Walter Wayne Backman
- Bats Both, Throws Right
- Height 5' 9", Weight 160 lb.
- High School Aloha High School
- Debut September 2, 1980
- Final Game May 14, 1993
- Born September 22, 1959 in Hillsboro, OR USA
If "scrappy" ever gets its own link in this wiki, it will link to Wally Backman. Backman was the type of player you loved if he was on your team and hated if he was on the opposition. His uniform was constantly dirty, and he was continuously jockeying the opposition and trying to find ways to get on base. Unfortunately, legal problems troubled him after his retirement from active play, and cost him at least one opportunity to be a big league manager.
At bat, Backman was a slap hitter who liked to go the opposite way. His offensive value was wrapped up in his OBP and speed, as he had very little power. As a second baseman, Backman had a poor reputation early in his career, and his defensive shortcomings threatened his ability to hold a big league job. However, by all accounts he improved by the mid-1980s and became an adequate, if not great, defender.
The son of a former Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand, Backman was signed as a shortstop and the first round draft choice (16th overall) of the New York Mets in the 1977 amateur draft by scout Marvin Scott, after hitting .548 as a high school senior at Aloha High School in Beaverton, OR. He progressed quickly through the system as a second baseman, hitting .325, .302, .282, and .293 at various minor league stops, and earned a September call-up in 1980, hitting .323 in 93 at-bats. However, the Mets second base job was held by Doug Flynn, an established veteran who won the Gold Glove that year and was a clubhouse leader and favorite of Mets manager Joe Torre. Backman made the 1981 team out of spring training as a reserve infielder, but with Flynn entrenched, he did not see much playing time. He was optioned to the Triple A Tidewater Tides on June 8th. Irritated by the perception that the Mets were trying to turn him into a utility infielder, he refused to report to Tidewater for six days, which damaged his reputation in the organization.
During the 1981-1982 offseason, the Mets traded Flynn to open up the second base job. Backman was able to overcome any taint from the previous year and was the starter on Opening Day in 1982. While he hit well for the Mets (.387 OBP), he struggled defensively, registering a .964 fielding percentage (Backman claimed that a lingering arm injury affected his ability to throw and caused his defensive woes). On August 13th, Backman fell off his bicycle and broke his collarbone, ending his season. His replacement, Brian Giles, hit just .210 but impressed the Mets' brass with solid defense. The two competed for the second base job in the spring of 1983 and Giles won, with Backman relegated to a backup role and later another demotion to Triple A. This time, Backman accepted his demotion, and decided to try and play well to attract another organization that would liberate him from the Mets in a trade. He went on to register a .316 average and .422 OBP at Tidewater as they won the International League championship, which endeared him to manager Davey Johnson, who greatly valued the ability to get on base. Johnson, a former second baseman himself, took Backman under his wing and worked with him on his defense.
When Johnson was given the Mets managerial position for 1984, he did not hesitate to install Backman as the Mets' starting second baseman and leadoff hitter. Backman hit .280 with a .360 OBP and 32 stolen bases and the Mets won 90 games. Perhaps skeptical of his newfound job security, Backman spent the year living in a mobile home with his wife and daughter at a campsite in West Milford, NJ. Backman did have one Achilles' heel; while he was a switch-hitter, he could not hit left-handers (he would, at the very end of his career, abandon switch-hitting entirely and bat exclusively from the left side). He batted just .162 in 1984 and .122 against southpaws in 1985. Johnson realized this weakness and enlisted Kelvin Chapman, a right-handed hitter, as Backman's platoon partner. After Chapman hit just .174 in 1985, the Mets traded for Tim Teufel to platoon with Backman.
Backman hit .320 and was an offensive catalyst as the #2 hitter in the lineup as the Mets dominated the league in 1986, winning 108 games. He hit only one home run that season, on September 22nd, his 27th birthday. He was a crucial factor in the NLCS. With the series against the Houston Astros tied 1-1, the Mets were losing Game 3, 5-4, in the bottom of the 9th. Backman led off and dragged a bunt down the first-base line; when Astros first baseman Glenn Davis fielded it, Backman lunged past him into foul territory and slid safely into first base. Astros manager Hal Lanier argued that Backman had run out of the base path, but to no avail. Two batters later, Lenny Dykstra slugged a game-winning homer to give the Mets the crucial victory. Houston then won Game 4, and the teams were deadlocked in Game 5 through 11 and a half innings. Backman led off the bottom of the 12th with an infield hit, then advanced to second on an errant pick-off attempt by Charlie Kerfeld. He came around to score the winning run on a single by Gary Carter. In Game 6, Backman drove in a run in the 14th and then scored the game-winning (and series clinching) run in the 16th. He then hit .333 in the Mets' World Series victory against the Boston Red Sox.
Backman slumped in 1987, hitting just .250; he blamed lingering hamstring injuries and claimed he had been trying to pull the ball too much. Meanwhile, his platoon partner Teufel clearly outplayed him, hitting .308 with 14 homers. Backman also had a well-publicized run-in with teammate Darryl Strawberry after Strawberry begged out of a crucial game against the first-place St. Louis Cardinals with a purported virus, after having spent the day recording a rap song. Backman observed, "Nobody I know gets sick 25 times a year." Strawberry's response was, "I'll bust that little redneck in the face." After 1987, Johnson publicly questioned Backman's desire, and then awarded the full-time starting job for 1988 to Teufel in the spring. Backman accepted his new role as a back-up, but regained his stroke during the season, and took over the bulk of playing time at second in August as the Mets won a division title again.
