The Next Mets Manager

One thing is for certain: Willie Randolph will not be manager of the Mets forever.

Personally, I hope he sticks around long enough to win a ring. Despite the frequent lambasting of his mysterious managerial moves and the funny Photoshopping of his face that you see here from time to time, Willie is one of my favorite people in baseball and I always root for him. I have the utmost respect for his old-school approach to the game — and the way he played it for 18 years.

However, all managers are hired to be fired, and eventually it will be Randolph’s time to go (hopefully later rather than sooner). Thinking ahead, there’s one name that would be a perfect fit as Mets manager, and it’s not Ken Oberkfell.

Wally Backman.

Before you say “whoa, has Joe lost his mind?”, understand that Backman is not the loose-cannon nut job that he’s perceived to be thanks to the media. In fact, he might be the best manager in baseball without a Major League job.

First, we’ll address the horrendous image of Backman created by the mass media, which is based on these misconceptions:

1. Wally Backman is a drunk.
People cite Backman’s DUI charge in 1999 as evidence that he is an out-of-control alcoholic. He readily admits to incident, has profusely and persistently apologized for it, and hasn’t had an issue since.

If someone can’t be a manager because he has a DWI on his record, then why does Tony LaRussa still have a job? How did Billy Martin succeed? Gene Michael was once arrested for DWI, and he was both a manager and GM for the Yankees. Those are only a few of the many throughout the last 30 years. Backman’s problem is not that he has a DUI on his record, but that it occurred BEFORE he became an MLB manager. It happened almost ten years ago, he did his time, now how much longer before he’s absolved?

2. Wally Backman is a wife-beater.
Not even close. This piece of fiction was crafted, we assume from a temporary restraining order (TRO) filed by his ex-wife in 1995 during divorce proceedings. As it turns out, the TRO was dismissed by the judge because the former Mrs. Backman was found guilty of perjury in obtaining it. Beyond the lies that produced the TRO, there is no evidence that Backman has ever laid a hand on his wife, nor any other woman. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. During a dispute with his current wife, he was wacked with a baseball bat by an intervening friend — breaking his arm and landing HIM in jail.

OK, I’ll be the first to admit that Wally has not been an angel, and absolutely has some issues with the women in his wife. But the physical violence part of his image is completely erroneous. Yes he has a temper, and it’s a lot bigger than that of others — and that same passion is part of what makes him a great manager (which we’ll get to soon).

3. Wally Backman is a loose cannon with a fiery temper — and therefore can’t be trusted.
I LOVE this one. Backman has been derided for throwing temper tantrums on the field, performing acts of insanity such as screaming at umpires and throwing objects onto the field. Hmmm… let’s see, that sounds a lot like …
Lou Piniella, Bobby Cox, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Leo Durocher, Ozzie Guillen, Tom LaSorda, Dick Williams, Jim Leyland … wow! and every one of those guys wears a World Series ring!

Most Mets fans chide Willie Randolph for not showing enough emotion on the field, and for not “backing up his players” during umpire disputes. Showing passion on the field wouldn’t be an issue with Backman.

4. Wally Backman can’t manage his own life, so how can he possibly manage an MLB team?
This is one of the few criticisms that MIGHT have some truth to it. Yes, he’s been placed under arrest for alcohol-related incidents. Yes, he’s been married twice. Yes, he once filed for bankruptcy. But do any of these personal issues really have anything to do with his ability to manage a baseball team? It’s not like Backman is perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown; even if he was, it didn’t keep Billy Martin from winning a few rings. And contrary to popular belief, Backman’s life and mental state is a heckuva lot more stable than Billy’s.

But Why Take the Chance?

The popular wisdom is simple: why bother giving Wally Backman a chance when there are plenty of other candidates who come without the baggage?

Certainly, there’s something to be said for offering jobs to people who have done a better job of keeping their nose clean — particularly in today’s image-conscious society. The emergence of the internet as a news source has put immense pressure on all media outlets, so it’s doubly important to steer clear of any personnel who may show the slightest vulnerability to a publicity nightmare. That’s exactly why Backman was fired only days after being hired to manage the Diamondbacks — the Arizona brass was more concerned with how the team would be perceived in the media than how it would perform on the field.

In my mind, there’s one reason and one reason only to consider Wally Backman as a Major League manager — regardless of his off-the-field issues: he wins.

Backman the player was part of the 1986 World Champion Mets — that much you might know. Backman the manager has been a winner everywhere he’s been, winning titles in the Western League, Southern League, California League, and the South Coast League. Last year he led the Georgia Peanuts to a 59-28 record, adding yet another league title to his cred. Just prior to being hired (and then unhired) as manager of the D-Backs, The Sporting News named him “Minor League Manager of the Year” after taking the Lancaster Jayhawks to the California League championship series. And while he’s often compared to Billy Martin for his fiery attitude and ability to get the most from his roster, he gets much better reviews from his former players.

From current Diamondback Conor Jackson:

“I’ve got the utmost respect for Wally. I love playing for that guy, and I know about a thousand other guys that say the same. He taught me how to win, how to play hard, how to make a difference.

“If anybody needs a reference, tell them to call me.”

That’s not an isolated example, but rather a representative one. Beyond his winning percentage, Backman has been lauded for his innate ability to communicate and relate with players, as well as a genius in the art of handling a pitching staff — particularly the bullpen. The Diamondbacks admitted — though not publicly — that Backman’s interview for the managerial spot blew them away, and that it was the best they’d ever experienced. In fact, former AZ farm director Tommy Jones referred to Backman as a “45-year-old version of Jim Leyland.”

