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.
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.