The Mets now had young infield prospects Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller ascending through the system, and the writing was on the wall for Wally. In December 1988, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins (with minor leaguer Mike Santiago) for minor league pitchers Jeff Bumgarner, Steve Gasser, and Toby Nivens (none of whom reached the big leagues). Backman was expected to solidify the Twins' infield in 1989, but injured his shoulder early in the year, spent two stints on the disabled list, and hit just .231. After the season, he signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He moved to third base and platooned with Jeff King, and was considered an important cog as the Pirates won the division in 1990. On April 27th, Backman went 6-for-6, the first National Leaguer to record six hits in a game since 1975. Backman entered free agency again after the season and signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he reunited with Dykstra, his comrade at the top of the 1986 Mets' batting order. Any hope that the twosome would recreate their prior success fell by the wayside when Dykstra was seriously injured in a car accident in May of that year. After 1992, Backman signed a minor-league deal with the Atlanta Braves, but failed to make the team. He then signed with the Seattle Mariners, appearing in 10 games before being released in May 1993. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, author Bill James ranked Backman the 106th best second baseman in baseball history.
After retiring, Backman managed for seven years in the minor leagues. By all accounts, his managing style was similar to his playing style: fiery and combustible, with a history of ejections, on-field tantrums, and suspensions. His first position was a disastrous 3-23 stint with the Catskill Cougars of the Northern League in 1997, and he went on to manage two Western Baseball League teams, the Bend Bandits and the Tri-City Posse. While managing Bend, Backman was bit on the forehead by a brown recluse spider and nearly died. He had to have two surgeries and an inch and a half of his scalp was removed. Backman recovered and went on to manage the Class A Winston-Salem Warthogs in 2001 and the Double A Birmingham Barons in 2002 and 2003. The 2002 team won the Southern League title. Backman was considered to be a candidate for the parent team Chicago White Sox managerial job after Jerry Manuel was fired following the 2003 season. However, reports emerged that Backman had been not-so-discreetly rooting against the White Sox during the season, in the hopes that Manuel would be let go and the managerial position would open up. As a result, the White Sox severed ties with Wally and he was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to manage their Class A Lancaster JetHawks affiliate.
After leading Lancaster to the California League championship series and being named The Sporting News's Minor League Manager of the Year in 2004, Backman was interviewed for major league managerial jobs by the Mets and the Diamondbacks. He was hired as the D'backs manager on November 1th. Immediately afterward, reports became public that Backman had previously been convicted of DUI in 2000, pled guilty to harassing a female friend of his family in 2001, and had been accused of spousal abuse by his ex-wife. He had also filed for personal bankruptcy in 2003. The Diamondbacks admitted they had not conducted a financial or criminal check of Backman before hiring him and fired him on November 5th. On December 4th, Backman was sentenced to 10 days in jail. He had been placed on probation after the 2000 DUI, and the 2001 arrest violated the terms of that probation.
He returned to managing in 2007, skippering the South Georgia Peanuts in the South Coast League's inaugural season. His season was marked by an incident in which it was alleged in the media that Backman had physically attacked a young broadcaster for the Anderson Joes after he had criticized one of Backman's on-field tantrums. The incident was filmed by the camera crew of the TV show "Playing for Peanuts" and according to the producer and crew, there was no physical contact and the nature of the argument was largely misrepresented by reporters who were not witness to the events. As a result of the incident, he did not finish the season, and Larry Olenberger took over and guided the team to the title.
Backman was named manager of the Northern League's Joliet JackHammers for the 2008 season. Two years later, his purgatory over, he returned to organized baseball as manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League, in the Mets organization, in 2010, and a year later, after a first-place finish in his only season in the NYPL, he was promoted to manage the Double A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. He interviewed for the Mets' 2011 managerial opening, losing out to Terry Collins, and in 2012 moved up to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons, another step closer to his dream job. On August 3rd, however, he was up to his old tricks in a game against the Syracuse Chiefs when he violently confronted opposing manager Tony Beasley and accused him of stealing signs. He earned a three-game suspension from the International League as a result. Wally followed the Mets as their Triple A squad became the Las Vegas 51s, winning PCL Manager of the Year honors in 2014. Upon the conclusion of the 2016 season, he resigned. Backman alleged to sportswriter Bob Klapisch that this was actually a termination, and that Mets GM Sandy Alderson did not appreciate his managerial acumen. Further, he alleged Alderson had him effectively blackballed from organized baseball.
Wally caught on as the skipper of the Acereros de Monclova in Mexico, lasting 42 games before being fired. He finished out the season as bench coach for fellow Mexican League team Pericos de Puebla. In 2018, he skippered the New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League and became manager of the Long Island Ducks in the loop in 2019. On August 30, 2019, he was arrested at a residence in Long Island, NY after a domestic dispute.
Year-By-Year Minor League Managerial Record
- Marty Noble: "Dykstra & Backman: The Mets' Dead-End Kids", in Zander Hollander, ed.: The Complete Handbook of Baseball: 1987 Season, Signet Books, New American Library, New York, NY, 1987, pp. 30-39. ISBN 0-451-14761-8