"If Wally Backman wasn't a baseball player, no doubt he'd be calling up WFAN to tell Steve Somers that the Mets needed to get a baseball player like Wally Backman."
After Jerry Manuel was fired following the 2010 season, many Mets fans were clamoring for Wally Backman to take over the captain's chair in Queens. Backman had just finished a very successful season as manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones, and he had minor league managing experience going back to 2000. He had even been (briefly) named manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks before it came out that he had lied to the team about legal problems in his past. Backman had a reputation of being one of those 'fiery' managers, and one of his tirades in independent ball even went viral. Ultimately, though, none of that really mattered to the Mets fan who stumped for Wallyball. What mattered was that Wally Backman was a member of the 1986 Mets.
The 1986 Mets team is one of two World Series champions in franchise history, of course, but it has always seemed to me that the two teams occupy very different places in Mets fandom. I wasn't alive for the 1969 team, and was a mere toddler for '86, so I don't think this is just recency bias on my part. The 1969 team is an iconic story, told in 16mm footage taken from high above home plate at Shea Stadium. "The Miracle Mets" are a beloved team, a classic underdog story that belongs to a greater baseball history.
The 1986 Mets? Well, there's a reason the book about the team is titled The Bad Guys Won. That team's story was told in grainy VHS with garish 80's analog video effects. That team was mustaches and racing stripes and dirty uniforms. That team belonged to New York [expletive redacted] City, and no player represented the '86 Mets in miniature better than Wally Backman.
Backman was regarded as a rather grissiony type of guy during his playing days, so you might be forgiven for not guessing that he was actually a highly regarded amateur prospect. He was the Mets' first round pick in 1977, selected 16th overall as a switch-hitting shortstop out of Aloha High School. Backman then promptly opened his professional career by posting a .325/.393/.451 line in the New York Penn League while playing the whole season as a 17-year-old. Obviously short-season stats from 1977 aren't particularly useful, but if a first round pick did that in 2012, he'd probably at least get some Top 100 consideration by all your various prospect pundits.
Throughout Backman's minor league career he showed the ability to work a count, make solid contact, and steal a base or two, though after back-to-back 30-error seasons in Lynchburg and Jackson, he was forced to move from shortstop to second base. Backman was more sure-handed at the keystone and put what looked to be a strong cap on his minor league career, posting a .293/.415/.363 line at Tidewater in 1980. That earned him a September call-up, and he got a month's worth of games as the 95-loss squad's everyday second baseman. Backman hit .323 across 27 games and seemed poised to take over full-time in 1981.
But the Mets had Doug Flynn, whose veteran presence and .255/.288/.312 line was too good for manager Joe Torre to pass up. Backman made the 1981 Mets out of spring training, but was essentially relegated to the role of pinch hitter and late-inning defensive replacement. A sulking Backman was sent back to Tidewater just before the 1981 players' strike and played out the rest of the season there, hitting an anemic .153/.281/.237.
Flynn was traded before the 1982 season, and Backman took over as the everyday second baseman — against right-handed starters, at least. Despite being a switch-hitter, Backman had a tremendous platoon split and was only really useful against right-handed pitching. Bob Bailor took the short-side of the platoon, and Backman put together what would become a typical Wally Backman season, hitting .272/.387/.372, good for an OPS+ of 115. Backman fared even better by wRC+ (119), which weights Backman's strong OBP more heavily. Unfortunately, Backman's season would be cut short by an errant Huffy. I'll let Eric explain:
"Unfortunately for Backman, his bicycle-riding skills didn't compare to his on-base skills, as he fractured his left clavicle during a bike ride with his wife, Margie, following the Mets' game on August 13, 1982. Backman would spend the remainder of the season on the disabled list. When he returned to camp the following spring he found himself in a battle for the starting second base job with Brian Giles, who took over full-time after Backman's injury. The competition boiled down to your classic bat vs glove conundrum: Backman could hit but was something of a liability with the glove; Giles was a solid defender but didn't hit much, posting a .210/.270/.312 line in Backman's absence in 1982."
The next year Giles won the starting job out of Spring Training, returning Backman to his pinch hitter/utility guy spot on the 1983 Mets. Backman floundered in limited playing time and didn't make much effort to hide his displeasure with his role. After hitting just .129/.192/.129 over 34 plate appearances in April in May, he was sent back down to Tidewater. Backman did his usual thing back in AAA, posting a .300+ average with more walks than strikeouts. Backman was called up in September for a short cup of coffee, but he'd have to be forgiven for thinking that his best chance to be a major league regular now resided somewhere other than Flushing, Queens.
"I'll go and play hard, but at the end of this season, I hope the Mets trade or release me so I can make a deal with some other team. I really need to get away from this organization. There's no place for me here."
-New York Times (5/18/83)
However, change was coming to Shea Stadium. Davey Johnson was brought in to manage the Mets and would quickly establish himself as an unconventional tactician. He undoubtedly saw the appeal of a second baseman that could hit .300, draw some walks, and steal some bases, even if he was lacking in other areas. Paired with Kelvin Chapman in a very strict platoon (only 48 of Backman's 499 plate appearances that year came against a lefty), he flourished, batting .280/.360/.339 and succesfully swiping 32 out of 41 bags. Chapman did his part, posting a .777 OPS against southpaws, and the extra offense (plus a couple kids named Gooden and Strawberry) helped the Mets to their first winning season since 1976 and their first 90-win season since 1969.
