This was where Wally Backman wants to be most. Where he “oughta be”, as the slogan used to go. Twenty-five years later, those simple words still hold true.
Those old enough to remember New York’s championship in 1986 celebrated his return. They appreciated his nine years with the Mets, which included a .283 career batting average and 106 stolen bases, both Top 10 numbers on the franchise’s all-time list.
In the interim, Backman had bounced around as a minor league manager, most notably winning a Southern League title with the 2002 Birmingham Barons (the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox) and the Sporting News’ 2004 Minor League Manager of the Year, upon leading the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Lancaster Jethawks squad (A) to an 86-54 record.
But, within 96 hours after he was tabbed as the Diamondbacks’ manager later that year, all hell broke loose. Reports surfaced that Backman’s recent history included several legal and financial issues. Management -obviously embarrassed for conducting a less-than-stellar background check- retracted its offer and promptly axed him before the week was over.
Still, he continued to persevere. In 2007, Backman led the South Georgia Peanuts, an independent team, to the South Coast League’s inaugural title. The following year, he was with the Joliet JackHammers of the Northern League.
In November 2009, Backman was chosen to take the Brooklyn Cyclones into their 10th season.
That began on Friday, with a come-from-behind 5-3 victory in Staten Island. A 1-0 record was, at the least, a good start. At the most, it pushed his highly anticipated managerial debut at MCU Park that much closer.
“I am thrilled and grateful to be coming back to the Mets’ organization,” Backman said when he was introduced as manager. “The greatest days of my professional career were spent here in New York, and I have always felt a special connection to the city. Brooklyn is a major minor-league team, and I know the borough’s fans are – like me – intensely passionate about baseball and about winning.”
Backman knows how baseball in this town is supposed to be played. After all, he epitomized the player who maximized his ability, and never -ever- cheated his audience. His return to the metropolis was, at first, a curious one because Jerry Manuel’s tenure as Mets’ skipper was in jeopardy; now it is lauded for what it actually is -a chance for young men to learn the right way to play the game.
By chance, this is where he had received his start after New York drafted him 16th overall in the 1977 Draft. Fresh out of Aloha High School in Orgeon, the 18 year-old newbie hit .325 over 69 games for Little Falls, then a New York-Penn League affiliate.
Thus, it was inevitable that when the 50 year-old former second baseman emerged one-half hour before Saturday’s opening pitch, fans alongside the Cyclones’ dugout cheered wildly. Instantly, Backman was besieged by autograph seekers.
“The fans haven’t changed,” he said, after Brooklyn won its second straight over the rival Yankees, 9-6, which drew a franchise record crowd of 9,888. “It was a good reception; even better that we got the win for them.”
Do not be fooled by the nine runs. Staten Island committed five errors, which produced a wild line score of 6-7-5. Only five of the Cyclones’ runs were earned, lending even more credence that WallyBall will be very much in play over the summer.
“I was told, from Day One, that -when the wind blows in- a ball hit to rightfield is not going anywhere,” Backman noted. “We will have to manufacture runs here. We don’t have a lot of power guys, so we’ll have to hit-and-run, and move guys over. And, try to force the defense to make some mistakes.”
After all the miles in between, he is finally back home -to a place where everyone knows his name, as that famous lyric goes- and doing what he likes to do. And, at this moment, it doesn’t get much better.
John Buro covers the New York Mets for Examiner.com.