On Wally Backman

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and noncliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own…. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please….

Now you have to pay close attention to something that’s going to seem obvious at first. There is a difference between a great leader and a great salesman. There are also similarities, of course. A great salesman is usually charismatic and likable, and he can often get us to do things (buy things, agree to things) that we might not go for on our own, and to feel good about it. Plus a lot of salesmen are basically decent people with plenty about them to admire. But even a truly great salesman isn’t a leader. This is because a salesman’s ultimate, overriding motivation is self-interest — if you buy what he’s selling, the salesman profits. So even though the salesman may have a very powerful, charismatic, admirable personality, and might even persuade you that buying is in your interests (and it really might be) — still, a little part of you always knows that what the salesman’s ultimately after is something for himself.

David Foster Wallace, Up, Simba.

The social media website Twitter no longer exists. It has been replaced by a chat room dedicated to a constant, heated debate over the merits of Wally Backman as a potential manager for the Mets.

Backman’s ardent supporters point to his winning records at nearly every Minor League stop since he started managing in the late 1990s. They argue that if he was deemed apt and experienced enough to manage the Major League Diamondbacks in 2004 — before he was unceremoniously stripped of the job due to legal and financial troubles a few days later — then he is certainly ready to helm a big-league club now, a full decade removed from his last publicized off-field incident and with six more years of personal and professional experience.

Backman’s detractors point out that he has yet to succeed beyond Double-A and hasn’t even managed above A-ball since 2003. They show that his Minor League clubs perpetually finish first or second in their leagues in sacrifice bunts, a strategy mostly eschewed by the Sandy Alderson set since they volunteers away an offense’s most precious commodity: outs.

Backman seems to have become some odd sort of mustachioed prism through which Mets fans can see either an opportunity to break with the team’s recent past or continue it.

The pro-Backman camp says his emphasis on fundamentals and his fiery attitude will bring a welcome change from the lackadaisical and often sloppy squads that played under Jerry Manuel. His supporters sometimes claim that his connection to the great 1986 world champion club gives the Mets an opportunity to partly right the great wrong they did when they opened their new ballpark in 2009 with almost no regard for the team’s history.

And they maintain that Backman will, perhaps unlike Manuel, go to great lengths to protect his players and inspire their trust — often citing the time Dan Uggla said, “I would have run through a brick wall for him.”

The other side argues that both the fire and the tie to the ’86 team amount to a sideshow, and, if he is hired, would indicate that the Mets were continuing their nasty habit of concerning themselves more with selling ticket and advertising in February than winning ballgames in June. They point out that his history of off-field problems and on-field meltdowns mean he could bring even more embarrassment to a team that has suffered way too much of it in the past couple of years.

Backman’s critics don’t often mention — though they probably should — that it is a very rare moment indeed when a baseball player will go on the record demonstrating anything but wholehearted support for his manager, that Mets players often publicly backed Manuel even as he ushered them under the proverbial bus in 2010, and that Dan Uggla really looks like the kind of dude who’s just waiting for an excuse to try to run through a brick wall.

But you know all these arguments. Presumably, if you’ve read even one Mets-oriented blog besides this one, you’ve seen them turned inside out and flipped over and beaten half to death. Somewhere at the center lies Backman, and the actual truth as to whether he’d be the right manager for the Mets in 2011 and beyond.

I should mention now, once again, that I have long felt the role of field manager is wildly overrated. J.C. Bradbury yesterday published academic research suggesting exactly that. The idea is not that just anyone can manage a Major League club, but that there’s a baseline level of ability for the men that are hired to manage in the Majors, and that their differences don’t often account for a hell of a lot in terms of wins and losses or player performance.

That said, the Mets do still need a manager for 2011 and there’s no way to argue that Alderson and his capos wouldn’t be best served by identifying and hiring the best man for the job.

The odds on Backman seem long: He is only one of at least seven men interviewing for the position, he does — for better or worse — lack experience at the Major League level, and though it’s impossible to know now how willing he’d be to jump on board with Alderson’s top-down organizational philosophy (and likely abandon all that bunting), his reputation does not seem to mesh with what the Mets’ new front office has traditionally sought in a manager.

