea, but it will help.
Backman's arrival also means it's highly unlikely first baseman Richie Sexson will re-sign with the Diamondbacks. He already was incensed that the club initially offered him just a one-year deal heavily loaded with incentives tied to his staying healthy. Before 2004, Sexson averaged nearly 152 games per season in his previous five years.
If Johnson is traded, why would Sexson even want to stay?
Even so, Backman is buying into the company line and, no matter how much the facts seem to refute it, insists 2005 will be a break from the dismal season just concluded.
"This is not a rebuilding program," Backman told Phoenix reporters during his introductory news conference Monday. "I'm here to win. That's what I've always been about and that's what the Diamondbacks are about. And we will get back to the Diamondback ways of the past as soon as we possibly can. We will make some changes and this team will compete. That's one thing that every team that I've ever managed does."
Much like during his 14 years in the majors, Backman brings a fiery personality with him and says he doesn't plan to deviate from it as a manager. He was ejected six times during the past season at Class A Lancaster and suspended 10 games for bumping an umpire. It's safe to say big-league umpires probably will not be very fond of Backman.
"My style is hard, aggressive baseball," Backman said. "If my brother is second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and if it means taking him out at second base, that's what I expect my players to do. That's the way we play the game."
Some have likened Backman to a young Larry Bowa-type. Whether he can control himself will dictate how long he remains on the Diamondbacks' bench. Those who know him, insist Backman's relentless passion for the game is probably his best trait.
One thing's for sure: Backman should provide this ailing franchise with a boost of energy. Whether it's short-term or long-term will be the most interesting part to watch of this hiring.
Pedro Gomez, who is a bureau reporter for ESPN, covered the Oakland A's from 1990-97 for the San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee, and was the national baseball writer for the Arizona Republic from 1997-2003.
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