Seven Questions for 51s Manager Wally Backman

Backman on arguing with the men in blue, his 10 career home run swings and the speech that jump-started the ’86 Mets

Photo by Kin Lui

Photo by Kin Lui

The searing heat, coupled with higher-than-usual humidity, is turning Cashman Field into an outdoor sauna. And yet as he surveys the latter stages of batting practice from inside the shady-but-steamy Las Vegas 51s dugout late on a Friday afternoon, manager Wally Backman is in quite the cheerful mood. This is noteworthy because Backman is known as much for his hot temper as he is for the integral role he played on the New York Mets’ notorious 1986 world-championship team—baseball managers with short fuses generally aren’t very jovial during the dog days of an endless summer. But it turns out the 22nd manager in the history of our city’s Triple-A franchise has more or less kept his cool this season. “No, it really hasn’t,” Backman says when asked if his temper has risen along with the thermometer. “I think I’ve only been thrown out of three games this year and suspended one time for one day. So I’m definitely on the under there.”

Jump ahead 10 days, and there was Backman charging out of the dugout during the second game of a doubleheader in Sacramento after one of his pitchers was ejected in a bean-ball incident. A bench-clearing brawl ensued as a fuming Backman went after the River Cats’ manager, the two needing to be separated by three umpires. Backman served a two-game suspension immediately following the fracas, which means the 51s should have their fiery manager in uniform when they kick off an eight-game homestand August 8 with a Dollar Beer Night contest against Oklahoma City.

Describe the art of a nose-to-nose argument with an ump. Is there a skill to it?

I don’t know if there’s a skill to it. You know, most of the arguments are based on players. When a player gets thrown out, they know I’ve got their back. We can go inside [the clubhouse] and talk about it afterward, but I’m definitely going to get my say [with the umpires].

I played for Lou Piniella, Davey Johnson, Jim Leyland—you kind of take a piece of those guys with you. Sometimes I think maybe I took a little too much of Lou Piniella, but that’s who I am.

What’s your most memorable ejection?

God, I’ve had some good ones! I’ll give you the two best: One was back in 2002, when I was [managing] in Double A with the White Sox. It was a doubleheader, and the umpire made three bad calls to end the first game, and we lost. I was screaming at him all the way off the field, and we had some pretty good words in two different tunnels. Then he said something, and I took off running into the tunnel, then we came around the corner and I ran right over the top of him. We had a woman umpire that day, she came over and jumped on my back, and I was still yelling at the guy while she was on my back. I ended up getting suspended for that one.

The other one was when I was with the Diamondbacks, in Lancaster [California]. … I was arguing with the home-plate umpire, then the second-base umpire threw me out, and I took off on a dead run and I didn’t stop—I ran right over him. They gave me 10 days for that one.

How often do you give a clubhouse speech, and what’s usually the impetus?

Probably this year I’ve had three. We talk every series about the team we’re about to face—the hitters and the pitchers, those type of things. That’s just a regular meeting. … That first meeting [at the beginning of the season] that you have with your players is probably the most important. After that, you’ll have a blowup sooner or later—every manager does. But I try to stay away from those as much as I can. If I have a real issue, those meetings are usually individual.

Of all the speeches you heard as a player, which one stands out?

Jim Leyland gave good speeches. Lou Piniella gave good speeches. But the one that stands out the most was probably the speech Davey Johnson gave to us on the first day of spring training in 1986, because we won the World Series that year. The speech that he gave was basically, “We’re going to win. Bar none, we’re the best team, and we’re going to win. And there’s going to be no excuses this year.” There was a lot more said in the speech, but the confidence he instilled in us right from Day One really made us work our asses off in spring training. Everybody bought into it.

During your playing days, who’s the one pitcher you dreaded facing?

Fernando Valenzuela. I didn’t face him all the time, but I know what I did against him: I was 0-for-19 [actually 1-for-17]. I was a horseshit right-handed hitter. But I didn’t dread facing guys like Nolan Ryan—the guys who threw hard.

You hit 10 home runs in your 14-year major league career. Do you remember all of them?

[Laughs]. Pretty close! First one was off Rick Camp—left fielder ran into the wall, and the ball just scraped over the wall. David Cone. Bob Welch. Mike Krukow. Pascual Perez. [Pause.] Had a couple of inside-the-parkers—one against the Pirates off Enrique Romo. That’s six. John Dopson of the Red Sox. … I hit one in Houston, I think, but it was inside the park.

You know, I never fucking hit a home run [at Wrigley Field] in Chicago—that’s the easiest place to hit home runs. But that’s where I had the highest batting average, in Wrigley Field. … Goddamn, I’m not sure [about the rest]. The other guys must’ve been nobodies!

When’s the last time you wore your World Series ring?

What time is it right now, 5:30? I took it off at 1:30.

Do you remember what was going through your mind as Mookie Wilson’s ground ball was making its way to Bill Buckner in Game 6 of the ’86 World Series?

I led that inning off and made the first out. We had two outs and nobody on, and we scored, what, three runs? After I made that out, here’s what I thought: I felt that we had played the worst series that we had played all year long, and we were going to lose the World Series [even though] I believed we were still the best team. So I thought it was over. I thought that was it. The other stuff had already run through my mind. I already [knew] what was going to happen. And then when Mookie hit the ball—I wasn’t positive, but I thought Mookie was going to beat [Buckner] to the bag anyway. But that would’ve only tied the game.

Bottom of the ninth, 3-2 count, two outs, down by a run with a runner on second base: Who among today’s players do you want at the plate?

Today? [Long pause.] Wow. Robinson Cano. He’s one of the most consistent hitters in baseball. Now, if you would’ve said nobody was on [base], it would’ve been Miguel Cabrera. But if you just need one base hit, I’d have to go with Cano.

If you were still a player and Ryan Braun walked into your clubhouse today, what would you say to him?

He got busted. I mean, really, he got busted. That’s probably what I would say to him. There’s been a lot of things that have gone on in baseball for many, many years, and they’re trying to clean baseball up to put everybody on an even field.

You know, I played in the ’80s and [early] ’90s when those things [performance-enhancing drugs] were starting, and everybody was trying to get an edge, whether it was a pitcher or a position player. … But I would be pissed off if he was my teammate, because I know the effect that he has in a game. When you lose someone because of stupidity, you’re hurting the other 24 players on the team.

More difficult: Dealing with a slump as a player or as a manager?

[Long pause.] The best thing you can do, either way, is to leave it at the field. Actually, I would say it’s more difficult as a player, because you take it home with you. It’s hard. As a manager, I try to stay on a relatively even keel, leave it at the field and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

Who winds up with the better career: Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig?

Goddamn! They’re all good; you could pick any one of them. But I’m going to say Trout, because I think he’s going to have a longer career. I love Harper as much as any of those guys, but that fucking guy will run through that [outfield] wall three or four times a year.

Who’s winning the World Series?

[Long pause.] I’m going to say the Dodgers. They have the full package. They have the pitching that it takes, and with the offense’s potential production, with the guys who are in that lineup … yeah, good pitching beats good hitting, but when you’ve got that many quality hitters in a lineup who can do damage, that’s tough to beat.

What’s your best non-baseball-related skill that would surprise people?

Hunting and fishing. I’ll take anybody on in fly-fishing, anywhere. And I’ve shot some big elk.

What can you do better at age 53 than you could at age 23?

Shoot a gun.

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