But of course, there is something more with Backman, something that apparently earned him at least one advocate in ownership, something that inspired all the breathless support on the Internet (and likely the subsequent backlash), and something I can attest to myself:

Backman is charismatic. He makes people excited about baseball, and he makes people excited about him.

In a player, the quality is meaningless. No one but beat writers really cares that Jeff Francoeur lights up a room with his smile when he’s getting on base less than 30 percent of the time.

That might not be the same for a manager. After all, if Backman could arouse all the excitement in bloggers and media that we read daily on what-used-to-be Twitter, we must at least consider that he does the same to players.

I opened this post with a quote from Wallace’s stunning recap of his week on John McCain’s campaign trail. Wallace struggled to determine if McCain was a great leader or merely a great salesman, and I am left wondering the same about Backman.

When I sat with him in Brooklyn and asked him about the time he threw 22 bats on the field in an Indy league game, Backman seemed to indicate that it was at least partly an act, a demonstration to his players of how far he’d go to back them up. But I remembered later a conversation I had long ago on the now-defunct NYMetscast with Mike Janela, a young broadcaster doing play-by-play for the game. Janela told me about how Backman also stormed the press box after the incident, enraged over a sanctimonious comment on the radio broadcast. If it was part of an act, Backman was taking it to Andy Kaufman-esque lengths.

What I know for certain is that Backman has to date inspired both a lot of passion, something that likely would indeed sell tickets and earn the team much-needed revenue, and a lot of bunting, something that would likely frustrate plenty of fans and perhaps also the team’s front office. Whether he is a great leader or a great salesman, and whether any of it matters even a little bit, I cannot say.

19 thoughts on “On Wally Backman

  1. I was wondering if you were going to mention the Janela story. And that too makes me wonder if he could handle the NY media. Supporters say he’s like Rex Ryan in that he’s loud and confident. But Ryan can also take criticism and not let it outwardly bother him.

  2. My opinion on the matter is that fans want a winner, bottom line. And for whatever reason they think Wally Backman will make the team a winer faster, but like you said, that proabbly isnt true.

    If the team wins fans will flock to Citi Field, regardles of the manager, and if Wally takes over, while there might be a large contingent of fans who will throw thier support behind the team soley do to Wally, the chances are if the teams not winning, the stadium will still be empty, and fans will soon start to turn on Wally.

    At the end of the day, the man Alderson belives gives the Mets the best chance to win should be hired. If thats Wally, then great, if its not thats good too.

    • I think a great quote that backs your point up comes from, of all places, Doc Gooden’s autobiography “Heat”. At one point, while speaking of the Mets rise to demise from the mid to late 80s that the front office made too many moves for guys “used to getting their as$#s kicked”. I think that’s the same thing here with Backman. This guy is just a winner, and he loves the game. Maybe that will rub off on his players and David Wright won’t grip the bat so hard that sawdust comes off the handle, and Jose Reyes can go back to being, well, Jose Reyes.

      I really feel if we miss out on Backman we will soon regret it.

      • Let’s take the word of multiple time loser in Gooden. Sorry his word is like licking a sewer drain and expecting it to be a lollipop.

  3. Well thats no fun Chris. How am I supposed to get myself all riled up based on little to no information about absolute and total strangers vying for a job I don’t fully understand during a candidate evaluation process I only superficially follow if I can’t get a a whole lotta irrational and reactionary?

    jeez…

  4. I wouldn’t mind seeing Wally as the manager. This is mostly out of curiosity. Sort of a lab experiment in a Mets uniform.

    As far as he qualifications go, there is only one objection that I have read that I believe has merit. This is his love for “smallball.” If Wally is willing to change his tactical approach to the game, I see little harm in hiring him.

    Of all the positive qualities that I’ve read about Wally, only one strikes me as a huge plus. That is his supposed ability to motivate players. If it is true, it could make a difference in the performance of the team. The idea is reasonable, as players are human beings, and they should respond differently under various conditions. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to measure this, nor do I know of anyone who does measure baseball players’ response to managers.

