Saturday, March 31, 2012

#191 Wally Backman

Card thoughts: This photo was likely taken just after (as in: mere minutes) after the one on the #53 Len Dykstra card. That is also a very weird angle on Backman's follow through. He looks like he's going to hop on down to first base.

The player: Wally Backman was a short, scrappy second baseman who was part of one of the most productive platoons in baseball while with the Mets. The drawback Backman always had was that, even though he was a switch hitter, he couldn’t hit lefties, so much so that he gave up hitting right handed later in his career.Backman's post playing career as interesting as when he was a player.

Backman was one of the ’86 Mets who remembered much leaner times with the teams. Although he was a #1 draft pick, Backman wasn’t anything special in the minors, hitting with a fairly high average, but little power. He did have a knack for getting on base (and stealing when he got on), so he was perfect for the top of the order. After a brief appearance in 1980, Backman thought he had good chance to become a starter in 1981. But the Mets, like many other teams, made the mistake in acquiring Doug Flynn to play second, thus curtailing Backman’s playing time. After the Mets demoted him in June, Backman refused to go to Tidewater for 6 days.

This defiant episode didn’t hinder Backman from winning the starting second base job in 1982. Although he hit .272, Brian Giles, a better fielder than Backman, won the starting job in 1983. But Giles was pretty much another Wally Backman with more strikeouts and less walks, so the Mets went back with the latter as their starter the year shown on this card. Despite being a starting second baseman, and presumably making good money, Backman distrusted his good fortune and spent the season living with his family in a camper in a campground in New Jersey.

After a decent year with the bat in 1984, Backman played in a career-high 145 games the year shown on this card. He also reached highs in runs (77), hits (142), doubles (24), and runs batted in (38). Backman was no slouch in the field either, leading the league with a .989 fielding percentage. The only worrisome statistic was his strikeout to walk ratio, which was 2 to 1, when it was usually 1 to 1. Like many Mets, Backman had a career year in 1986. Although he was now in a platoon with Tim Tuefel, Backman hit a career high .320, and once again led the league in fielding percentage at second. Playing nearly every game in the playoffs, Backman hit .238 in the NLCS, and over .300 in the World Series, scoring 9 runs in 12 games.

In the years following 1986, Backman saw less and less playing time as Tuefel began taking over at second. He managed to hit over .300 again in 294 at bats in 1988, his last season with the Mets. Backman once again supplanted Tuefel as a starter in the playoffs, a rewarded the Mets’ confidence by hitting .273 in the NLCS.

Backman was traded that December to the Twins for three minor leaguers. An injury to his shoulder kept him from contributing much to the Twins, and he managed to get into only 87 games and hit .231.

The Twins didn’t have much interest in re-signing Backman, so he went to the Pirates. The problem was, the Pirates had flashy fielder Jose Lind at second, so he went to third to platoon with Jeff King. Backman would have his last good season with the 1990 Pirates, getting 315 at bats and hitting .292. He hit over 20 doubles for the second time in his career, but hit poorly as a backup in the playoffs.

Backman would sign with the Phillies for the 1991 season and played 136 games over two seasons with the team, hitting .249 as a backup second and third baseman. A 10 game swan song with the Mariners in 1993 ended his career.

Backman began managing in the independent leagues in 1997, which was notable only in that he got bit by a brown recluse spider in Bend, Oregon and nearly died. But Backman’s fiery managing style attracted the notice of the White Sox organization, and he had great success in their system. He was strongly considered for the managerial opening that Ozzie Guillen eventually got, but the Sox got word that Backman was openly rooting against the team in the hopes that incumbent manager Jerry Manuel would get fired. In what wouldn’t be the last time in his managerial career, Backman shot himself in the foot.

Despite his personality flaws (or perhaps because of them), Backman was still regarded as a great minor league manager, getting the most out of clubs who had little talent. After a season managing their A ball team, the Diamondbacks named him their major league manager. However, in one of the all time colossal screw ups, the Diamondbacks did not investigate Backman’s past, instead relying on his word that there was nothing embarrassing there. Big mistake. Backman had been convicted of a DUI and harassment, and accused of spousal abuse. He also declared bankruptcy in order to get out from under a tax judgement by the IRS. An embarrassed Diamondbacks owner rescinded the managerial offer, claiming that Backman lied to him.

Backman was once again back managing in the independent leagues, and was in a reality show about his experience called “Playing for Peanuts.” If you want to see Backman’s mercurial managing style, here’s a (NSFW) video of his epic meltdown over a player being ejected. There’s a bunch of Backman’s tirades online from this season.

As of 2012, Backman is back in organized ball, managing the Mets AAA affiliate.

Rear guard: In the hard up early days of the Mets, they rushed anyone with even a smidgen of talent into the majors, regardless of age or maturity level. 1965 was the only season Bethke pitched in the majors, and he went 2-0 with a 4.28 ERA in relief. He was a bit wild, however: He walked 22 against 19 strikeouts. Bethke would pitch 6 more seasons in the minors in the Mets and Royals organizations, retiring at 24. Bethke does not have a 1966 card, only one from 1965. Looking at this card, you could see the Mets were in for better things. Tug McGraw and Ron Swoboda were integral to the Mets '69 World Series win.

This date in baseball history: The nickname "Pilots" would be chosen as the Seattle expansion team's nickname in 1968. The team would play only the 1969 season in Seattle before moving to Milwaukee and becoming the Brewers.

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