Backman hopes for second shot at bigs
Now managing in Brooklyn, former Met happy to be with 'family' again
BROOKLYN -- Nearly a decade ago, Brooklyn got a second chance at hosting a professional baseball team when the Cyclones were born.
Now, as the team celebrates its 10th season in Coney Island, its manager is getting a second chance, too.
Wally Backman, who played for the New York Mets from 1980 to 1988 and was a key cog in their 1986 World Series championship team, is the new skipper of the Cyclones, the Mets' short-season Class A squad. The Cyclones ran their record to 3-1 after a 5-2 victory over the Aberdeen IronBirds on Monday night.
"I had a great time when I played for the Mets. And to be able to come back, it's almost like you're comin' back to your family," Backman said in an interview before Monday night's game. "Signing out of high school with the Mets, and being with them as many years as I was and then to be able to come back to manage one of the minor league affiliates -- if there was one that I wanted to manage, it would have been in New York."
For Backman, it is a huge opportunity, after he lost his first big league managing job before managing a single game, and then spent the next five years in baseball Siberia.
To refresh your memory: Back on Nov. 1, 2004, after several years of managing in the minor leagues, Backman was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to be their new manager. But the next day, it was revealed in The New York Times that Backman had been arrested twice -- once for driving under the influence and once after a domestic dispute with his wife. He had also filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
The Diamondbacks had not done criminal or financial background checks on Backman prior to offering him the job. Four days after hiring Backman, after investigating these incidents, the Diamondbacks let him go.
Ever since then, Backman has been looking for another opportunity to get back on the road to the big leagues. He managed the independent South Georgia Peanuts in 2007, leading them to a South Coast League title. He also managed the Joliet JackHammers of the Northern League in 2008. But despite making inquiries with several major league clubs about obtaining another minor league job, he couldn't find a taker.
"It got a little bit frustrating," Backman said. "I called a few organizations, or had my agent call a few organizations, and would find out that they would say I was overqualified."
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Finally, Backman did what now seems like the obvious thing to do. He called Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer of the Mets, and son of Mets owner Fred Wilpon.
"Jeff kinda had open arms," Backman said. "He told me he was gonna talk to ... some baseball people, [general manager] Omar [Minaya] and those guys, and get back to me right away. And he did, he got back to me right away.
"I just wish I would have made the call sooner."
Backman was officially hired as the Cyclones' manager on Nov. 16, 2009, and has spent the past few months working with the Mets' minor leaguers in extended spring training in Florida. He and his team arrived in New York on June 15, and opened up their season four days later with a 5-3 win over the Staten Island Yankees.
The players, including a few of the team's recent draft picks, like fourth-round pick Cory Vaughn (son of former major leaguer Greg Vaughn), are living in dormitories at Polytechnic Institute of NYU in downtown Brooklyn. But the vast majority of their time is spent at the ballpark, working on fundamentals.
"I think so far it's gone great," Backman said. "To bunt the guy over from second base with no outs, drive the runner in from third base with less than two outs ... to do the little things. As a manager, I'm like a perfectionist at it. I want it to get done, I don't care how long we have to spend on the field to try to get it right. The guys that play for me, I know that when they're gone, [they] play the game the right way."
Backman has also already shared some advice with his players about what it's like to play in New York.
"I know the way that the New York fans can be," Backman said. "I've told all my players, if you go out there and bust your ass and you play hard and you make a serious commitment, they can be the best fans. And they can be the hardest fans on ya. If the fans are getting on 'em, I'll probably be getting on 'em too, because it'll be for not playing the game hard.
Backman said the reaction he's gotten from fans has been really nice thus far. On Monday night, the crowd cheered very loudly when Backman was introduced by the PA announcer at MCU Park. The Cyclones are also holding a Wally Backman Bobblehead Night on July 14.
All that is no surprise, considering what Backman did with the Mets. He wasn't nearly as big a star as some of his teammates, such as Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez. But Backman did hit .320 in 124 regular-season games in 1986, and .333 in the World Series versus the Red Sox.
Backman also stole 106 bases with the Mets, putting him eighth on the franchise's all-time list. And his .283 career batting average with the Mets makes him ninth all-time.
"It's been great from the fans," Backman said. "Most of the things they're saying is that they're glad to have me back in New York."
Not only is he back in the Big Apple, he's back in Brooklyn -- his baseball life really has come full circle. Backman lived in Brooklyn his rookie year with the Mets, before moving out to Long Island. Now he's living in the borough once again.
The only difference is, Backman was 20 years old when he made his major league debut. Thirty years later, at the age of 50, he's starting over.
In that sense, he shares something in common with his young players.
"I'm here for the same goals that all these players have, to get to the big leagues," Backman said. "I know I'm qualified to do it. I'm hoping. I don't think I'd be doing this if I didn't think that I was gonna get an opportunity."