Street Fighting Backman

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?

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15 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

15 responses to “Street Fighting Backman

  1. Where is the in depth analysis of the many failures of Collins and Melvin. Are you a big fan of paint drying? Everyone who has played for Wally loves him. He wins everywhere. Have you every even played the game? Did they make you bunt a lot? Do you know there was baseball before Billy Beane? Your Wallyphobia is treatable. Get out of your basement, get a glove and a ball and go have a catch. Geez you sabermetric guys are such uber-nerds.

    • Patrick Flood

      Did you read what I wrote? I said some negative things about Backman — true things — but I also said a lot of positive things, too. I provided an argument for hiring Wally Backman that is better than just saying “he likes to win,” and provided counter arguments for the negative things that are said about him.

    • Patrick Flood

      I’m also pretty sure that comment proves the point I was trying to make.

  2. Jack,
    In fairness to Flood, I think he is saying that he is interested in seeing Backman as manager despite all the rational baseball reasons (in his opinion) there might be for them to not hire him. This, to me, is about the most known (to us) candidate being the most unknown quantity.
    And to a specific point of yours: Saying they should hire Backman based on the fact that “everyone who has played for him loves him” is about the same as saying they shouldn’t hire him because he bunted too often in rookie A ball. So a bunch of 19 year old kids loved him? That’s great. Will a 33 year old 18 million dollar a year player give two snots that Backman was on the 86 mets? Will Backman be able to get through to a locker room full of millionaires who, if you believe what you read about the room, have an unearned sense of entitlement the size of Ollie’s ERA? We have no idea. We have no way of knowing how Backman will be regarded in a room full of ML players as manager, because he has never done it. Because these are not 19 year old minor league players, to say they will all want to play for him, or he will have any success in motivating this bunch is pure speculation.

    But again, known (to us), unknown quantity; his propensity to bunt and steal at the low minor league level is not necessarily an indication of how he will manage a big league club, or that he ignores advanced metrics. Having played baseball at a pretty high level myself, I can tell you that the lower the level you go, the more small ball you play, depending on the organization. He might turn into Earl Weaver with a ML roster, because he has the guys to do it. Or he may continue to play small ball, Wallyball, if you will, because Citi is only slightly smaller than Yellowstone. We don’t know how he will manage a ML roster, especially this one, because he never has.

    So again, I think Flood is simply saying, Backman is a tremendously attractive candidate for the job to a Mets fan, even though he might not be the most rational one.

    Good thing Alderson is vetting these guys so much. I for one do not believe there is a front runner, think the job remains wide open in that they have not yet even talked baseball philosophy and specifics about the team for this year yet and think all the “sources” that say there is one are full of horsepucky.

  3. I really hope you’ve taken the low E (D) string off your Tele. If you haven’t, this entire post is worthless b/c you’re not really a Stones fan.

  4. Patrick, I am a little late in the game here, but my 2 cents as it relates to Wally Backman. I have made close to a million comments on metsblog about why the Mets should not or will not hire Wally Backman (although lately I am getting real nervous about my will not statements). How many people eat a happy meal on a regular basis? A lot of people. Is a happy meal a healthy, nutritious lunch? I think we all know the answer. Sorry McDonalds, try to sue me for saying what I said? No, I never eat your ‘food’. Wally is the same thing. Masses of people want Wally Backman to manage the Mets, the same way they want a happy meal. It’s familiar, it’s unhealthy, and it’s not good for you, but lots of people want it any way, which are the reasons you don’t hire Wally Backman. Like a lot of things in life, I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I do know what is not the answer in some cases. Wally is not the answer any more than Gregg Jefferies or Kevin McReynolds – for vastly different reasons. Finally, none of us bloggers, commenters, and certainly not beat reporters have anything close to enough information to make an informed choice about who should be the next manager of the Mets. In Sandy, JP, and Paul we trust. Good luck fellas.
    PS – Is the Keith Richards book much different than the Led Zeppelin book I read about 25 years ago? You know, tons of booze, drugs (HARD DRUGS), and lots of sex with women you don’t know – probably not even their names in most cases. Yes, I would be terrifed to try Heroine.

    • Patrick Flood

      Thankfully, the Mets new think-tank did not go with the Happy Meal, although I’m not sure what Collins is.

      The Keith Richards book is more interesting than “Hammer of the Gods,” which I think is the Led Zeppelin book you’re referring to. But it is mostly the same stuff… Keith is simply more charming.

      • Thank you for paying attention. You are now one of only 4 mets blogs I read almost daily. I like the fact that you mix in things other than the Mets. Most of all, I like that you can write creatively use proper grammar. Your story a while back about DW hooked me. I think I saved it as a separate page. I will do what I can to make intelligent contributions to a worthy mets blog. The other 3: metsblog.com (of course), Amazin Avenue, Always Amazin’. Boy do I miss Mike’s Mets.
        I have no idea what the title of that Led Zep book was, oh wait, I’m going to open another browser and try to find it on ebay. Yeah, that was it.

  5. BTW, is that Wally Backman’s brother in the photo?

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