I’m mid-way through reading Keith Richards’ new autobiography, “Life,” and two things have become apparent: Keith Richards is probably a terrible human being, and I totally want to be him anyway. Richards writes about doing a lifetime of deeds that can be described, at best, as morally questionable — countless things that sound like a lot of fun, but my rational mind tells me are bad, bad ideas. Ideas that probably end with me getting sores somewhere on my body. Thankfully, my rational mind almost always wins out in these battles. But my irrational mind remains in love with the idea of being Keith Richards. My Telecaster is sitting in an open-G tuning right now, and maybe that’s all I really need to say. There is just something Keith Richards represents that is unbelievably alluring. Whatever that thing is, I want it.
Only not really, because it probably itches.
I think something similar is going on right now with Mets fans and Wally Backman, who will reportedly receive a second interview for the managerial opening. This is news that either infuriates or excites you.
Here’s the thing: I can’t come up with a single rational reason for the Mets to hire Wally Backman. His strategies — the excessive bunting, the intentional walks, and the over-aggressive baserunning — would have been counterproductive and old school in the 1920s. He has no managerial or coaching experience above the Double-A level; the only managers on Opening Day 2010 who had not coached in the majors before receiving their first managerial job were the Diamondbacks A.J. Hinch, the Royals Trey Hillman (who had managed at Triple-A and Japan), and the Dodgers Joe Torre. Backman has history of legal troubles, though nothing since a domestic incident in 2001, and being a model citizen isn’t a prerequisite for being a good manager. However, he either didn’t realize or didn’t think it important to inform the Diamondbacks that he was facing jail time when they hired him in 2004. Because, you know, maybe no one would notice. There are several strong, rational, real reasons for the Mets not to hire Wally Backman as their next manager. I understand these reasons, and they make sense to me.
But I have also come to realize that I still sort of want Wally Backman to manage the Mets. And apparently a lot of people really want Wally Backman to manage the Mets. I don’t think this is totally backwards, or misplaced nostalgia, or a weird paternalistic desire based around mustaches. Well, it might be a weird paternalistic desire based around mustaches. I actually think this craze for Backman makes perfect sense … or at least it makes as much sense as something that is mostly backwards can make. Whatever it is, I suspect it’s based in the same sort of irrational desires that makes Keith Richards an icon.
The Mets, as you probably know, have been a frustrating team for the past half-decade. They have blown late season leads and suffered through embarrassing performances. The superstar left side of their infield has regressed significantly the past two seasons, as their superstar center fielder struggles with knee injuries and their best pitcher recovers from surgery. They don’t always slide, they don’t always take out second basemen, and they don’t always hustle. They have been the sort of team that makes you want to yell at your television and throw things.
And, in Wally Backman, the Mets have the chance to hire someone who will actually yell at the team and throw things. That can actually happen in real life, we would get to watch, and it would probably be awesome. Backman will shout and scream and kill the king and rail at all his servants. He is a crossfire hurricane wrapped in a pocket-sized pissed-off package, tied up with a mustache bow. We could have our frustrated wishes fulfilled. It makes sense to want that.
Think about it this way: Carlos Beltran, the player who for better or worse represents the past six Mets seasons, is the super-rational baseball player. He is quiet and reserved, playing the game with intelligence and grace. Beltran is the owner of the best stolen base percentage of all time. He was an excellent defender in center field, rarely making sprawling catches but instead getting excellent breaks. Beltran has a plan to win. He lives vicariously through himself. Sharks have a week dedicated to him. He might be the most talented man to ever wear a Mets uniform.
Still, for whatever reasons, reason that don’t necessarily have anything to do with Beltran, the super-rational player hasn’t worked out as planned for the Mets. This could lead one to believe that perhaps they should try the irrational next.
And Wally Backman is the irrational baseball man. He injects his personality into everything. He yells and drinks and smokes and has a violent streak. He kicks and curses. His managerial strategies have been proven counter-productive, but he sticks to them because they’re aggressive and he’s aggressive and we should all be aggressive. He’s a cartoon character, a slobbering Tasmanian Devil tossing bats in a whirlwind of dirt on YouTube. Backman has a smoldering desire to win.
A lot of Mets fans don’t like Carlos Beltran. And a lot of Mets fans like Wally Backman. I’m going to guess that Venn diagram has significant overlap. Backman is, for better or worse, the antithesis of Carlos Beltran.
Now I like Carlos Beltran, but I am also intrigued by the idea of Wally Backman. He is the most interesting managerial candidate — maybe because he’s the one we know the most about. But I also think there is something real here. Backman has no high level managerial or coaching experience and several significant drawbacks, but he was also hired by the Diamondbacks and is getting a second interview with the Mets (an interview with the super-rational Sandy Alderson). There is a real force of personality at work here that shouldn’t be dismissed as blind nostalgia or meddling Wilpons.
The rational reasons against Backman, while real, are not necessarily overwhelming. Both Tony LaRussa and Joe Girardi had very little experience when they were hired for the first time. Excessive bunting, caught-stealings, and intentional walks, while frustrating and outdated, don’t mean much in a 162-game season — it’s probably not much more than 15 runs. And Backman hasn’t had any new legal trouble in nine years. There are good counter arguments that team Backman can present.
Of course, the irrational reasons aren’t as strong as they initially seem, either. The Mets are looking for stability, and the similarly fiery Billy Martin always seemed to wear out his welcome in three or four seasons. The shouting and dirt-kicking may work with college-aged players, but I don’t know how it would go over with R.A. Dickey or Carlos Beltran. It would be fun for a while; it would also get old fast.
Still, there is something about Wally Backman that remains fascinating. This Backman mania is being inspired by something. There is something very real, very appealing here, and I’m tempted to buy into it. The idea of him managing the Mets is attractive, even if it sounds like a bad, bad idea to my rational side.
Do I really want Wally Backman to manage the Mets? I don’t know. Do I really want to be Keith Richards?