There’s no question he has the ability to manage — and manage well — at the big league level. What makes him an even more perfect fit in Flushing is his obvious history as a hero from the ’86 team, and his immense pleasure of working in New York City. How many men have the personality to manage in pressure-cooker of the Big Apple? How many are also happy to embrace it? To put it in perspective, consider that the rumors inside the Yankees’ brass was that Tony LaRussa was well-respected, but “not a good fit” for the media sensitivity of the Bronx.

In my humble opinion, Wally Backman is something of a mix among Bobby Valentine, Billy Martin, and Jim Leyland. He’s exactly the opposite of what the Wilpons would like their ideal manager to be, so we’ll probably never see him in the Citi Field dugout donning the orange and blue. But it’s an intriguing option to contemplate.

By the way, this idea isn’t completely my own — it was recently brought to my attention through various sources, most notably the upcoming “Playing for Peanuts” documentary, which will be airing this spring and might very well help Backman win a job in organized baseball (he’s slated to manage the Joliet Jackhammers in the independent Frontier League this season). I also encourage you to read a recent in-depth entry on Wally’s plight at Gotham Baseball Magazine, as well as listen to Gotham’s “Live From Mickey Mantle’s” radio show from this past Sunday, which includes a lengthy interview with Wally himself.

For the moment, though, I’m happy with Willie in the dugout. Let’s hope there’s no good reason to replace him for a few years.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. […] Mets Today, Joe wonders if Wally Backman could, or should, ever be considered a replacement for Willie […]
  2. chicagometsfan February 26, 2008 at 10:45 am
    Great post. I would love to see Wally as a member of the Mets coaching staff. Bobby V was the best, Wally could be right there too.
  3. seatofmypants February 26, 2008 at 11:25 am
    As I recall, the bigger issues with Wally were concerns for his financial issues, and issues about gambling.

    Some people who gamble are in debt, and that leaves them open to “unsavory types” that may ask for favors in return for helping them with their debt….

    After Pete Rose, and the issue with the NBA official, baseball is sensative to these types of issues.

    Wally has a terrific ability to teach and coach, but i will be managing in the majors (unlikely) before Wally will – unfortunately.

  4. joe February 26, 2008 at 12:29 pm
    Agreed that MLB is sensitive to gambling issues … but this is the first I’ve heard anything about Backman associated with gambling. Could you point us to a resource?
  5. vincent May 8, 2008 at 1:47 pm
    Terrific points her regarding Wally. Willie is not the guy. I think the the team bought into Willie for a little while early on because he came with some success after working for Torre but he’s not the right fit for this team. He’s better suited for a team that has recognizable leaders, he then could apply his “more a friend than a manager” approach. But this team is underachieving and has no visible leaders on the field. Beyond that, he has been out-coached and made poor decicions this year on at least six occasions that I’ve seen where he hasn’t made the right pitching change and on double switches.
    We had Valentine who was a master strategist, never saw him get out-coached, however, he didn’t connect with the players, got the feeling they didn’t want to play for him. Willie connects well with his players but cannot generate any importance, urgency or fire with this team. Feels like their doing the best they can on their own. I’m sick and tired of Willie’s post game interviews with him saying “we’ll be o.k., it’s early…we’re stuck in a rut but we’ll climb out of it.” And i’m even more tired of hearing fans and TV commentators say “well he can’t go out there and play for them…it’s up to the players when their on the field.” A good team with a good manager takes the managers direction and expectations onto the field. How many times have you heard a guy like Pinnela say something like ” it will all work itself out.”
    A guy like Pinnela says “I’m here for you and behind you but don’t think for a second that anything but winning is acceptable.” Sorry if i have to do the ’86 flash back but one memorable thing for ’86 was that teams feared facing the Mets. This team cannot survive for another moment without it and will not be feared if first they don’t start to believe in themselves and secondly, win because of that belief.

    Took me a long time to get here but with all of that mentioned above, Wally is a great choice he could be our Ron Gardenhire or Joe Girardi, the young unknown who got the chance and succeeded.

  6. Meet the Peanuts -- Mets Today May 8, 2008 at 2:59 pm
    […] In case you hadn’t read any of the hype yet, this series is an inside look on a minor league baseball team, which happened to be managed by former Met fan favorite Wally Backman. By the end of the summer, I guarantee you will have a completely different image of Backman, and wonder why the heck he doesn’t have an MLB managing job. […]
  7. Walnutz15 May 9, 2008 at 7:52 am
    A buddy of mine played ball for Wally Backman down in Lancaster.

    As a life-long diehard Met fan (playing in the Arizona system) — he said that the experience was more surreal than even becoming a professional ballplayer…in that he put Backman on a pedestal as a kid, because of their scrappiness and aggression on the field.

    I tried getting “the real” stories out of him, pertaining to the “Wally Experience” — but he just left it in terms of baseball. Said Backman was a great coach, that he learned alot as a player (and in terms of coaching — he now coaches himself) and that there was no one better, in terms of getting his players to run through the proverbial wall for him.

    And this was a very successful team — sporting the likes of Conor Jackson, Dan Uggla, Carlos Quentin, Reggie Abercrombie…..

    Very good, solid players there…..and I guarantee they all hold a special place in their baseball-heart for Wally Backman. A guy who molded them down at the lower levels. I don’t think they suffered too much because of whatever Backman may have had going on off the field……very unlikely the Mets ever bring Backman in, but I wouldn’t even hesitate to say: he’d be a great manager.