James engaged me on the subject of Wally Backman yesterday. I had expressed some public support for Backman in the past, while James had been notably opposed to the idea. As we taked, James became more impassioned and I became more critical, an escalation tactic useful in my debating days, but not always wise in sports blogging. The debate degenerated quickly. At first I thought the failed discussion was just another manifestation of our long-standing mutual hatred, but upon further reflection, I realized we were arguing totally different issues. I supported the idea of Wally Backman managing the Mets. James was against the Mets hiring Wally Backman.
My interest in Backman is mostly a byproduct of long-standing Braves-envy. Growing up in Braves country in the nineties was a deeply psychologically scarring experience. My outward contempt for Bobby Cox belied a deep admiration. Cox informed my conception of an ideal manager: an advocate for his players, an intermediary between management, umpires, and the media. Willie Randolph, feuding with the Carloses behind closed door, and Jerry Manuel--that's poor, Ryan Church!--failed horribly to live up to this standard. It was blame-passing, symptomatic of an organization made afraid by their own failure. By contrast, all of Backman's former players gush about his rapport with the team.
James kept asserting, however, that Backman is only getting a shot because of his connection to the '86 Mets and that there are plenty of qualified candidates. I concede both of these points. As for the latter, discussing managerial qualification is rarely productive. Team records reflect team talent, firstly, and maybe a little managerial influence. No manager is going to take a 90-win team to 80 wins. Awards and records, for this reason, can be extremely misleading (see: Jerry Manuel, 2000, 95 wins, manager of the year). The difference between a good and bad manager remains strategic decision-making ability. And until someone invents highly sophisticated minor-league managerial statistics, my guess is as good as yours.
As for the '86 connection, it is a bit insulting, not just to the other candidates, but to actually good former-Mets. Carlos Beltran will probably never win a World Series with the Mets. Yet, Carlos has been an excellent, all-time great Met. The mysticism surrounding every player on a World Series team is the same dumb logic that buries great players on bad teams into obscurity. Wally Backman remains a managerial candidate because Jeff Wilpon believes this crap.
And that's where most of the Wally-debate lies. Fans like Matt Cerrone believe Wally Backman's return is some romanticized redemption story. Redemption implies some incredible feat propelled him back into baseball following his immense personal problems. It didn't. Backman curried political favor with the only team he could. He played on a franchise's guilt and won some minor league games. That's not redemption; that's closer to cronyism.
So I like the idea of Wally Backman as the Mets manager fine, but I don't want Sandy Alderson to hire him. Wally Backman is just a political football, a sideshow lauded for his entertaining ejections. Alderson represents a break from years of petty nonsense, autonomy from Jeff Wilpon's questionable decisions, Backman being chief among them. Alderson represents a chance for the Mets to reclaim their pride. Wally Backman represents a bizarre inferiority complex, a worshipping of anything past and associated with winning.
And for what it's worth, I don't think Alderson will hire him. Many people have highlighted Alderson's comments about liking fiery managers and the intangible aspects of players as some absolute denial of Moneyball, or something. It was deft political speak, non sequiturs that no one would contest, but everyone would interpret as he or she wanted. Alderson never condemned fiery managers with his "middle-manager" comment in Moneyball. He was speaking out against the not-so-fiery Tony LaRussa's desire to heavily influence player personnel decisions. Alderson will hire a fiery manager, sure, as long as he respects the chain of command. And I will respect whoever he hires, Backman or otherwise, because I trust the front office's decisions making for the first time...ever.