1985 was a bit of a down year for Backman. Chapman's struggles forced Backman to see more at-bats against lefties and he flailed to a .122/.212/.153 line against them. He kept humming along against righties, but his overall line of .273/.320/.344, much like the Mets '85 campaign on the whole, had to be a little disappointing. Backman stole 30 bases again and was better at second base, by the metrics at least, but his weakness against lefties limited his value as an everyday player. Johnson and Cashen set out to find Backman another platoon partner. In January of 1986, they settled on Tim Teufel, dealing Billy Beane, Joe Klink, and the immortal Bill Latham to the Minnesota Twins for Teufel and Pat Crosby. Teufel actually wasn't an ideal platoon partner, as he had hit righties about as well as lefties in Minnesota, but the fact that he could hit lefties at all made him an upgrade over Backman in that regard.
Freed from having to deal with his nemesis, Backman compiled the best season of his career in 1986 as the Mets ran roughshod over the NL East. His .320 batting average would have been fourth in the league had he logged enough plate appearances to qualify, and he continued to make strides in the field. His 3.0 bWAR was good for fifth on the team, and he went on to deliver what looked like it would be one of the biggest moments of the '86 season during Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS.
Backman was brought into the game as a pinch hitter for Tim Teufel in the top of the ninth. The Mets had already come back to tie the game at 3, and Gary Carter stood at third base and Keith Hernandez at second. Backman was quickly intentionally walked to pitch to Rafael Santana, who was pinch hit for by Danny Heap, but Backman stayed in the game at second base as the contest moved into extras. Backman would ground out in the twelfth, but he came up in the fourteenth once again with two men on base. His one-out single plated Darryl Strawberry, and it appeared that the Mets were headed to the World Series on the back of Wally Backman.
Of course Jesse Orosco then surrendered a home run to Billy Hatcher, who had hit a total of six home runs during the regular season, in the bottom of the fourteenth. The game proceeded to get even crazier from there. Backman would walk again in the sixteenth inning and score the third run of the frame on a Lenny Dykstra single. Orosco scuffled through the bottom of the sixteenth, letting two Astros cross the plate, before the game mercifully ended inf avor of the Mets after four hours and forty-two minutes. Backman would go on to hit .333 in the World Series as the Mets won the title in a justifiably famous seven-game tilt with the Boston Red Sox.
In 1987 Backman saw his playing time at second erode as he slumped to a .593 OPS while Tim Teufel had a career year, socking 14 home runs and posting a .308/.398/.545 line. Backman rebounded in 1988, but he was never comfortable being just a platoon player and was not the type to keep such things quiet. Meanwhile, the Mets thought they had their second baseman of the future in prospect phenomenon Gregg Jeffries, so after the 1988 season they sent Backman to the Twins for three minor leaguers. Backman managed one last classic Backman season with the Pirates in 1990 before playing out the string as a utility infielder for the Phillies and Mariners.
Backman was a player with easily identifiable strengths and weaknesses, so it always seemed weird to me that it took a strategic mind as deep as Davey Johnson's to figure out how best to deploy him. Backman couldn't hit lefties or for power in general, but as long as you limited his at-bats against southpaws, he was an above-average hitter because of his high contact rate and ability to draw a walk. Despite being drafted as a shortstop, he was generally a below average second baseman, though he eventually got enough out of his tools to be passable-to-average there. Davey's assessment of Backman upon taking over the Mets sums it up nicely:
"He's not the smoothest or the prettiest thing at second base, but he's not afraid to get dirty. He still has to learn to make the play and get out of the runner's way, like a matador. And, at bat, he'd put his chin on home plate if he thought he could get hit by the ball and get one base."
- New York Times (2/23/84)
Backman was never a star for the '80s Mets teams, but he he reflected the attitude they projected: a guy with a dirty uniform from headfirst slides, a tough out who would foul off balls then line a single over the second baseman's head, a no-nonsense guy who would tell the media exactly what he was thinking even if it perhaps wasn't in his best interest. If Wally Backman wasn't a baseball player, there's no doubt he'd be calling up WFAN to tell Steve Somers that the Mets needed to get a baseball player like Wally Backman. We often make fun of gritty gamer types that get the maximum out of their physical tools — and often a disproportionate share of media admiration — but Backman was a good player at his peak for some of the best teams in Mets history.
Additional Notes, Reading and Miscellany
Backman's 10.4 bWAR is good for 38th overall in the team's history and 21st among position players.
Wally Backman's Baseball-Reference page
Eric's original entry on Backman, which was a useful source for things like the Times quotes above.
The first line of Wally Backman's bio from Baseball-Reference's Bullpen wiki:
"If 'scrappy' ever gets its own link in this wiki, it'll link to Wally Backman."
You can still purchase the 3-DVD box set of "Playing for Peanuts," the documentary that followed Wally Backman's 2007 season managing the South Georgia Peanuts. All ten episodes are included, plus bonus features.
"Now the pitch in on the way...He struck him out! ... Struck him out! The Mets have won the World Series!"