Jerry Manuel's dismissal after the season seems imminent, so discussion about the Mets' next manager has materialized. One name that consistently pops up, for some reason, is Wally Backman, former Mets second baseman and current manager of the Single-A Brooklyn Cyclones. I say "for some reason" because at first glance he seems as qualified for the job as a 25 year-old applying to be the Chief Financial Officer of a billion dollar corporation. His snapshot résumé (never coached in MLB, has never managed above Double-A and that was seven years ago) would justifiably be tossed in the initial screening reject pile if he had equivalent credentials while applying for any other job.
Regardless, he is a Met fan favorite, and it is possible that my own initial screening is myopic. A more in-depth look at the possibility of Backman, Mets manager, is in order.
Backman's fiery personality is often cited as one of his biggest assets. Videos of his infamous blow-ups at umpires while managing in the independent league have circulated on the Internet -- they are well-known, I won't bother linking any. Contrast with the often statue-esque Willie Randolph and Jerry Manuel, two men generally disliked by most fans for their lack of fire. Although Willie's stoicism only seemed to become a problem once the Mets were playing poorly. Some of Backman's former players have testified that his energy rubs off on them. Here's Dan Uggla, who played for Backman with the Diamondbacks' Single-A Lancaster team in 2004, via Adam Rubin:
I would have run through a brick wall for him. Everybody is playing hard when they play for a guy like that.
While I believe that a club's personality is far less important than its talent, I will say that a little fire from a manager is a good thing. But not too much fire. A happy medium between Phil Wellman and Art Howe is ideal. Uggla's quote is a feather in Backman's cap, even if the two haven't worked together in six years. A team of twenty-five players who feel that way about their manager would be terrific.
The rough-and-tumble 1986 Mets are still a beloved group, and Backman is an enduring character from that team. He was one of the "Wild Boys", playing the game aggressively and always at maximum effort. Backman also manages this way, encouraging his players to put pressure on opponents. Controlled aggression is a good thing. Aggressiveness for the sake of it is not. I admittedly haven't watched enough Cyclones games to judge him on this aspect. However, he doubles as the Cyclones third base coach and has a reputation for sending runners in risky spots.
While there is no problem with the organization showing some love to its former players, I fear that his status as '86 Met is being weighed too heavily by supporters. Past success as a Met player should not be the basis for a managerial hiring -- it is more of an added bonus, like a player having a strong clubhouse presence.
The previously mentioned lack of big league experience is the biggest problem with Backman. His last taste of MLB affiliated work before this season was the highly publicized hiring-then-firing Diamondbacks episode in 2004. He then latched on with some independent league teams, enjoying moderate success. After being fired by the Joliet Jackhammers of the Northern League last year, he called Jeff Wilpon, which ultimately led to employment with the Wilpon-owned Cyclones. He has led the team to a 38-19 record this season, best in the New York-Penn League. Nevertheless, there's a difference between managing youngsters in Single-A ball and millionaires in the big leagues. How would a rookie manager largely unfamiliar with Met players be perceived in the clubhouse? Any answer I provide would be idle speculation, but I can't imagine veteran Mets embracing someone with no MLB coaching experience who immediately starts throwing bats and flipping buffet tables. Someone with more of a track record might be better equipped to earn the players' respect.
Some have argued that Backman's in-game strategy isn't an extension of Jerryball, but there's evidence that it is. It's tough to come down on him for this, as player development is king in the minor leagues. Dropping five sacrifice bunts down a game is slightly more acceptable if under the guise of teaching. Who knows exactly how Backman would manage, but given his attitude and brief time in Brooklyn, smart money is on bunt-a-palooza.
Some other opinions on Backman:
Via Toby Hyde of Mets Minor League Blog, someone who knows the Mets' farm system as well as anyone:
I haven't seen any evidence he has the skills/temperament to be an MLB mgr.
Via Mike Harrington, who covers the Buffalo Bisons for the Buffalo News. This is a Twitter response to inquiries about Backman's qualifications to manage the Mets:
Lot of warped love for a guy who's managed no higher than 2 yrs AA, don't you think? I don't care about DUI. Resume not enough for me.
Via Joe Janish of Mets Today:
I fully believe that there are some leaders — in every sport — who can have a significant, positive impact on a team’s success as a direct result of their attitude and the development of a "winning culture".
There aren’t many "impact" leaders in MLB these days — but Wally might be one of those rare figures.
Obviously, I agree more with Hyde and Harrington than Janish. But that's not to say that Backman has no future as a manager in MLB. He just needs more experience and a chance to show he can stay out of trouble -- he has a history of off-the-field problems including a DUI and a domestic dispute. If MLB manager is his goal, employment as MLB coach would be a nice first step towards that goal, even if he wants no part of that. One doesn't make a jump from Single-A to MLB, much like one doesn't jump from junior accountant to CFO.
I've tried to be fair in this piece. I've largely ignored Backman's prior personal problems. His résumé just isn't strong enough to warrant serious consideration, for a rational organization. Unfortunately, this is the Mets. If Manuel is fired, I would not be shocked to see Backman hired and marketed as the big offseason acquisition. From "significant [character] clause" in his Single-A contract to leading a ~$130 million payroll team in just one year. A true Horatio Alger success story.
As for my desired potential replacement for Jerry -- someone from outside the organization is preferable. Bobby Valentine is one intriguing name. Joe Torre is not. If the Mets opt to promote from within, Double-A Binghamton manager (and '86 Met!) Tim Teufel and Triple-A manager Ken Oberkfell have been with the organization for some time now and are preferable to Backman. This subject will be given closer scrutiny at a later date, but for now, say no to Backman as manager.