    I’m with Ted in that I really don’t know how Wally will impact the team. I’m just very curious.

  5. If Wally plays small ball, I don’t think he will make the Mets a winner. What used to absolutely drive me insane was in the 1st inning, Reyes whould get on 1b and Castillo would bunt. As the great Earl Weaver used to say “If you play for 1 run that is usually what you will get, if any.” How many 1-0 games do you see each year? Not many. Pitchers bunt? ok. Regular players are paid to hit and drive in runs.

  6. is it okay that I’m just merely passively interested in Wally Backman, and just want them to hire someone already so I can chew them out for making the wrong moves in game?

  7. The phrase “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” comes to mind. Regarding the extreme sides of the Wally Backman debate, not this post.

  8. I really hope Wally is hired. The one thing that really annoyed me about Jerry was that he was too relaxed. How many of us played any sport, and played the game much harder under a certain coach? I’m sure we all did. That’s just how it is. I remember even diving on ball like it was a football fumble in basketball, only because my coach fired us up and everybody got excited when we played hard. You get your adrenaline flowing, you play hard. If your coach is quiet and doesn’t start a fire under you, you’re not the same. I will be very discourage if it’s any of these guys they’re interviewing. Wally is my man.

    • Wally isn’t the only fiery candidate. There’s just false belief that he is.

      Also, what experience does Wally have lighting a fire under big leaguers and leading them?

      How about none.

      How do you know that he even can? Because you surmise he can?

      How does he even know that he can, when he has no experience leading major leaguers? He can’t know. All he has is theory and guesswork. He hasn’t walked the walk as leader, but yet is going to preach it? One must have credible experience with a certain population, to be viewed as credible to lead that group. This is not low A-Ball.

      Heck, he hasn’t been part of a major league clubhouse since 1993. You think maybe things have changed since then….like a lot?

      I think making Wally Mets manager right now, is totally irresponsible and is why I think it won’t happen under Alderson’s watch.

  9. The hue and cry for Backman is borne out of the
    frustration Mets fans feel with the current state of
    affairs and an attempt to connect with the glorious
    past. The Mets need a manager who will demand respect,
    not play favorites and who will demand that the
    players play all out for 9 innings. Look no further
    than Philly, where Uncle Charlie will never be
    mistaken for Miller Huggins, but his players know he
    is the boss and play hard for him. I want baseball
    intelligence and a personality that can handle
    the media in a professional manner, where he can be
    serious, but also show a humorous side. The personality
    of these candidates is something we can’t judge just
    by reading reports, which is why I have to trust in
    Sandy, JP and Paul.

  10. I say no to Wally who represents Mets fans’ desperate need for savior that ignores his zero experience leading established big leaguers.

    Ted failed to mention that Wally doesn’t even have AAA managerial experience and has zero major league experience since he retired in 1993. This is really wrong time to hire one needing on-the-job-training wheels.

    When the honeymoon period is over, Mets will be left with a total novice who has never managed or coached established players who may not feel he’s qualified to lead and has no tangible related experience to do so to establish that needed trust. It’s like sending a high school graduate to teach a roomful of masters degree students. I suggest to my fellow Mets fans to start thinking more with their heads than hearts and stop inventing the fallacy that Wally is more than he is, and that other candidates are less than they are. There are candidates in the already-interviewed – like both Hales and Hurdle who are known for their energy as well as presence, leadership, and intelligence. Wally is status symbol lacking requisite qualification at this time and needs to earn his way to the job, not be handed keys to the city over far more qualified candidates whose last gig wasn’t low-A Ball. Let me repeat – Low A-Ball.

    • Fail on my part.

      I really don’t care who they get to manage the team. Wally’s bunting love is a pretty significant issue but I’m sure he would reconsider if it meant managing in the bigs or managing in AA.

  11. I’m fearful that the “elite” front office is very put off by Wally’s blue-collar ways. Maybe it just doesn’t sit well with the members of The Harvad Club…just sayin’. I’ve seen enough from Wally over the years to believe that he has learned from his mistakes…no one caan question his passion for the game.

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